1984: There’s a storm. Three climbers do not return. The team waits, watches and searches. Nobody could survive this long up there. Hope starves and dies. The vigil ends. Before leaving, they climb up and leave a pack with pitons, screws, food, and ropes. An offering to the dead.
A Ripple Effect is a situation in which, like ripples expand across the water when an object is dropped into it, an effect from an initial state is followed outwards incrementally. Aerosmith sings it like this:
“I know nobody knows
Where it comes and where it goes”
1987: The Merkl Gully on the Rupal Face is where it all began to come apart. Screwed at 24,000 feet, but they didn’t know it yet and kept going. Mark leads. The 60 to 90 degree slope is a funnel for avalanche, rockfall, and death which is why it had never been climbed. Axes bounce off hardened snow and ice. Crampons won’t bite. It’s
Russian Roulette with one empty chamber. Mark loses his mind and gives the lead to Barry. Kevin follows and then Ward struggles along wracked with pulmonary edema, altitude sickness.
Heads down and working hard, nobody sees the storm come in until a spindrift avalanche pummels Mark back down to the belay. They look up into the tempest. Snow has piled up above them and is releasing in increasingly heavy falls like an overflowing bathtub. Here at 25,800 feet on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, only 1,000 feet from the summit, they start their descent. Barry and Kevin try to dig a snow cave but the avalanches flush it away.
Ward is dying, has been dying, knows he’s dying and fights to keep his soul from leaving his body. His failing lungs can’t keep up with exertion of fighting off the
now waist deep avalanches. Mark shouts over the storm that they need to get Ward down now. Barry shouts that they need to drop to the Merkl’s overhangs to get out of danger. Seven rappels should get them there.
Halfway down the second rappel an avalanche flips Mark over. He hangs on. Nobody can see more than forty feet now – one fourth of a rope length. At the end of the third rappel several tons of snow hit them like a like a falling Zamboni knocking them off the wall. Somehow their anchor holds.
The avalanche passes. Mark looks down on Ward. His face is streaked with snot and his eyes frozen shut. “I was just going to unclip and get it over with,” he flatly explains. They encourage him and he doesn’t unclip. But in the next rappel Ward’s head bounces off the ice. “I can’t breathe” he croaks. There is nothing they can do. They press on.
Sometime in the 1950’s meteorologist Edward Lorenz becomes irritated at the failure of mathematics to accurately predict weather patterns. He rolls up his weathered sleeves to find out why. What he discovers is that when using rounded numbers, the weather models fail to match what actually happens. Reality wasn’t cooperating with theory. Then he discovers when the numbers were left unrounded, Voila! theory and reality go out together for a night on the town and Chaos Theory is conceived. Small changes in an initial state create big changes in a later state.
Hours later they are out of the death gully and onto the Merkl Icefield at 23,000 feet with its protective overhang. A ledge is hacked out of the ice. Ward is hypothermic. Mark tends to Ward. Barry and Kevin tend to ropes. Catastrophe strikes. Barry shouts into the storm to Kevin 150 feet away, “I’m letting go of the ropes!” Kevin shouts back, “OK. I let go!” They watch their only two ropes, their lifelines, go writhing into the storm and disappear.
Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain at 26,660 feet. On the south side is the Rupal Face, a 15,000 foot wall, the largest in the world. Stranded at 23,000 feet on Nanga Parbat is bad. Stranded without ropes at 12K of a 15K wall on Nanga Parbat is really, really bad. You’re already dead. Just going through the motions of being alive.
In Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect is the sensitive dependence a big effect has from a small cause. The name is coined from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings weeks earlier. It is used to explain the vulnerability and instability of large, complicated systems such as weather. Since it’s conception, it has successfully explained a lot of stuff. And as everybody’s favorite Chaotician, Dr. Ian Malcolm, loves to say “Boy, do I hate being right all the time.”
They dig a snow cave. Morning comes and the storm leaves. The last of their food was eaten yesterday morning. Cocky alpine style climbers will run it tight like that. They were supposed to be impressing girls with their stories in a bar right about now. Mark decides to climb around in hopes of maybe finding some old fixed ropes. What’s the difference? he thinks. Die falling or die freezing. Dead is dead. He stumbles onto a tattered old pack clipped to a piton. What the hell? Inside are 60 pitons, a dozen ice screws, chocolate bars, and two unused 50-meter ropes. An offering from the dead. They are back in base camp the next day. When later asked about Nanga Parbat, Barry says, “It was like having sex with death.”
1987, two months later: Barry and Mark are on Everest. Nanga Parbat was a warm up. It’s another maelstrom of disaster after disaster until Barry’s cerebral edema forces them down. The only other people who remain at Base Camp are three Japanese climbers. In conversation Mark learns the team leader, Tsuneo Hasegawa, had also been on Nanga Parbat several years ago. Three of his team members disappeared during a summit bid. They waited for days and efforts to find them failed. Before leaving, they left a pack with the necessary survival gear in a gully where their friends would be sure to find it if they were somehow still alive.
2004: I read this story and am deeply moved, but I don’t know why I am deeply moved. Inexplicably, I print it onto a table in Foggy Bottom, the coffee shop I am opening. I want to see it often. I pass by the table for twelve years each time with the feeling of a dork watching cool kids play basketball and the ball has just rolled over to me. I’m expected to do something, but what?
2016: I’m closing the shop and it is the last week. Jackie tells me a woman wants to talk to me. I walk up front where one of the regulars, Mary, is waiting. She tells me how her son didn’t speak for a long time as a child. He didn’t speak when he started school. Four years ago, in the second grade, he still isn’t speaking. You can imagine the anguish. And I don’t understand why mother Mary comes to me with this story.
She continues. His class is given the assignment to speak in front of the class. This is always brutal. He’s not going to speak. He never does. It’s awkward and everybody is embarrassed for him. But to everyone’s surprise, for the first time ever, he gets up in front of class and speaks. He tells a beautiful, moving story about Nanga Parbat in the Himalaya. He finishes speaking. No one in the room speaks. A pin drops. The teacher speaks, “Where did you get that story?”
Then he speaks again, “Foggy Bottom. It’s on a table.”
Now: Japanese climbers lost ⇒⇒ a pack is left ⇒⇒ four climbers saved ⇒⇒ the story is on a table ⇒⇒ a painfully shy boy reads the story and something clicks ⇒⇒ I post the story, now HIS story, and it gets 20,000+ views ⇒⇒ this blog sends it out to a couple dozen countries ⇒⇒ ???
I think about all this. My mind grinds like a rusty Rubik’s Cube trying to make sense of it. A few things click into place. An idea takes shape. I pick up the ball and throw it back to the cool kids. A new world opens up. The cube keeps shifting and a new metric for life begins to emerge. I think, maybe rich and/or famous isn’t the metric for significance. Maybe getting more is not the way to be more. Maybe how I impress others isn’t the cadence for life. Maybe how I impress myself (which is back door attempt to impress others) isn’t the beat of a different drummer I should follow in life. Maybe importance can’t be bought, achieved, or produced. Maybe life is just about being.
A hunch is sneaking up the back of my neck and working its way into my head that I’ve been rounding out the smaller, “insignificant” things for an easier, albeit inaccurate result. My theories haven’t produced reality. My actual life isn’t dependent upon my easy theoretical models for life. Life doesn’t give a shit about the lies I tell myself.
Maybe this is why self-help books remain so popular in spite of the fact they never help. They promote generalized, rounded off formulas, easy but truncated theories that like Lorenz’s weather models can’t possibly represent true causes for true effects.
And maybe this is why social media is so popular. I can post an incomplete model, a rounded off formula, a truncated theory of life without having to work out the messy and complicated details. I don’t have to be authentic because I can show you the theory of my life with its clean, rounded off numbers all neat and tidy. I can convince you that my pretend life is my actual life with the implication that you should feel like crapola for not having my life which isn’t really my life. Let’s be honest; there’s a part of us that would be utterly relieved if Facebook just went away and we go back to what they say on The Wire, “Either you real out there or you ain’t.”
Japanese team leader Tsuneo Hasegawa was killed in an avalanche in 1991, but the
story of that pack he left for his comrades is still growing. Mark Twight, whose book Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber, where I first read his story of survival, now runs a gym and has no clue as to the stir his story has caused around here 30 years later.
We have not a clue as to how our seemingly small, unseen actions ripple out into larger events. We keep our numbers rounded off to what we can comprehend. But the little things, good or bad, that you and I do aren’t just here today and gone tomorrow. One way or another it’s part of a bigger system. It’s life and it’s impossible to live it for yourself.
Like fractals, everything opens up into a next thing. Everything perpetuates what came before. And as amazing as that may seem in itself, it is in a great sweeping avalanche of startling clarity we understand that we have the power to influence what has been and what will be. We could really be the image of God after all. Maybe it’s not really chaos at all. Maybe it’s just having an awareness and sensitivity to the Larger Order of things.
If a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause a hurricane in Florida; well, what hurricanes will we leave in our wake? But, with a little intention, small things can also produce large wonderful systems. In fact, The Butterfly Effect tells us large outcomes are dependent on the small, insignificant events that would seemingly have no influence on a larger event.
But Cause and Effect aren’t just a couple of kids “workin’ on mysteries without any clues” then going their separate ways. Cause and Effect are the same thing. One grows into the other. Cause is pubescent Effect. Effect is Cause all hairy and grown up.
Listen, you and I know damn well by now a little kindness, empathy, compassion and (cringe) forgiveness will heal ourselves and our world. Think about how that could ripple out 30 years from now. You and I will never really know, but let’s get on with it. Be kind anyway. People not even born are counting on us for better things.Emerson puts it this way: The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
As I was getting ready to publish this post, my daughter was mentioned in a Facebook post. Her good friend Jeremy passed away a few years ago. It was heartbreaking for all of us. It still is. We can’t hardly talk about him without getting choked up. A few days ago was his birthday and friends were posting birthday memorials on his page.This one is from Katherine:
“Hey Jeremy. So today is your birthday… and I figured it would be a good day to share something with you. I was never able to tell you while you were here and I am sorry for that. I am posting this here and now so that others can see what you have done for me.
When I moved back to Dexter, I was so excited to be back with my old friends and with the people I had grown up with. I was heart-broken when I moved away in middle school and had always wanted to make it back to Dexter so when I did, I was elated.
However, after 4 years everything had changed. My old friends had moved on and I no longer spoke to them, I had no one. I would go through the day without talking to a single person. I’d get home, go to bed and start the same routine all over again the next day. I’d even eat lunch in the bathrooms because I had felt too embarrassed to eat alone in the cafeteria.
I fell into a very deep depression. That was about when you and Candice started talking to me. It was in biology, first or second period, I believe. The fun and cheery conversations we had over the year helped get me through the days.
I never shared with you guys the struggle I had been going through, the thoughts of suicide that circled in my mind all too often during that time, but I wanted to tell you now, that if it weren’t for you and her, I am not so sure I’d be here today. Thank you for being a good friend to me during one of my darkest times.”
True life is lived when tiny changes occur. – Leo Tolstoy
If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is. – Dr. Ian Malcolm
Thanks again for reading.