Mount Everest, Mount Analogue and the Impossible

We did not stare the impossible straight in the face until the very end, when it became clear that, for our expedition, the summit of Mount Everest lay utterly out of reach. "Summit no possible this time, sahib, " one of the Sherpas told me gently, offering me a hot cup of tea. "But still we have life."

Moments before we had received a radio call from Camp Five announcing that our last summit team had been forced back at an altitude of 28,200 feet. a bare 800 vertical feet below the summit. Yet though we had pushed within shouting distance of the top of the world, we had no strength left to launch another summit bid. We were spent, finished -- gingiplut as the Sherpas would say. In the eyes of the world, the 1985 American Mount Everest West Ridge Expedition was a failure.

Back in Camp One, the reactions of my teammates to the reality of our "failure" varied. Those on the actual summit team were too tired to care -- their faces a blank mask of exhaustion. One climber, forced to take several Dexedrine tablets to get himself down to Camp One alive, moved with the unnatural animation of a puppet on strings. He had descended over 8,000 vertical feet of ice and rock in a single day.

Those of us below felt equally let down by what had happened. Some simply shrugged their shoulders; some shook their heads in disbelief; some just stared and stared at the mountain above without uttering a word, as if searching for something lost.

I began to reflect on an old book.............

In 1928, Rene Daumal actually went so far as to invent a sacred mountain for the modern world -- a peak which is, by definition, impossible to climb. In his novel entitled "Mount. Analogue", Daumal writes, "For a mountain to play the role of Mount Analogue it's summit must be inaccessible, but its base accessible to human beings as nature has made them. It must be unique, and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible.

As Daumal describes it, Mount Analogue lies directly on the border between the possible and the impossible -- the same border on which Mount Everest, at least in the minds of mountaineers, lies as well. And thus Daumal's metaphor, however fanciful, does provide one way to describe what actually happened to us "up there" (I speak here not of any visible sequence of events, but of those invisible inner events that formed the true weave and substance of our life on the mountain): At the moment when we first realized that the summit of Everest lay beyond our reach, Mount Everest became Mount Analogue for us--- indistinguishable in any meaningful sense from its fictional counterpart, "it's summit inaccessible, but it's base accessible to human beings as nature has made them. Thus the impossible was reborn within us, at precisely the moment when we most despaired of finding it for ourselves. The door to the invisible became visible," like the summit of Everest itself suddenly torn from the clouds.

I do not mean that we lost sight of the real Mount Everest behind a screen of comfortably hazy metaphors. Indeed, what I admire most about Daumal's Mount Analogue is its concreteness. What the modern world lacks, in Daumal's view, is not just another symbol of the impossible, but an actual physically existing embodiment of it. Hence Mount Analogue must exist geographically, its base must be "accessible to human beings as nature has made them" -- not in spite of the fact that its summit is impossible to climb, but because of it. Thus Mount Analogue is not a symbol of the impossible at all (if by "symbol" we mean something found in a book, some bloodless metaphor), rather it is the impossible glimpsed face to face, something one can grasp and struggle with, feel, fear, live with, die for.

So that when I say that Mount Everest became Mount Analogue for us, I do not mean that Mount Everest suddenly became a "symbol" of the impossible in our eyes. It had always been that: a goal we had dreamed of, planned for, trained for, read about in books. Instead, for perhaps the first time in our lives, we glimpsed the impossible face to face, not just as something which made your legs ache and your lungs burn and you eyes fill with tears when you saw it, something beautiful and painful and frighteningly real, always just out of reach, always just a little higher, always just barely visible, always just up there.

This concreteness, this physical focus, is what distinguishes a mountaineer's insight, his vision if you will, from the "out of body" visions of mystics and madmen. The mountaineer does not want to escape from the earth, or somehow leave his individual existence behind (to do so, at least on a mountain, is so painfully easy: One has merely to "let go"). Rather, the mountaineer seeks to intensify those very thoughts and sensations which the mystic seeks to overcome, holding on to them, grappling with them, bleeding them dry. In the words of Reinhold Messner, perhaps our foremost apostle of the impossible in mountaineering, "I want to climb with my strength, with my fears, with my senses." It is finally this purely physical fascination, far more than some vague metaphysical quest, which is at the root of the mountaineer's seeming obsession with the impossible -- why mountaineers so continually seek it out, continually reinvent it (as I have argued) rather than stand and watch it die.

At its best, then, climbing provides us with a way to reconnect ourselves to ourselves (and to the impossible) not in any vague metaphorical sense, but within the grasp of our own two hands on the rock and the rope. This is not to ignore the very real sense of frustration, even of failure, that we felt at the end of our expedition. But it does serve as a reminder that those who did reach the summit of Everest before us felt no more sense of satisfaction, of completion or "victory" over the impossible than we did (this is the dark side, the sinister side, of the impossible for mountaineers: like the end of the rainbow, it must always elude us). So that even in the wake of the first "successful" ascent of the West Ridge , expedition leader Norman Dhyrenfuth found himself quoting Nietzche: "There are two tragedies in a man's life," Nietzsche wrote. "The first is to have failed to have reached your goal; the second is to have reached it." Tom Hornbein, another member of that same expedition, describes his own feelings on the summit this way:

"We felt the lonely beauty of the evening, the immense roaring of silence of the wind, the tenuousness of our tie to all below. There was a hint of fear, not for our lives, but of a vast unknown which pressed in upon us. A fleeting feeling of disappointment -- that after all those dreams and questions this was only a mountain top -- gave way to the suspicion that maybe there was something more, something beyond the three-dimensional form of the moment. If only it could be perceived."

Fear; disappointment, and a vague suspicion -- judging by their own words, Hornbein and his companions felt no more sense of satisfaction, no more sense of completeness or conquest following their famous success than we did following our quiet failure. Even from the summit of Everest, a mountaineer's view of the impossible remains the same: always just barely visible, always just up there. That, in George Mallory's words, is why mountaineers have always gone to climb Mount Everest, and why they always will: because it (the impossible) is there.

June 1st, 1985 - Kathmandu, Nepal