When wishing to make a point, people often begin by citing a dictionary. Perhaps they feel that it adds a degree of legitimacy to the idea they wish to convey. In the interest of fitting in, I now do the same.
One dictionary defines a mountaineer as “a climber of mountains, especially for sport.” The dictionary also has one of those fancy deals where the word is spelled with upside down and backwards letters, broken into a number of parts, separated by dashes. A phonetic spelling, I believe it’s called.
But I have my own fancy spelling of the word: Mountain Ear. This is because the most important thing a mountaineer can do is listen. He must listen to the mountain, the weather and his body. Mountaineering requires more than just strength and style. Mountaineers have to pay close attention to many factors in a dangerous environment. When these determinants are ignored, tragedy often ensues. Consider just a few examples:
Jerzy Kukuczka, an incredibly strong and talented mountaineer summited thirteen of the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks via new and difficult routes or first winter ascents. In the mountaineering world, this was the pinnacle of achievement, a feat never before equaled. But when trying a particularly difficult route on Lhotse, the mountain next to Everest and the only 8000m peak he had not climbed by an extra hard route, he underestimated the mountain and fell to his death.
In 1995, Alison Hargreaves joined Rob Slater and three spaniards on K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Ignoring a massive storm system moving into the area, the team left high camp and summited K2. Climbers on the slopes of nearby mountains watched incredulously at the obvious folly. During their descent, the storm swept in and blew all five climbers clean off the mountain.
The next year, Scott Fischer ignored the signals given by his sick body and made a push for Everest’s summit, trying to impress clients and media. When caught in a storm, his already weak body simply did not have the strength to survive, and he perished.
This list could go on almost endlessly. I could write of the Edward Whymper tragedy, Hermann Bulh, Rob Hall, Julie Tullis, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Peter Boardman, or Joe Tasker. But rather than write out the long and tragic history of mountaineering, much of which has been done by writers far more qualified than myself, I will explain the reason I chose to expound on the mountain ear.
While abroad, an opportunity presented itself to me. An opportunity to do a little mountaineering. It is time for me to become the mountain ear. I must listen to the mountain, the weather, my body, and the wisdom of the more experienced mountaineers I will join on this adventure. As “The Kid,” it is crucial for me to remember that I am inexperienced and relatively prone to the rashness and indiscretion of youth. Fortunately, I’ll be climbing with a more experienced mountaineer, one who can share much wisdom with me. I call this person “Dad.”
In all honesty, the mountaineering I’ll be doing while abroad is not particularly difficult. Though we’ll ascend to 17,000 feet over the course of a 6 day climb, there will be almost no technical climbing. Elevation aside, this would be but a long, steep hike up a rocky hill. But elevation adds a new level of potential danger and requires a new level of listening from the mountain ear.
Altitude sickness is our main concern. As we gain elevation, the oxygen content of the air will decrease. Going up to fast will cause sudden oxygen deprivation, and the body will respond with dizziness, headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, and in extreme cases, edema of the lungs or brain. The best way to combat altitude is to go slowly, allowing the body time to adjust and tune up so that it uses oxygen more efficiently. Our plan is to stay at each of the two camps for three nights, and spend the days hiking up the mountain from those camps, giving our bodies short doses of higher elevation and more time to adjust.
Potential danger from minor injuries, tripping and falling, and intestinal bugs are also compounded by elevation. With less oxygen, the body is slower to respond, less resistant to pathogens, and slower to heal. It is important for all the members of our climbing team to be transparent about how they are feeling, so that the team can make wise decisions about how fast to climb, and not compromise the safety of any member.
All this makes it sound as though we are climbing a very dangerous mountain. But in reality, most of the danger is inexperience or human error To combat this, our team has two highly qualified and experienced leaders. Each year, nearly 1000 people summit this mountain, so it’s not as if we’re boldly going where no man has gone before. So long as we keep our mountain ears open, there is little cause for concern.
Other than that, we’re ready to go. A full set of mountaineering gear has been procured. Porters have been hired to carry some of our gear to the summit. Our backpacks sit in a corner, ready to go. When the weather permits, a bus will take us to the mountain, and the adventure will begin.