Our three hikes were essentially warm-ups for our final ascent to the peak of Mt Villunaraju. Normally, a climb consists of a half day hike to the base camp (4500m), an evening nap, and a 2am departure for the summit (5600m), which was typically reached at sunrise. As aspiring mountaineers, we opted for an extended journey that included an extra day at the base camp to practice belaying, ice climbing, and other skills necessary for summits beyond the reach of mere footsteps.
Most people associate mountaineering as a highly austere sport. This is true, but not as austere as you might imagine. Our team consisted of two porters, our cook Augustin, and our guide, Beto. Even with the extra help, Eyal and I still shouldered about 80 pounds of equipment each.
Climbing Mount Villunaraju is similar to standing in line for a really popular amusement park ride. The trip is broken into fragments, and you never quite know how far along you are. Every turn of a corner and every hill yonder carries the hope of reaching your final destination; all but once, you're given yet another test of endurance.
Throughout the climb I played various mental games to keep myself in good spirits. When there were climbers below us, I pretended I was one of the Von Trapp family children in that final scene when they scurry up the Alps with the Nazis on their tail. After these climbers passed us, I resorted to cognitive-behavioral therapy. "This is an exercise in optimism" I repeated to myself. Cheesy and trite? Yes, but it worked for a while. Ultimately, with optimism fading and pure exhaustion coming to the fore, I scrapped aspirational mantras to focus on pure survival.
This sounds tragic, but it's my favorite part of climbing. It's the part when every muscle movement requires total concentration...when all you can do it focus your gaze on the one step ahead of you...when looking up will destroy you. Completing that one step becomes your only goal in life. Taking it bestows complete and utter victory- a victory that replenishes fully with each step taken.
I find this stage profoundly meditative. It reminds me that 99% of the time, my mind is wandering somewhere into the past or future. The time might be in 5 minutes or 5 years, the prognosis good or bad, but the state of being is nevertheless imagined, divorced from the here and now. I love the survival stage for the same reason I'm moved by a Richard Serra sculpture or the teachings of Shambhala Buddhism: for the radical focus on the present moment.
I also love this stage because I believe it points towards genuine happiness. To a lecture hall filled with MBA students, a professor of mine told us the key to happiness on no uncertain terms: set small, simple goals; achieve them; and repeat. I didn't believe it was that simple at the time. Even after I accepted this as true, I found myself continually in doubt. Life, after all, is largely defined by milestones. But, as this climb reminded me, it is lived by stepping stones. One step at a time, I found myself re-centered.