In 1953, young Art Gilkey lay dying on K2 at 25,500 feet. The climbers were pinned down by a blizzard for days as he continued to deteriorate. High altitude evacuations are impossible. The afflicted would die and the rescuers would die trying. The harsh but accepted truth in mountaineering is that in such cases, you make them as comfortable as you can, and then save yourself. But this team was different and discussed only one option – getting Art down. Not once did anyone suggest abandoning him. The consensus was that must act immediately. If they waited for the storm to break, Art would be dead. Making a crude stretcher from a tent and poles, they began their slow descent into the howling storm.
On March 15, 2012, an F3 tornado packing 135mph winds struck my hometown of Dexter, MI destroying homes and severely damaging scores more. Nobody was killed or injured, but the destruction was apocalyptic. Shock quickly turned to selflessness as donations poured in, citizens cleared the myriad of fallen trees and debris in yards and roads, the middle school turned into a shelter, and neighbors checked on neighbors. We still talk about the tornado from time to time. When we do, it’s not to relive the destruction, mayhem, and fear, but rather to rekindle the feel of that solidarity we experienced in the aftermath.
By 1953, there had been four unsuccessful attempts to climb peak #2 in the Karakoram Range, “K2” for short. The last attempt in 1939 came within 700 feet of the summit before turning back. American physician, Charles Houston, was now attempting the world’s second highest peak in a revolutionary lightweight style that would later become known as Alpine Style. They would have no support but themselves.
I live in a time and place where nothing dangerous, besides that tornado, ever happens. I find myself daydreaming of being suddenly thrust into great movie moments – Braveheart, Band of Brothers, The Magnificent Seven, Stand By Me, ET, and hell, even Minions – where a band of us face insurmountable odds discovering unknown reserves of unity, courage, and selflessness. The sheer mind-numbing predictability and comfort of American life leaves me yearning for an epic adventure where self-importance is obliterated in the self-indifferent responsibility we take for each other.
In a world where I probably won’t even come across a cat stuck in a tree, there are questions that haunt me: How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you harden and mature in a world that doesn’t require courage? But even living in this time where everybody gets a participation trophy, I believe humans don’t mind hardship. In fact, we thrive on it. In difficulty and sacrifice is where we discover what it really means to be authentically and completely human. We embrace and are embraced without judgment. But the reality I live in is just the opposite. Our disorders and flaws, that fuel the engine of daily stress, are largely driven by a sense of insignificance (and what people do to compensate). And modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not needed.
Aware that personality clashes among team members had undermined other expeditions, Houston chose climbers known for their compatibility and selflessness over individual brilliance and bravado. The chosen team of eight included Pete Schoening, the youngest at 25, and Art Gilkey. Experienced and skilled climbers were controversially not considered because Houston believed they would not integrate with the others. Solidarity was chief among Houston’s core values.
There was a troubling phenomenon at one point in our modern industrialized country: White settlers were emigrating from their “civilized” culture to the tribal culture of the resident Native Americans. Writing to a friend in 1753, Ben Franklin said, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, [yet] if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
That makes sense, but then referring to rescued white captives Franklin continues, “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
The team flew to Skardu, Pakistan and made the four-week trek up to the Baltoro Glacier, the base of K2. Over the next 6 weeks, the unsupported climbers made repeated trips up and down the mountain stocking the eight camps they would use in their assault. Once Camp VIII was established, they were ready to make the final push for the 28,251 foot summit.
Women in tribal life had far more autonomy and sexual freedom – and bore fewer children – than women in white society. “Here I have no master,” an anonymous colonial woman explains about her life with the Indians. “I am the equal of all the women in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone’s saying anything about it, I work only for myself, I shall marry if I wish and be unmarried again when I wish. Is there a single woman as independent as I in your cities?”
The weather had deteriorated and a severe storm broke. Isolated as they were at 25,500 feet, the team remained upbeat as the gales and snow beat on their tents. On the fourth night, a tent collapsed forcing the team to crowd into the remaining tents. A week later, with swindling supplies and the weather showing no signs of letting up, they discussed descending.
What was it about tribal life that was so appealing? Frenchman Hector de Crèvecoeur observes in 1782, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” Crèvecoeur noted that it was the communal spirit of the Native Americans which held an appeal that far out-weighed the affluent benefits of White society.
The next day the weather improved, but any thoughts of the summit were obliterated when Art Gilkey collapsed. Dr Houston diagnosed him as suffering from thrombophlebitis – blood clots in his legs. His condition would be dangerous enough at sea level, fatal at 25,500 feet. The whole team now focused on a desperate attempt to save Gilkey.
White society consists of class divisions based on wealth and influence whereas Native American society operated by consensus. Individual power was earned and not seized. Personal wealth was not a concept. Travel by horseback or foot limited a person’s property to whatever could be carried making large inequities of wealth a non-reality. Instead of privilege, social standing was achieved through hunting and war which every man had access to. It was a society where everyone needed each other in some way and so preservation of the tribe was the most sacred duty for each person, ahead of their own interests.
Even though there was little or no help in saving him, there was never any discussion of abandoning him. To make things worse, there was now a certainty of avalanches created by the added snow. And even worse yet, the storm suddenly renewed its fury preventing any retreat. The team remained with Gilkey at Camp VIII to wait out the storm.
The really disturbing question isn’t why Native American society was so appealing, but rather, why was Western society so unappealing. It is clearly more comfortable and sheltered from the hardships of the natural world. But the fact is, as a society increases in wealth it requires more, and not less, time and commitment by the person. Individual choices are turned to self-advancement and diminish group efforts toward the common good. Individuality is encouraged and promoted but with the unfortunate result that a person can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.
Gilkey now showed signs of pulmonary embolism – a blood clot in his lungs. The situation was dire. No help was coming. Decisions had to be made. In spite of the continuing blizzard and the certainty of avalanche, the team unanimously decided to immediately descend if there was going to be any chance to save their companion. With a makeshift stretcher of canvas, poles and ropes, the men pulled and lowered Gilkey all day in the raging weather to an ice slope that could be traversed to Camp VII at 24,500 feet.
The evidence that “civilized” life is hard on us is overwhelming. A report in the Oxford Journals tells us, “People for whom ‘extrinsic goals’ such as fame, fortune, and glamour are a priority in life experience more anxiety and depression and lower overall well-being than people oriented towards ‘intrinsic goals’ of close relationships, self-knowledge and personal growth, and contributing to the community.” Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
The World Health Organization reports that affluent countries suffer depression as much as eight times the rate as poorer countries. Countries like the United States, with large disparities in income have a higher risk of developing severe mood disorders.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400 percent in the last two decades; making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. They also reported that suicide rates, among Americans ages 35–64 years, increased 28.4 percent in the last decade.
In yet another study published in May 2013, the CDC reports, “A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.” In other words, we’re all feeling the very real pressure to “measure up,” to unrealistic and unrewarding standards, especially in regards to our children.
The climbers began the traverse and disaster immediately struck. A top climber slipped and his rope flossed off five other climbers along with Gilkey below him. The tangled mess of men and ropes were tumbling down the 2,000-foot slope toward the Godwin-Austen Glacier. Pete Schoening, the youngest, heard the fall in the wind and without even looking quickly wrapped the rope around his ice axe and jammed the spike behind a rock levering the head of the axe with his arms. They had already fallen 300-feet gaining tremendous speed and momentum. The slack quickly paid out and the weight hit Schoening.
Self-Determination Theory tells us humans need to feel three basic things for contentment: 1) competency at what they do, 2) authenticity in their lives, and 3) connection to others. “Intrinsic” values such as these satiate the human spirit whereas “extrinsic” values such as wealth, glamour, and influence leave it deprived, always needing something more.
Schoening strained against the weight, the rope stretched but held. The men were saved by Shoening’s miracle belay. They recovered, untangled themselves, and made their way to the tents at Camp VII. Gilkey was anchored to the ice slope as the exhausted climbers prepared camp. When they returned to bring him to the tent, they found no sign of Gilkey. An abrasion in the fresh snow showed an avalanche had come through and possibly swept him away.
Our culture emphasizes extrinsic over intrinsic. As a result, we struggle. Those of us who are not affluent struggle to become so because we’re programmed to think wealth and privilege is the answer. Those of us who are affluent, often struggle with the very basic need of authentic relationships. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from the community is leading a privileged, but isolated life that falls way outside more than a million years of human development.
Some suggest that Gilkey’s death, while tragic, undoubtedly saved the lives of the rest of the team, who were now free to concentrate on their own survival. Tough Pete Schoening always believed they could have saved him. Still others suggest that Gilkey might have intentionally worked himself loose from the mountainside to save the life of his companions. Houston initially disagreed with this idea but in reviewing the events for a 2003 documentary on the expedition, became convinced Gilkey had indeed ended his own life for the sake of the team.
A couple of months ago I was with a group backpacking Isle Royale. In another post, I told the story of when it came time to take the ferry back to Copper Harbor, the captain announced Lake Superior was too rough and he wouldn’t be sailing. We were stranded on the island with no provisions. Complete strangers suddenly banded together and looked after each other. While it wasn’t exactly Into Thin Air, that extra 24 hours on the island took on the feel of a miracle because, like the Dexter tornado, we experienced the solidarity of taking responsibility for each other and were surprised by the organic and unexpected hope it brought. And also like the tornado, when we talk about that trip, we talk about that extra 24 hours when everything and everyone suddenly came alive.
On the night of May 14, 2006, climbers on Mt Everest were shocked to find another climber frozen but still alive. The unresponsive climber had spent the night high on Mt Everest. Believing there was nothing they could do, they moved on. More than thirty climbers passed the stricken on their way up to the summit and then again on the way back down. Two Sherpas stopped to see if they could get him down. One problem of high altitude rescue is that the oxygen depletion is the equivalent of making everything four times heavier, not to mention the terrain and elements. It took the two Sherpas thirty minutes to move him four steps. They too, were forced to abandon him. He died. The brutal reality is that there is nothing anyone could do to save him.
Edmund Hillary, who was the first to summit Everest in 1953, the same year Art Gilkey disappeared on K2, thinks differently. Hearing of the 2006 incident on Everest, he responded angrily, “The welfare of a stricken climber is paramount.” He was appalled that nobody took responsibility for the fallen man even at their own peril. That’s what he would have done. But then again, he is of the same generation and mentality as Charles Houston’s team. Preservation of the tribe is the most sacred duty.
Like the other climbers, I would have left the fallen climber on Everest. I can’t pretend the high road here. You see, like a lot of people, I have been conditioned to hold self-preservation (and self-advancement) above all other values. Houston would not have wanted me for his team. I really want to change that. Maybe you too. Today, regardless of how we excuse and justify our personal interests and overall self-ishness, it still leaves us wanting, searching for the next big thing, daydreaming of big moments when we’re pitted together against insurmountable odds. Because when it really comes down to it, down deep underneath all the layers, we really need each other and we really need to be needed.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved with mankind.
– John Donne 1623
PS. As always, thanks for hanging out with me a little while here. The thoughts I put down here were first stirred by Sebastion Junger’s short book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.