failure or savior?

Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.

Ed Viesturs
Feeling good the day before altitude sickness nearly killed me.
Feeling good the day before altitude sickness nearly killed me.

In January 2014, I attempted to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. At Camp One, in the middle of the night as snow accumulated outside my tent, I developed HAPE, a deteriorating condition where fluid accumulates in the lungs and can be deadly within hours.


In the parlance of the mountaineer, I failed.

But in the language of the questing adventurer fully engaged in the game, my harrowing leave-taking of that snowy pile of rock was a success.

“The summit is optional, the descent is mandatory,” were my husband Richard’s parting words at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport two weeks ago, and they echoed in my fogged, lethargic brain as my lungs dangerously crackled and oozed, my strength dwindling precipitously, ever accelerating in a dance with death so unromantically called “HAPE” — High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema.

The "chicks" of the expedition protecting ourselves from blowing dust at base camp.
The “chicks” of the expedition protecting ourselves from blowing dust at base camp.

Was it Liszt in my head on that dark, icy morning as moans and coughing woke me? More likely, it was not a vision of my own demise but rather the promise of the rest of my life calling me — begging me — to return below the clouds and save myself.

“Evacuation” is a funny term implying speed and efficiency. Mine was a chaos of clothes found, boots pushed on, a rag-doll body forced to stand.

I then slowly put one foot in front of the other and walked thousands of feet down and down, tied by a short rope to a lovely Argentine guide who never stopped urging me, “Good job, Ali! You must walk now! Good job!”

Aconcagua is really just a huge rock pile.
Aconcagua is really just a huge rock pile.

What is it, I ask myself, that sends me to such risky places? Is it a testing of myself, or a seeking of indescribable vistas or is it maybe a desire, that in utterly stark and danger-filled places, I will somehow find who I really am and thus carry a strength and peace into the ordinariness of my life?

To these sorts of questions, George Mallory famously quipped about his obsession with summiting Everest, “Because it is there.”

The reasons I give shift over time and can’t be pinned down. Perhaps I simply don’t know why.

Walking to the helipad below. My face is swollen from fluid.
Walking to the helipad below. My face is swollen from fluid retention.

As I slowly recovered in Mendoza’s vineyards at the foothills of the Andes, I was surprised and a little amused that with the end of the adventure I sought in Argentina, I was thrust into a new one. But certainly not the kind to write books about or to develop an awe-filled following. It’s way more internal and private.

I know I’ll return to the wild and unknown one day; that’s a given. The brute strength, the grit, the confidence and determination and the hopeful attitude it takes to reach any summit, are skills I already possess.

In this case, I’d venture to add I picked up a new one – a demure graciousness that allowed me to decline the invitation to my Totentanz.

Recovering with friends in Patagonia.

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. Thank you, Alison, for your words! These inspired me today as I slowly but surely get back into shape after covid-19:
    “I know I’ll return to the wild and unknown one day; that’s a given. The brute strength, the grit, the confidence and determination and the hopeful attitude it takes to reach any summit, are skills I already possess.” 💕

    1. thank you, Cathy!! I tackle with ‘summit fever’ even as I rehabilitate and need to listen to my body, not my mind! Good luck getting fit. Step-by-step…🐥 You’ve got this!!

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