I love long, detailed stories about mountain climbing -- even though I am not a climber.
It is true that, back in my Colorado decade, a younger and skinnier version of myself hiked to the peaks of trio of 14,000-foot mountains in the long, intricate Mosquito Range in the center of the state (near the mythical town of South Park). There was really no climbing involved, just hiking up and up and up slopes and then narrow ridges. Still it was most memorable (I dehydrated myself pretty bad). I still dream images from some of those vistas.
The beauty and danger found in high mountains must do a mental and spiritual number of some people.
Why do they do it? Yes, I know: Because it's there. But there is more to serious mountain climbing that that, and that sense of wonder is the intellectual and artistic backbone in a fine New York Times piece that ran with this epic headline (and stunning photography):
Scaling the World’s
Most Lethal Mountain,
in the Dead of Winter
For reasons of history and culture, Polish climbers are among the world’s most audacious. This winter, a group will attempt K2, the world’s most dangerous mountain.
Now, read that headline again. If you think like me, several ideas will jump out -- but especially the word "culture." When you think of Polish culture, what leaps to mind?
Hold that thought. Let's start with a summary paragraph that was the source for that headline:
These men will hike through knee-deep snow to a base camp at 18,645 feet, surpassing all but one mountain in the United States. Atop K2’s near-vertical slopes, glacial icefalls dislodge car-size hunks of ice. Winds at the summit reach hurricane strength, and temperatures can fall as low as minus 80 Fahrenheit.
The climbers could wait two months in their tents, in hopes the gales relent for a few days. They have no margin for error; K2 routinely kills those trapped on its flanks.
This is the way of the Polish climbers, who for reasons of history and culture have earned reputations as the greatest climbers of the Himalayas in winter. They are prisoners of their dreams.
Again, when you think of Polish culture what do you think of? It's hard to escape the fact that Poland is one of the most Catholic cultures on earth and one in which Catholicism has soaked the deepest into its culture -- both popular and classical.
Thus, I kept waiting for the long, long story to make some reference to Catholicism as a factor in the dreams and motives of these climbers.
Maybe they are total secularists. Maybe their dreams don't have a Catholic framework, even though we are talking about a beautiful sport that -- especially when you take on K2 in the dead of winter -- is a matter of life and death.
Do men risk their lives like this without giving thought to whether this activity is worthwhile? So Polish men head up K2 in winter -- just for the challenge -- leaving their wives and children behind and they don't ask hard, ultimate questions about the cost they may pay? Nobody talks to a priest? No one accepts this challenge for reasons that are a matter of mystery, as well as machismo?
Finally, in a discussion of the discipline involved to do what they do, there is this:
One night in January, I sit in the village home of Janusz Majer, 70, a burly climber who is working to obtain the $335,000 in government and private financing needed to underwrite the assault on K2. His friend and climber, Wojciech Dzik, joins us.
Over salamis and cheeses and a prodigious amount of wine, we talk of long-ago mountaineering adventures. They had finished a climb in the Dolomites in the 1970s when they saw a sign for cappuccinos. Dzik, a mathematician, did the mental currency conversion. “My God! It was one-tenth of my salary,” he recalls. “After that, we lived like Jesus, on bread and wine.”
That's an interesting image. You wonder if that was totally random, or was Dzik referring to the Mass, as well as to normal meals? Maybe someone should have asked.
Then at the end of the epic piece, there is this:
The Polish mountaineers will arrive in late December and will wait days and weeks and months in hopes that incessant winds do not rend their tents. Here and there, they will climb that fantastically steep mountain and lay rope lines on its sides. Then they will slip into sleeping bags in 30- and 40-below temperatures. They will update expedition pages on Facebook and send emails to wives and girlfriends and children.
They will pray for a three-day break in the weather.
Why climb it? I put the question to [Adam] Bielecki. He knows better than most that glory is not the inevitable reward of the Himalayas.
“Climbing is about pleasure and pain — in winter that balance is lost,” he says. “There’s no pleasure to be found in Karakoram in winter. You are uncomfortable every minute of every day. But the great emotion of making history, of making an accomplishment no one else did, that is immense, almost spiritual.”
You think? Almost spiritual, for a circle of Polish men? Do you think that these Polish men pray, and not just about the weather?
One more question: Do these guys have a priest? A chaplain? I realize that it's too late to interview that man, but I predict that he's out there somewhere and has heard some pretty interesting prayers and confessions.