Those Glorious Summits

Lately I have been thinking about legacies.

Now when I say "legacy" I mean what defines a person once they're gone or what a person is known for by future generations.

I have been reading a book called "In the Shadow of Denali" by mountaineer/photographer/adventurer Jonathan Waterman.

In his book, Jon Waterman shares several of his encounters in on and around Alaska’s Mt. McKinley (which I will henceforth refer to as "Denali" native Athabaskan meaning "the High One") North America's highest peak at 20,320 feet above sea-level. He explores stories of triumph, controversy, and misfortune that transpire on or in the literal and symbolic shadow of Alaska's Denali.


Denali (20,320') aka Mt. McKinley

"In the Shadow of Denali" is a very interesting read based on a topic that I’m very enthusiastic about. Yet walking away from the book one account stuck with me. This particular account recollected the short life of a young and ambitious climber by the name of John “Johnny” Mallon Waterman (not to be confused with the author Jonathan “JON” Waterman).

Johnny grew up with his parents and brother, Bill, in Connecticut. As a young child he was much like many other boys his age, but by the time Johnny Waterman graduated high-school he had fallen in love with climbing. His father Guy took him and his brother to the local climbing crags and Johnny showed signs of immense talent and passion for alpinism early on. Yet his love turned a sour corner as he began to engross himself in climbing as a way to cope with a stressful family situation than ended in a messy divorce.

Johnny’s skill and ambition led him to climb worldwide in such exotic places as Turkey, Greece, the Alps, and many others. Due to the fact that he spent most of his time climbing, training and improving such skills Johnny’s social circle was mainly composed of fellow climbers; and by the time Johnny graduated he had also lost a great many friends in the mountains including his closest climbing partner.

The demise of the near-entirety of his social circle in addition to his turbulent family dysfunction created a violent environment which ravaged Johnny’s psychology, driving him ever towards the one realm where he remained confident and in control, the world of climbing. As Johnny’s erratic behavior and social awkwardness increased, Johnny began to (I believe) inadvertently drive a wedge between himself and his remaining peers. As a result his larger expeditions gave way to various solo ventures including a vastly difficult and technical ascent of the South Spur of Alaska's 14,700' Mount Hunter which took him 145 days to finish (completely alone for the duration). This feat which required immense skill and care has been immortalized today as a legendary ascent by a legendary figure, not only due to technical difficulty but also due to the challenge of doing such a feat alone for such a long duration of time.


Mt. Hunter's oft-traveled West Ridge

After years of numerous mountaineering accomplishments, bizarre friendships, years estranged from his father and stepmother, Waterman began to degrade further. He eventually became obsessed with becoming the first climber to complete a winter solo-ascent of Denali. After two failed winter attempts on Denali and a few weeks with little progress into his third, something broke in Waterman. Since Johnny was climbing solo on his trip little is known of his thoughts and actions in his final days save what he recorded in his journal. What is known from his journal is that he left a letter in his tent and struck out for an unclimbed and highly technical ridge on Denali’s South Face. This particular ridge, which has yet to be climbed, was dubbed as "a suicide run" by Reinhold Messner (perhaps the world's best and most innovative climber). Johnny set out and disappeared, he remains missing to this day.

It was clear to Johnny Waterman's father, Guy Waterman that his son had set off towards folly not intending to come back. Johnny left his supplies, and set out on a difficult route none could truly conquer. A heavy past and declining career proved too much for the young climber to bear, leaving Johnny without hope or reason to continue.

The author, JON Waterman happened to be friends with Guy Waterman, JOHNNY Waterman's estranged father. Some sixteen years after the disappearance of Johnny, Jon recounts a memorable trip where he set out into the Vermont woods to visit the bucolic hermitage of Guy Waterman and his second wife:

"During a recent visit – I lost the path to the Waterman's rural property. I thought about Johnny a lot that day. I thought that few people indeed can afford to commit themselves irrevocably to their dreams, and I admired him deeply for that. Like Icarus, Johnny had cut off all the moorings to his loved ones and flew into the alluring white heat of the sun.
I didn't find Guy until twilight, tending his garden a hundred yards off, under the light of a lantern. When I shouted 'Hello!' he ran towards me clutching the lantern, with ecstasy and surprise shining with childlike joy on his face. When his saffron light finally fell on my face, he was plainly crestfallen, even though it had been years since he had seen me.
The next morning, Guy paused in front of a woodpile. He looked into my eyes; he tried to smile. Then he apologized about the way he had greeted me the night before. He explained that once in a while he will greet an unidentified visitor out in the dark and think that maybe for just a scant moment that maybe, just maybe, one of his sons has finally come home." - Waterman 'Lone Wolf (the Other John Waterman)' from "In the Shadow of Denali"

What strikes me the most is the sense of futility, at the end of all of Johnny Waterman's feats of skill, endurance, and suffering: his legacy no longer held much value. He had no one to celebrate with, his friends perished in pursuit of those glourious summits, and He, himself, lost his life, having given up.

Sure, Johnny is remembered. Jon Krakauer, a famous mountaineer, and author of best-sellers Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, recounts Johnny Waterman's feats of endurance, characteristic lone-wolf mentality, as well as his ability to cut all familial ties and likens him to Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild. Krakauer held Waterman's 145 day solo of Mount Hunter as one of the most prolific feats of Alaskan mountaineering.

Yet despite his brief and dazzling career, all Johnny had left was a name tied to a deed. In the shadow of Denali, Johnny faced a third failure to summit the mountain he so strongly desired to conquer; in that same shadow of loneliness Johnny’s self-confidence and self-worth (once rooted in prior accomplishment) paled in fear. His deeds were thin insulation against the teeth of despair. In the wake of Johnny's final journey, even after years of difficult estrangement, Johnny's father was a heartbroken man who wanted no more than his son to come home.

It seems to me that there is a curious mindset which besets the mind of mountaineer and outdoorsperson alike. This mindset is one of disdain for the civilized world, and it's a mood that treats the Climb as a transcendent experience. The Climb becomes what one lives for, works to pay for, trains to be better at, and is worth risking for.

When I first began my own immersion in the world of mountains and lore, I wholeheartedly adopted this mindset. I adopted the new persona, for no other reason than my desire to identify with this new-found world.

I was fully content to go along my way, the surly mountaineer whose solace abides in the mountains.

I began my biggest trip to-date in the summer of 2011. I set out with my ethics professor Terry and his daughter Allison on the John Muir Trail. The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 211 mile trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California. The trail begins in the exquisite Yosemite Valley, running up through Tuolumne Meadows, south through Yosemite National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Devil's Post-Pile National Monument, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, following the very spine of the range to the Mount Whitney, at 14,505 ft., the highest peak in the continental United States.

My trip on the John Muir Trail remains one of the best experiences of my life due to the intense challenge and scintillating victories I experienced along its’ length. One moment I experienced, which stood out as of these victories was a lesson I learned on an unexpected (and very lonely) detour.

I was on day fourteen of eighteen of my trip. Unfortunately, my two companions had to tap-out earlier in the trip due to an untimely sickness, and I had been hiking with the myriad of fine folks I was meeting along the trail. We had hiked through two days of rain and climbed two of the major passes on our way south to Whitney (Muir and Mather Passes). We had just topped out Mather Pass, below which there is a broad basin leading to 14,058 foot Split Mountain which I had set as a goal for a potential side trip. Estimating myself to have ample time for such a foray I parted ways with members of my impromptu trail-family below the pass and struck out across the glacial bowl toward Split's twin summits.

Crossing the bowl marked the first time that I was truly alone. Even on trails in the center of the rugged Sierra there remains a good chance you will cross paths with other hikers. I however was moving cross-country in the Sierra. The hardship and homesickness that I was previously able to bury in the midst of fellowship and tedium reared its’ ugly head. I began to question my motives for pursuing a side-summit. I began to worry about the possibility of something happening to me. Though I was in no imminent danger, I still lambasted myself for making the decision to try to climb this summit alone on a trip where I was already under-nourished, and running low on time to complete the trail (before going back to work). With my thoughts churning inside I gained a saddle below Split Mountain and saw the very broad and very steep talus field leading to Split's north summit. Exhausted and despondent my doubts increased with fervent intensity. I wanted to keep going. I needed to keep going. Something would not let me stop.

Between the loneliness, exertion, and vastness of the task before me I was torn and burnt out. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I sat down and I cried, the weight of stress and difficulty unseen came pouring out.

I realized my decision to try this summit was one originally based out of desire to conquer, or to adopt further the anti-social mountain man persona. I needed to live up to that which I said I would do. I needed to become a certain person.

But why?

I then realized that the reason I needed this accomplishment was due to the fact that I needed to appear a certain way to people. That my seemingly selfish and self-centered pursuit was orchestrated because I loved who it made me become. I was someone better who was better for other people, adored by other people, and inspire other people to greater things. There was a deep part of myself that wanted to be different than others who would other-wise settle on lesser things, in part for my betterment and in part so that I would have value in their eyes.

I want… I need to matter.

Now the mountaineering was more selfish than not, but I also realized that people are inextricable from their social context. Greatness comes not from the brilliance of an individual alone, but a light which shines brighter in some places than others. I also realized that light is not meant to shine, simply for shining's sake, but to shed light in others darkness.

Thinking about this, I wonder about Johnny Waterman. He was a product of tragic and difficult circumstance, but in the end I ask "What did his legacy amount to?" What legacy and feat is so great that it will always be remembered and never be duplicated? Time is long and our memories are short. Will time and generations reaching into far millennia really remember the deeds of today? Will they remember one lonely individual toiling up a long and snow-crenelated ridge?

I ask, "What did Guy Waterman remember about his son?" In the end he just wanted him to come home. He didn’t want the deeds, but Johnny, alive and in the flesh, he wanted the presence of his boy.

In this, I identified with Johnny Waterman's tragic tale. Where the people in his life vanished from and disappointed him; he turned to carve his name with stone in the pages of time. I realized the greatest legacy is not a name attached to a deed that is remembered all the days. The greatest legacy is the people we have contact with in the every-day. Those people we pray with and people that we play with. Those people we bless and those people that we curse. Our legacy is the families we leave behind to do their own deeds. What renown outlives a bloodline that endures the generations? No deed outlives an incarnate legacy that may forget a feat, but every single day that a child lives honors the choices of his or her forebears.

Now, I think pushing ones limits and pursuing goals is a good and healthy thing. Yet there are too many stories of passionate souls given over to the love of sport and danger. There are too many stories of people who have died in pursuit of legacies wrought of folly and misguided zeal. Now I suppose there is truly some benefit to being great, but I personally fear becoming like those willing to sacrifice relationships? Or perhaps one's own life.

What goal, pursued in the name of vibrant life, is worth attaining even if that very life is lost in the process?

Rather in the midst of Johnny Waterman's journey, and reflecting on my own, I think that I will decide to choose a long life. I think it to be sad irony to cut ties from my family and friends, set on consuming myself within the heat of the overwhelming sun. Rather I will live on in the light of day, flying as high as I am able, but only when it is to lead others to a place where they can better see the grand and magnificent world beneath.

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