Friday, April 5, 2024

The Alps This Summer: Decision Made

I've had a very short career in mountaineering, especially at high altitude. By definition, "high altitude" is 1,500 to 3,500 meters. "Very high altitude" is 3,500 to 5,500 meters. And "extreme altitude" is 5,500 meters and higher. My goal in climbing the Alps has always been to climb 4,000 meter peaks, just like anyone who climbs the Rockies in Colorado seeks to conquer mountains that stand over 14,000 feet. I respect high mountains. Indeed, I fear them. Although I've only failed to summit one high altitude peak that I've attempted to climb, I still can't begin any climb with any confidence that I will succeed. The uncertainties are just too many. Getting back down happy and healthy counts more than racking up another summit. 

With mountaineering, you can start at any time and any age. You don't need to go full-on Rambo, either. The 14-ers I've climbed in the Rockies are known as "easy" mountains. Average people do them all the time. That's not to say they aren't challenging. Climbing is a risky business. But the rewards are out of this world. I love the bonds that are formed in the mountains. I like working my tail off to prepare for something that's challenging and then giving it my all. It feels so good to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It's truly amazing to climb over 4,000 meters in the Alps. There is something exhilarating about gearing up for an alpine ascent. You get to experience beauty where most people don't get to experience it ever. 

They say mountaineering is all about calculated risk and knowing when to climb and when not to. We grow by being stretched, by willingly applying ourselves to a dangerous and arduous task. The act of wrestling with your fears builds inner strength. I think mountaineering, along with marathoning, is one of the most transferable gains to other areas of your life you can develop. In the Bible, people climbed mountains to get close to God. Mountains are an experience like no other.

But they are dangerous. The Alps call me like a moth to a flame. But therein lies the problem. When the risks far outnumber the rewards, then you know it's time to adopt a longer-term perspective. It's for that reason I've decided not to return to the Alps this summer to attempt a summit of the Allalinhorn. I think I'm wise enough to know that attempting another 4,000 meter peak would not only put my life at risk but also that of my mountain guide, to whom I would be roped for two days. For many mountaineers, the single biggest reason for climbing at high altitude is the desire to prove yourself. The greater the danger, the greater the glory. I'm certainly not immune to that. It's important therefore to be aware of your true motivations. Just watch the movie Everest. There's something really pathetic and sad about people endangering their lives because they wouldn't be honest with themselves and didn't understand their own limitations. 

Of course I won't stop admiring those who tackle those amazing 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps, especially those in my age group and beyond who continue to roll back the barriers of aging and human performance. My experiences in the Alps will always have a special meaning to me. But there are a number of 14ers near Denver that will be nice too. I know too many people who succumb to faulty either/or thinking. The Allalinhorn might be beyond my skill level, but Mount Elbert in Colorado is, I think, still very doable, and even the Mettelhorn in Zermatt. The point is that movement is life. Embrace the changes in your athletic skill levels, but don't give up. And never -- NEVER -- let your age define you. As long as you're moving forward and covering distance, you're still an endurance athlete.