Lately, I've been mentioning to people that I really like mountaineering documentaries. The response is usually a raised eyebrow and laughter. I guess it's a random thing to be enthused about. But it's true, I do. I love reading and watching anything about mountaineering.
I am an exceedingly cautious person. When I go on hikes, I'm always super slow because I have to make sure I have perfect footing before I proceed. I once cried while on top of one of those fake plastic rock climbing things--partly because I was so high up, partly because I couldn't make it to the top. I don't particularly care for heights. I do like scrambling around rocks and things, but again, caution rules the day.
Watching mountaineering documentaries fills me with adrenaline and awe. I totally understand their goal. Some people may think it's crazy to summit these peaks or try a crazier, never-done-before route, but I completely understand their motives. It feels like the most natural desire in the world. As George Mallory (who died on Everest in the 1920s, perhaps after climbing it, but no one knows for sure) said, in response to the question, "Why climb Everest?" "Because I can." We live in a world where every inch of the world has been explored, yet certain peaks and routes have only been conquered by a select few.
Climbing a mountain is about confronting death. When you're at extremely high altitudes, your body dies a little bit every single minute. Your brain does not receive enough oxygen. Your lungs can fill with fluid. You can die from cerebral edema. Your nose, fingers, and toes begin to freeze off. You're pushing your body into this zone where death is inevitable, yet some people escape unscathed. You're confronting your body's evolutionary limits. We're simply not designed to live that high up. On the same note, Nepalese sherpas do in fact have an adaptation that allows them to take in more oxygen at high altitudes, which is fairly new. That doesn't mean they don't die up there, but it's also a window into a place where genetics snap into focus. We are not all born the same. As people climb up Everest, they see dead bodies along the path. The conditions are so extreme, they simply can't be brought down and buried. Instead, they remain frozen mummies that will probably mystify those that find them millenia from now. Everything about life that is glorious and frightening and fragile and awe-inspiring exists when you are up on the mountain.
I wish I had that skill, that confidence. The lack of fear. But I don't. So I like to watch and read these stories and be in awe of these people's accomplishments.
My recent watches (both on Netflix Instant):
Touching the Void: It shows up on "Best Documentaries of all Time" lists. It chronicles a disastrous attempt of a pair to survive after one man breaks his leg while descending. His tale of survival is so incredibly powerful. One thing that really struck me was that he would set tiny goals for himself, like "you have twenty minutes to get to that ridge." I don't think he could have survived without that.
The Wildest Dream: Not as good, but about another Everest attempt interwoven with the story of George Mallory.
Discovery channel's Everest series. I watched this years ago and was utterly riveted
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. This one sparked my interest. In fact, I want to read it again.
I'd love to write some kind of fictional short story about mountaineering, I love it so much, but they say write what you know and I definitely don't know anything more than a spectator about mountaineering!