By Jason Herring
Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Jim Wickwire’s Addicted to Danger. Wickwire was the first American to summit K2 – the second tallest mountain in the world and considered the most dangerous. The mortality rate is so high for those attempting to summit the “Savage Mountain” that you would have better odds of surviving Omaha Beach on D-Day than making it down from K2 alive.
Two years ago in Seattle there was a 40th anniversary celebration of the American summit of K2 held at The Mountaineers Club. Wickwire, who happens to be a good friend of mine, invited me to attend. Twelve of the fourteen members of the 1978 expedition were there to tell their stories, including Jim Whittaker, the expedition leader and the first American to stand on the summit of Mount Everest in 1963.
I was in awe. Hearing the stories behind the stunning pictures that were taken with the finest Kodak of its day set my imagination on fire. These men and women were pioneers. They put four of their team on the summit and lived to tell about it. And for the United States, they were the first.
In the ensuing decades, climbing has become more en vogue as thousands of adventurers and would-be-mountaineers head for the hills. Consider the fact that in 1963 there was only one expedition on Mount Everest that put five Americans and one Sherpa on the summit, bringing the total to a dozen people who had stood on the highest point on the planet. Today, nearly 800 people attempt to summit every year, and as of 2018 there have been 9,159 successful summit attempts. In 1963, California’s El Capitan had been climbed by only two routes whereas today there are more than 70 lines up the 2,700 foot face.
If you had the time and money to climb Everest today it would be nothing like what Jim Whittaker and the American team experienced in 1963. Today, base camp at Mount Everest is a global village during climbing season. And you’re probably familiar with the photo taken last year of the human traffic jam near the Hillary Step, with climbers standing shoulder to shoulder like Disney vacationers shuffling along for a few hours to experience Peter Pan’s Flight. The only difference is that you don’t freeze to death or die from a buildup of fluid in your lungs or brain while waiting on your trip to Neverland.
In Limits of the Known, David Roberts bemoans the fact that the “highest and hardest mountains of the world have been tamed” and “climbed out”. He ponders whether caving or “spelunking” is the next great uncharted territory where explorers are still searching to find the Mount Everest of caves. Such men who are driven to be the first – or at least among the first – are drawn farther into the wilderness to remote peaks and ranges to make first conquest.
And yet even on the well worn paths there are always more “firsts”. In 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to summit Everest, and 64-year-old Sherman Bull became the oldest. In 2003, 21-year-old Jess Roskelley became the youngest climber to summit Mount Everest. In 2006, Sophia Danenberg became the first black woman and first black American to reach the summit. In 2010, 13-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest person to summit Everest, breaking previous records. Three years later Eli Reimer became the first teenager with Down Syndrome to climb to Everest Base Camp. In these few examples you can see that these adventurers used their age, ethnicity, gender, and disability as an opportunity and not a handicap. The road well worn by so many others was still the road less travelled for them.
In 2016, I climbed my first mountain when I reached the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho’s tallest peak. The sign at the trailhead informed me that between three and four thousand people attempt to climb Borah every year. By alpinist standards this was a simple “walk-up”, and only a short section known as “Chicken-Out Ridge” qualified as a Category 3 scramble. But none of that mattered any more than the eight other climbers I met on the mountain that day. At 12,667 feet it was the most thrilling and terrifying thing that I had ever done. I was hooked. For the first time I heard the mountains calling, and I wanted more.
Idaho has nine peaks that are over twelve thousand feet called “12ers”. I am only one summit away from completing my goal, at which point I will join a list of over 214 finishers. It’s not pioneering by any stretch, but it feels like pioneering to me – especially when you’re on a summit chase where the trail disappears and you have to do your own route finding. And when you compare the number of people who choose a weekend at the lake or an afternoon in the park to those who ascend Idaho’s wilderness temples, it certainly seems like the road less travelled.
But the point is not whether the road is less travelled or well worn by others. The point is that the road is new for you. For you, it is the road never-before-travelled. “For you have not passed this way before” (Joshua 3:4). Life brings us opportunity for adventure. Adventure is always there beyond the limits of the known. It might be volunteering at a food bank, a homeless shelter, or your local church to serve in a new capacity. Adventure happens when we respond to a sudden awakening of an inner longing that is often hidden. Like seeing a friend post pictures of his latest Spartan Race and thinking, “I would like to do that!” Or like knowing that you’ve always wanted to serve, but it wasn’t until you heard an advocate for women and children being trafficked that you found your outlet or calling. Adventure is going on a mission to a third world country as much as climbing a mountain.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone has become so clichéd, but it still rings true. Only when we step out in faith or when we are forced out by fate into the unknown are we able to conquer our doubts and fears and self-imposed limitations. Only then is our ego subdued as we learn to rely on God who sees what we cannot see, who knows what we do not know, and who is already present in where we are yet to be. As Jim Whittaker said, “You never conquer a mountain. Mountains can’t be conquered. You conquer yourself.”
Jason Herring is a father to four amazing kids and husband to his wife, Suzanne, of 21 years. In 2009 they experienced two miscarriages and the loss of their 4-year-old son Josiah to cancer. In the wake of that devastation, Jason has sought to share hope with others who walk that same valley. He is passionate about his family, mountains, Spartan Races, history books, writing, and speaking on the grace of God.