Friday, January 11, 2008

Because he was there.

By now you've probably heard that Sir Edmund Hillary died. Not that you really care.

I do.

Edmund Hillary was, of course, the first person known to have summited Everest, a feat he achieved with his Sherpa climbing partner, the first* Tenzing Norgay, on May 29, 1953. (It is conjectured that George Leigh Mallory may have beaten him there by almost three decades, though given the "fog of climbing," which is to say, the singular set of challenges and uncertainties that arise in the so-called Death Zone, the facts may never be known. Mallory disappeared on the northern flanks of the 29,028-foot peak in 1924 and his body lay undiscovered until 1999. Incidentally, it was Mallory who, when a New York Times reporter asked him why he'd even consider such foolishness as climbing Everest, simply and brilliantly replied, "because it's there.")

But back to Edmund Hillary. A shy beekeeper by trade, he was an imposing-looking young man with a prominent jaw and, overall, features as sharply etched as the rock formations on The Great Mountain itself. Hillary's Everest exploits made him one of the most revered figures in all the British Empire, back when there still actually was something of a British Empire. (Interesting, isn't it, that many of their cultural icons, unlike so many of ours today, actually did something noteworthy? I know, somebody's gonna come back at me now with the Queen and all that. But give me this one, OK?) Nor did he rest on his laurels after Everest. He summited other famous peaks in the Himalaya and elsewhere, continuing to make his mark as an explorer and adventurer in points across the globe.

Hillary said of himself, later in life, "I was an ordinary man of ordinary talents, but I was very motivated." First of all, he undersold himself, perhaps because of his unassuming nature. More to the point here, motivation is a talent unto itself. I've never quite understood the dichotomy we establish in separating the impetus to do a given thing from the ability to actually do the thing, once you get there. Motivation is physical. (It exists in the physical body, does it not? It arises from the physical brain, and is processed through the physical adrenal glands, and other organs.) Motivation can probably be trained to some degree just like one trains one's muscles (and as mountaineers like Hillary train their bodies before an ascent), but I'm not sure it's something that can be assimilated just by absorbing certain words of wisdom from others. (Again, if you have a copy of SHAM, flip to page 96 and read Jim Bouton's timeless quote on the related subject of confidence.) Geneticists and biophysicists will tell you that you can make yourself only so big via weight training, depending on the muscular potential programmed into your body. I think it's much the same with motivation. Maybe you can "exercise it" to make it bigger. But for many of us, the sky is not the limit; the limit comes at a much more modest height.

My larger point is that, whatever the particular balance of motivation and talent present in Edmund Hillary, he went out and he DID. He didn't talk endlessly or lecture others about "climbing every mountain" and "overcoming every challenge." He lived his life in his own way. He charted his course, in this case literally, and he followed it to where it took him, which was up the side of a great and forbidding mountain. When Hillary climbed that mountain, he didn't make the impossible possible; he simply showed that the impossible had been, for him anyway, possible all along. Does that mean he could've mastered other impossible feats—like, say, climbing his way to the moon, if he put his mind to it? Of course not. Does it mean that climbing Everest is possible for you and me? (More on "me" in a moment.) No. Not necessarily. He showed that it was possible for him, at least that one time. In that sense, you might call him the poster boy for an authentic and intensely personal brand of self-actualization.

Now. The reason Edmund Hillary means something special to your host is that I've long regarded him with envious fascination, of a sort that some of you will find maudlin. See, for years it has been my dream—this may tell you something about me—to die on my way to the Everest Summit. Ideally, of course, I'd like to die on the summit, but given my advancing age and my asthma, I think it quite unlikely that I could reach the top. Perhaps I would simply run out of steam, collapse in the snow at the side of the Southeast Ridge Route, and die of hypothermia (which they say is a very peaceful death, once you get past the frostbite part). Perhaps I would simply lose my footing on the infamous Hillary Step or the Yellow Band and plummet some 7000 feet into Tibet.

That doesn't mean I won't give it a shot someday, if the doctors ever sit me down and tell me something like, "Well, we think we got all of it..."

* or at least the first famous one. There have been many legendary Sherpa climbers, some of them with the same exact name, without whom Everest could not have been conquered, certainly in the early days. Then again, as many veteran Alpinists advise, you never really conquer Everest; if she's in congenial spirits, she may simply permit you to linger for a time in her fickle embrace.

18 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
It is refreshing to see someone who inspires by actions, rather than by merely spouting grandiose sounding (but empty) rhetoric. Like most people, I'd be hard-pressed to quote anything he ever said, but the scale of his accomplishments had and has a "wow" factor beyond anything he might have said, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll say it: For God's sake. What is the deal with people who risk death doing something stupid and unnecessary, and why do people insist on idealizing them?!! Please, Steve, refrain from adding your body to the mass of garbage accumulating on Everest (and other sites, such as Machu Picchu) because others cannot haul it back down. "Because it's there" is not brilliant, it's moronic. ("I won the hot dog eating contest by eating 500 hot dogs because they were there.") Geez! To risk one's life doing something that might benefit humanity, or the world, or our store of knowledge, or in defense of one's country or ideals, is one thing. To risk it for nothing is stupid, and when it contributes to global garbage, erosion, and etc., is more than stupid. Better to haul out one of those guns you were discussing in an earlier post and just go for it. But, please, isn't there something more worthwhile you could do?! Mind you, my intention is not to attack Sir Edmund Hillary or any of the great explorers who investigated the unknown--presumably for the benefit of all--before the era of airplanes, satellites, and advanced technology outmoded their efforts. If you said that you'd like to man a spaceship on a one-way voyage to Mars (or beyond), I would honor you for your noble attempt to enlighten us all through your sacrifice. But to invade others' sacred places for no better reason than "can I do that?" is more akin to (the also late, lamented) Evel Knievel's stunts.

Andy said...

Excellent post. I'm wondering what other cultural icons we have now that you mentioned them. I'm not sure we can claim Hillary as one of our icons. New Zealanders are kind enough to let us think highly of him.

Apart from his determination, courage and character I have a special affection for him because (at least in my eyes) he is the spitting image of my father. Looking at that photo conjures up a mixture of admiration and affection for both men.

My father certainly never climbed anything much, except some of the mountains of North Wales, where I grew up, and the Everest team practised before their successful expedition. There's a pub on the slopes of Snowdon where they stayed, full of 50's climbing regalia and a ceiling that was autographed by all the members of the team.

I agree with you I think we lost a good man, someone who deserved his reputation and our admiration.

P.S. I also have asthma would quite like to climb (at least a bit of) Everest. I'm not sure about the dying thing, can I skip that bit?

mikecane2008 said...

Hmmm... I won't touch the mind-body dichotomy thing you brought up in regard to motivation. I'll settle for these two mundane points:

>>>Geneticists and biophysicists will tell you that you can make yourself only so big via weight training, depending on the muscular potential programmed into your body.

Of course, there's the loophole of steroids. Ask the NYPD and MLB! As well as the current Governator of California.

>>>My larger point is that, whatever the particular balance of motivation and talent present in Edmund Hillary, he went out and he DID. He didn't talk endlessly or lecture others about "climbing every mountain" and "overcoming every challenge."

Well, he wasn't looking to build a pyramid scheme, was he? Not for him the "Mount Everest Tour" spinoff. The people who talk generally don't do -- except to talk to other people about what *they* should do.

Nice piece. I hadn't really considered him. Thanks.

Mary Anne said...

You know the motivation question is VERY interesting to me. I see this in the so many fields and the bottom line is the motivated ones make it. I will use a recent publishing event as an example.

I go to all things involving publishing to sell my work and actually make a living at writing. I know so many literary writers who feel this is beneath them and I can't figure out this reasoning. Am I less of a literary artist because I want to sell my work or am I just motivated to have people read my art? I can tell you for me it is both.

Every job or break I ever got was due to the fact I persisted and knew people. I was MOTIVATED to do this.

Picasso was an amazing publicist and marketer, but was he any less of an artist for it? He was motivated to be seen and paid for his work.

I think motivation is a very intersting factor in success.

PlanGuy said...

About half way down this page, Hillary talks in a video about his modest abilities and lack of athletic abilility.

Hillary Video

Enjoy,

Plan Guy
http://www.PlanGuy.com

Steve Salerno said...

See, maybe I’m wrong to feel this way, but
THIS is the kind of stuff that drives me up a freakin' wall. "Are you facing your own Everest?" This banal attempt to exploit a rare and magnificent achievement by comparing it to "starting a new job," etc., as if to imply that (1) all of the skills that an Edmund Hillary employed in climbing Everest are translatable to any and all other areas of life, (2) there is really no difference between any two challenges: a challenge is just a challenge, and (3) we are all "equally excellent" and capable of meeting our challenges, which is just utter nonsense (and yet the message is so seductive that it supports an entire wing of the self-help movement, which, let us not forget, is a for-profit enterprise). But more than anything—to return to where I started in this post, and this comment—I’m sorry, but climbing Mt. Everest and/or winning Wimbledon and/or finding the cure for cancer are NOT like "starting a new job." There is such a thing as individual brilliance, and we are not all equally capable of it. That doesn't necessarily imply that the people capable of brilliance are more valuable as human beings; but in our zeal to make life sound so totally egalitarian and manageable, must we take everything we see around us, toss it into some metaphorical blender, and homogenize it all to a dull, meaningless sameness?

Andy said...

Anonymous said: "Okay, I'll say it: For God's sake. What is the deal with people who risk death doing something stupid and unnecessary, and why do people insist on idealizing them?!!"

I think one of the reasons that these exploits garner so much attention and admiration is that they are very tangible. Anyone who has trouble climbing the stairs can probably grasp the difficulties of climbing Everest and respond to the grit, determination and shear bloody mindedness required to do that (regardless of whether you think it is idiotic or not).

Curing cancer, negotiating peace deals, inventing some other benefit to human existence are much less tangible to the most people. I appreciate Fleming's discovery of Penicillin, which has affected far more people in much more profound ways, but it isn't a ripping yarn! He didn't do it at 28,000 ft on an icy peak in peril of his life. That would have been a good story!

However worthy the endeavour if there isn't a good story to go with it I don't think it will get the attention it deserves.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I got a kick out of the site you linked to. I started swelling with inspiration, the song "Climb Every Mountain" from "The sound of Music" filling my mind.

Then, it occurred to me that most people who actually try to climb every mountain end up falling off, and those who try to swim every sea either drown or get eaten by some really scary predator that sneaks up on them and gets them before they even realize it's there.

In the final analysis, those whose "motivation" leads them to attempt feats that are far beyond their abilities frequently become statistics supporting Darwinian Theory, leaving more realistic opportunities available to those with more common sense.

So perhaps we should be thankful for the gullible, as well as those who seduce their hordes of lemmings into acts that leave a deeper gene pool for the rest of us. Just a thought... :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, yep. I go back to Steve Irwin, too. Now there's a guy who had all the capability in the world at his chosen craft, plus he was fearless--which may be precisely why he's now dead. These uplifting anthems that exhort us all to spread our wings and fly...they're really applicable to just a very few of us who can actually do it. The rest of us will crash and burn.

I know that sounds at least mildly incongruous with my admiration for Hillary, but the fact is, when someone does take the risk--and succeeds--we want to stand up and cheer. Not for us. Not for "humankind." But for him, and him alone.

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, and Andy, you're right: The tangibility factor is a very good point.

a/good/lysstener said...

You really lose me on this one, Steve, I'm with the first Anonymous. What *is* this obsession so many people, meaning mostly men, have with a poetically tragic form of dying? I don't understand it. Why not admire and emulate something that is a more enriching form of LIVING? It makes my blood run cold just to hear you talk of even attempting something like that!

Seriously, I would like this explained to me. Or maybe it's a "guy thing" and I just won't get it, no matter how much it's explained. But could you try?

Steve Salerno said...

Alyssa, I think we've already addressed this to some degree, above, but perhaps someone else wants in on this, with greater specificity to her question?

RevRon's Rants said...

I think Hunter S. Thompson put it in a context that resonates best for me when he said (and I paraphrase a bit):
"Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body,
but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, and shouting "Holy s**t......What a ride!"

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - Irwin is, indeed dead, but can there be any doubt that when he was alive, he was really ALIVE?

Mary Anne said...

Steve aaid
"But more than anything—to return to where I started in this post, and this comment—I’m sorry, but climbing Mt. Everest and/or winning Wimbledon and/or finding the cure for cancer are NOT like "starting a new job." There is such a thing as individual brilliance, and we are not all equally capable of it."

Steve I think your original post has something to do with your responses. I did not garner this idea of individual merit from your original post. I thought you were highlighting motivation and that covers life, not just climbing a mountain. I can see where people got confused.

Steve Salerno said...

Mary Anne, point taken. I have been known even to confuse myself, lately.

Steve Salerno said...

Alyssa, do Ron's comments shed any light on the topic, for you?