I forgot to say I am also a mountain climber. Well, not really. I have dedicated several years of my life to rock climbing as a teenager and up to my early twenties, but that’s it. I’ve never been to real high-mountains — there are none in my country. But, for some reason, everyone refers to me as a climber — even a good one — and sometimes I actually believe. I am also the rock climbing instructor of my Special Operations unit, so I guess this makes me a good climber. Like the old saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king“.
Every once in a while though, the lure of climbing gets a hold of me. I realize I am not a climber in practice anymore, but I will always be one in spirit. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like to think it is. When that happens, I try to do something about it. Last time, I went to Mount Shuksan in North Cascades — not a high-mountain in the sense I spoke, but that was a start. At least, I could now relate to what I’ve always read in mountaineering books about breaking trail in deep snow, the risk of crevasse fall and climbing in white-out conditions. This time though, I think I exaggerated.
Right now, I have yet around six months separating me from Denali and my anxiety is already overwhelming. Denali is the highest mountain of North America, topping 6,190 meters (20,310 feet) of icy slopes deep in the Alaska mountain range, and, for some stupid unknown reason, I’ve decided to climb it.
I woke up today with an engulfing pessimism that perfectly (and perversely) matches the rain that pours outside and the mist that fills the valley ahead. The world seems to have shrunk to private proportions and I can hardly move. Every single chore I have to attend to seems now like an impossible deed, be it a simple bill to pay, the unfinished “fence project” that has been dragging itself for almost two months, or any single planned work-out I have staring at me from my laptop. My calendar seems to laugh at my face as it knows how perfect a demonstration of my lack of self-discipline it is — a string of consecutive daily training routines never carried out, a grey strip of unfulfilled promises that traverses the breadth of my screen like an ironic smile. I knew I would fall behind in my plan. That’s what I always do. Denali was a stupid dream set in motion by ephemeral bursts of self-confidence, deceiving affects in the height of my childish excitement. Now, it is going to roll over me and squish me like the maggot I am.
The pessimism is palpable. The disgust I feel for my own decisions is so real that I want to puke. I think it is the fear that nauseates me. I have felt that before, but the danger was real then. Now, everything is clearly going on in my mind alone, like the imaginary problems in Jorge Luís Borges’s poem. Yet, it is even more scaring now, bona fide as a needle underneath my nail — and much more humiliating. I hear steps upstairs and I pray no one will show up, just as my wife appears with a beautiful “good morning” smile — now I really want to puke. She is going to work and she shines with easygoing happiness, obfuscating my grim dark mood. All I want is to be alone just like I feel I am. I want to open a bottle of whisky and commiserate with myself, letting life occur only outside. But my task-manager software ignores my desires and bombards me with devious reminders of how weak I am. My wife joins the chorus and begins babbling about something I can’t understand. I just give her a half-smile and say ‘bye’.
The phone rings upstairs. I pretend it does not. It insists. And insists. My guts tremble while I close my eyes and try to stretch my neck, just to realize that the low-back pain that prevented me from training the last three days has spread to my torso and up to my cervical spine. I am all stiff with pain and anger. A squirrel makes an incessant noise. The workers from the house in front arrive chatting and laughing loud, trying to squeeze some pleasure out of their miserable lives and, in the process, making mine appear even more shameful. My wife comes downstairs again God knows why. Life is booming with colours and sounds. All I want is darkness and silence. I get none of these.
It’s 9:00 a.m. already and it’s time to do something useful. I’ve been stationary on my chair since 5:30 a.m., when the world was drenched in rain and loud with thunder. Now the mist has receded together with the rain and some of my despair. Soon, workers will arrive at my house to get my new gate in place, the one I am sure I have mismeasured, and I’ll have to oversee the activities. Afterwards, I’ll need to do something about my motorcycle — she must look nice to be sold as sacrifice for the mountain gods, to be consumed by the expedition’s expenses. The other dozen to-dos I have I’ll tackle whenever I find some time or do what I do best: procrastinate.
Expedition… I have no idea where my mind was when I decided to pay for an expedition to Denali. The last mountain I climbed was more than two years ago and was half the size of the Alaskan “High One”. My training regimen since then has consisted in computer work, lots of stress and single-malt cask-strength Scotch whisky, not necessarily in that order and usually intertwined. I’ve never been to any decent altitude without a plane and I’ve seen snow only a couple of times in my whole life. Yes, I’ve done a lot and seen a lot as a combatant, but real mountains are for mountaineers, and I know I am not one. Not anymore. They are for mountain hardmen and not for “clients” who can buy their tickets to the thin air, hoping to be hauled up like a bag full of gear in a Big Wall climb. I have always despised this kind of undeserving and disrespectful endeavour. You should conquer your height above sea-level by your own means, that’s what I’ve always said. You should be self-reliant. Now, look at me. I can almost hear the guides’s disdain when they read my registration form: “Latin-American climber with one incomplete below-10,000’ climb”. What a joke. What an insolent.
I want to keep this self-flagellation session and laugh with self-pity, but the “gate-guys” arrive and disturb my divina comedia. Sure enough, I can see from afar that the damn iron monster my wife convinced me to build is too narrow. It’s going to be one of those days. And all that to try to contain the beast that now assails my house.
I live in a nice country house with a beautiful garden in front of it and a steep talus slope full of trees in the back. There are other houses on both sides, separated by thin shoulder-high living fences — an agreed-upon convention among the neighbourhood to keep the looks as natural and rustic as possible. Privacy is somewhat compromised, but the overall harmonious and peaceful atmosphere compensates for that. It’s just me and my wife, although I’ve rented another house for my mother just a few yards down the road, so that she could live by me. She needs close care ever since my father died and I am willing to supply it. But now, we are not alone at home anymore: a sly feline has inadvertently sneaked its way through the confines of my private life. The little creature is solely responsible for the infra-structural changes in my house. In a way, he is also responsible for this god-forsaken expedition.
“The Cat”, as I call him (yeah, him, not it), was found by one of my ex-employees (I am actually the “ex-employer”, since it was I who left the firm) in the curb along one of the most populated and busy avenues of the city. The kitten was probably one month old and ugly as hell. His belly was round with worms and his fur so dirty and oily that he looked like a little pig after a mud bath. His whiskers were coiled short, burned either by the heat of the tarmac in late summer or by the evil deed of some motherless bastard. As ugly as he was, my wife immediately loved the little thing’s photo I sent her from work and I, being the best husband there is, took him home. Cats are independent, so I figured it wouldn’t make much diference in my life. I had no idea.
Cats are independent from humans; humans are not independent from cats. And, ironic as it is for a tough Special Operations Man full of scars to love a silly cat, I am definitely not imune from their “puss-in-boots” eyes. I decided to fence my whole yard and lock the damn cat safely in my house’s premises. And it couldn’t be the usual wire fence they use around here, otherwise my house would look like one of those basketball courts you see on the streets. Moreover, I would have to add an overhanging section on top of the fence to avoid the cat to climb it, so I guess you can image how pretty my house would look. Instead, I’ve decided to buy thousands of 8-feet-long eucalyptus logs to substitute my living fences, turning my house into a huge wooden barricade. It reminds me of a playmobil Fort Apache I used to play with when I was a child. So I’ve been watching money flow out of my pocket week after week, while a bunch of strangers destroy my privacy, tramp on my garden and spread dirt and concrete stains all over the place. Not mentioning the constant noise of hammering, sawing and laughter — the aggravating laughter of simple minds that don’t have an 18,000 feet elevation gain to man up from a desolated and highly crevassed glaciar to an inhospitable oxygen-deprived and freezing mountain top. How I envy them. And what’s worse: I have no idea if the fence and the gate will ever hold the cat inside — everyone bets they won’t.
Everyday, I see my expenses amassing like an angry crowd in the verge of a lynching. They see the helpless being lying in the center and for some reason they feel compelled to participate in the feast, like sharks in a feeding frenzy. I don’t mean expenses solely from the ongoing reformation, but from all the other deep refuges of my consumerist life. Like cosmic particles they gravitate toward my life turning it into a financial black hole. I see my spreadsheet grow indefinitely in complexity to try to cope with spending that comes from all directions and with many different guises. I lose many hours a week registering them, budgeting, thinking about money. And for what? What is all this spending for? It should have a profound reason, don’t you think? But it does not.
We fool ourselves believing it improves our quality of life. We think that hundreds of TV channels, Internet providers on every last-generation device we have, a newer car, a mirrored cabinet, that abstract painting that makes we look cool, and all the expensive crap we buy to “eat healthy” will make us happy. So we buy. And buy some more. And we add trash to our lives. And take none out. Soon, we are like that big garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a collection of useless junk floating adrift in life, seemingly moving but actually going nowhere. And the greatest irony is that we actually think we are doing what we want. We don’t realize we are being exhorted by silent harangues — petabytes of information extracted from every online trace we leave, combined by state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithms into surreptitious rhetoric that persuade us to do what they want in a pathetic exercise of our free will. Add to it some herd effect and the desperate need to fit in and you can explain 99% of what you do in your life. So much for the 21st century man.
Now, you are probably wondering what all this moaning has to do with the Denali climb. I explain.
The fence and the gate in my home were only the final push I needed to change. These were justified expenses (even if a little over the top) to protect my home and the cat, so I am glad to have money for them. But they also ignited a buying spree that is a diametral opposite of the way of life I admire. I’ve learned with Henry David Thoreau that most of the luxuries and comforts of modern life are more hindrances than objectives to be attained. This is specially true when they jeopardise your peace of mind by making you spend more than you should. The financial pressure that has been building up since I left my job for good, boosted by my house reformation and all the other silly expenses, is turning me into an ordinary “society man”, always concerned about money, money, and money. The hell with that! If money is a problem, I will get rid of it. I will build the fence and the gate and I’ll put the security system my wife has always demanded to a deaf interlocutor. I will lend my best friend the cash I know he needs but would never ask for and I’ll donate money for righteous causes. I will start four savings accounts for my four sons-in-law and I will arrange that my mother go visit Paris once again, so that she can remember her forever-gone happy times with my father. If I can’t runaway from spending and buying, I will buy something really worth it. Then I’ll go to Vegas and bet the rest on the 36 in the first roulette wheel I can find. If I have to go broke in the process, so be it. But I will have stories to tell instead of regrets, stories turned possible thanks to money, but not because of money. I will go climb a mountain, a really big one, the high one — Denali.
What a stupid line of thought, I know.
The day is ending and the bad weather is finally losing ground. Thick dark cumulonimbus clouds still surround the large peak that lies southwest of my home, but golden light now peeks through them, as if trying to catch a glimpse of the steep climbing routes underneath. The peak, known as “Long Mary”, abrupts from the surrounding hills and creates its own micro-climate, with no intention of letting its cozy coat of clouds go away. It looks weary, as if by exposing its raw granitic skin it would seduce an uninvited guest. But no one is daring or stupid enough to succumb to its charm. Not today.
This mountain has symbolised my will to climb ever since I bought my house two years ago — it was one of the reasons I did so in the first place. I knew that having such a magnificent rock staring at me everyday would force my come back to climbing, something that I deeply desired. The dormant mountain man in me would finally wake up. I was certain I would never put up with watching that giant rock monolith standing there unclimbed by me, mocking. I would become a mountaineer again.
Well, two years have passed and I have never been to Long Mary. I haven’t climbed its vertical menacing walls or hiked its approaching slope — I don’t even know how to get to the trailhead by car. Instead of a token of my climbing spirit, it now represents my total lack of fortitude, a constant reminder of my tacit resignation to be just a distant admirer, a dreamer instead of a doer. Now, when strolling along my porch — the usual path to my work place in the first floor — I avoid looking at it. Like a fat woman and a mirror, I pretend it doesn’t exist. If I could I would gladly smash it to the floor and take the seven years of bad luck as a good bargain in exchange for a lifetime of shame. If I could I would pray to the gods to pour unlimited rain and blow ravenous winds until this stubborn protuberance is washed away and made submissive like the hills around it. But I don’t pray; and the mountain won’t go away.
As if determined to humiliate me, Long Mary has now completely removed its cloudy cloak and appears like a dark herald that brings bad omens from the twilight sky. Its somber featureless east face don’t even bother to look at me anymore; it simply neglects my presence with scorn. I yearn for the night to come and absorb this shadow-mountain in its void, making it disappear from my sight. Even the renewed pessimism and gloomy forebodings that accompany the night are better than facing this mountain. But the endless sunset don’t give up the struggle against my patience and I finally decide to leave — defeated. As I turn away from the dimming horizon to go inside, I have only one stabbing certainty: if I don’t climb Long Mary, I should never get into that plane to Alaska.