To Suffer Well
I think back a few weeks to when I found my friend Craig 52 miles into a grueling mountain run, wobbling on the trail like a baby deer. He held himself up with his trekking poles, grinned and told me he was fine. Uhhh, you don’t look fine, dude. I’d joined him for morale toward the end of his first 100km (62 miles) race, and, naturally (as distinctly opposed to “stupidly”…), he chose one of the toughest: the Kat’cina Mosa, which gains 17,404 feet of elevation. Craig (a.k.a. CFS) blew-up around mile 40. Nothing truly damaging, he just hurt. Bad. Legs gone, drunk-walk bad. For the last 20 miles. Damn that unassuming scrawny bastard is tough. Seven months ago he could barely walk around the block. Strangest thing, too: the happiest I’ve ever seen him was during the run (at least until he blew-up, and even then he didn’t complain) – goofy, shit-eating grin, chatting, laughing, suffering. Didn’t think once of quitting. Not for a second. I like that. Wish I had it more often.
As he eventually trotted across the finish line, I was reminded, once again, of mental toughness.
And it gets me thinking. So many examples, and so often it’s not for fun and not voluntary. The day-to-day lives of villagers in these far-flung places we go to climb. The stories I’ve come across since my slew of surgeries, showing me how many people push on, try, strive, survive. I think of a friend, fit, smart, kind, a devoted and humble schoolteacher who loves teaching kids and loves to move, to hike, exercise, adventure. But a horrible complex of mysterious diseases nearly took her life, the sort of thing you only see on fictional TV shows, except that they happened to her, and every day she battles and keeps going, teaching, inspiring, and appreciating life, precious life. I think of a friend, fit, smart, kind, a devoted and humble schoolteacher who loves teaching kids and loves to move, to hike, exercise, adventure. But a horrible complex of mysterious diseases nearly took her life, the sort of thing you only see on fictional TV shows, except that they happened to her, and every day she battles and keeps going, teaching, inspiring, and appreciating life, precious life. I think of Bean and Helen, and what they endured with such grace. What Helen must still endure.
I’m so lucky.
Josh Wharton slurping water for the first time in 48 hours, from a glacial stream after descending Great Trango Tower, Pakistan. Photo: Kelly Cordes
These people inspire me. The fighters, the ones who stay strong even when things look grim. I’ve been there before, but I can’t access it just any time; I get lazy, too comfortable. But the times I’ve stayed mentally tough are my finest moments. On a climb you don’t always have to – you can often just bail, or not even try to begin with. It’s a voluntary activity. In a sense, it’s the self-induced suffering of the privileged. And still, those times of strength are what I wish to access – need to access – on an alpine climb. In 2004, I remember the night before Josh Wharton and I started up Great Trango, what would be far and away the biggest route we’d ever dreamed of attempting. Four and a half days later, the final two without water, we stumbled down safely, barely, pulling off something that felt magical but now so distant. One of the things I remember most, something simple and so essential to any huge challenge, were the words I wrote that night before starting, with my nerves tingling but my mind strangely calm. I closed my journal with a simple note to myself: “Be mentally strong. Suffer well, it’ll be worth it.”
Sunset over the Karakoram, Pakistan. Photo: Josh Wharton
As the years go by and we endure life’s blessings and beatings, I sometimes wonder whether I still have that drive. Did I burn through it all in these last couple of years? Is it some finite resource, like a deck of cards and when you play your last, suddenly you’re done? I don’t think so. Maybe we can keep fighting. Some can, anyway. Can I? I write this knowing that when it posts, I’ll be off in the mountains, far removed and out-of-contact, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, trying to stay strong, to stay motivated through the bad weather and the crazy highs-and-lows of big trips, to not succumb to fear and laziness. I’m scared to even write about it, to acknowledge that I’m trying, because if it doesn’t work out, if my body can’t handle it, if my mind can’t handle it, if I get injured again, if I get too scared, if I fail myself and wilt when it’s time to be strong, if…. Well, cliché as it sounds, I suppose there’s truly one way to find out. I’m hoping to remain grateful for the comforts of my life, to remember the struggles of others, and, always, to suffer well.