“But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. …. How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the pacific before you found Easter Island? …. And why do you do that? Is it for glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.”
Svante Paabo from “Sleeping With The Enemy” by Elizabeth Kolbert from The New Yorker, August 15 and 22, 2011
We were minutes from the top of a peak near Yellowstone. At close to 11,000 feet we had a panoramic view of dark roiling thunderheads moving inexorably toward us. The wind was whipping so loud and hard that we had to shout to be heard. The lead climber, pointing at a slice in the rock that offered hand and footholds, shouted “Climb here. Now.” Thunder boomed closer. The clouds were all one bruised color and swam toward us like living things, like beasts. We moved into line, belaying and climbing. One by one we ascended that slice onto a thin ridge and then scrambled another 50 yards to the peak. We watched the storm pass by a few miles to our north. We watched lightning strikes cut scalpel marks against that great bruised sky and all those peaks stretching off into the rain. To the south sunshine lit up valleys and more peaks, and then that light met the storm-light, and in all of this we turned and turned, grinning, aflame, wildly happy.
We obeyed what was probably a crazy decision but not because we were automatons. We obeyed because we trusted out lead climber, a man with long experience in mountaineering, because as teachers we were used to a hierarchical arrangement of responsibilities and order, but especially because we had climbed hard all day, and we wanted to make it to the top; we were pumped up by the storm and by our group need, fueled by adrenaline, to walk on that peak. We did not jump across those last yards for glory or a desire or immortality. For curiosity, yes, but more so for the pure adventure of fulfilling our anticipation.
The day before the climb we filled our day packs, studied topographic maps, practiced tying knots, practiced slipping into and out of climbing harnesses, and we talked about what was to come. Many of us had never been to the Rockies. None of us had ever made a peak ascent close to this one in difficulty. We talked. We wondered aloud. We stepped inside a multiplicity of images and stories about what we might see along the way. We considered privately whether we had the resources to make such a climb. We were entering unknown territory together, and thus we gathered courage from each other.
I think many of us carry the need to explore the new, and at least temporarily, to let go of the familiar. Maybe there is a gene for this. Whatever souls we possess, maybe this urge is at their core.
At the end of our course, we all traveled home. Within a day, we were back in the safety and psychic comfort of the expected. We knew we were going to return. Our time in the mountains had been a respite, nothing more. With what a sense of awe then must we remember those who, 300 or 200 or 100 years ago, stepped onto ships bound for New York or California, and turned to look out at family they would never see again. How do we begin to even imagine the hearts and visions of those Polynesians who, 3000 years ago, shoved off in outrigger canoes from Kiribati or Guam for somewhere east, other islands, for what we know as Hawaii?
Maybe part of our problem in this dismal present time is that we believe that there are no bright worlds left towards which we can leap, disregarding the storm, especially because there is a storm.