Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I Will Never Understand Us

My best friend is waiting to hear if she has breast cancer.

In the last few months, people very dear to me have been forced to stare down their own mortality. Heart attacks. Heart valves. Neonatal units. Rehabilitation centers.

Every six months I have to record magnetic images of my brain to count the holes forming among the lobes. All I can think of as I am slid into the MRI machine is, "This is probably what a coffin feels like." Which is why I will someday be cremated.

Life is scary. And dangerous. And random. And fragile.

So why do we humans insist on doing things that threaten our tenuous grasp on life? I will never understand that.

In 1997, I read Jon Krakauer's book detailing what was--at the time--the most deadly climbing season on the Earth's tallest mountain. At 29,029 feet, the summit of Everest reaches as high into the stratosphere as a commercial airliner. Reading that book was the catalyst to my ongoing Everest fascination. I have memorized posters detailing the routes up the mountain. I have read books, watched documentaries, attended lectures. All because I just want to understand.

I do not possess even the slightest desire to climb Everest, although I would someday like to see it, if only from a distance. The story of Everest is a fascinating one. The history is the stuff of Arthurian legend. But that is not where my fixation is rooted.

I will never understand why someone would risk everything they are, everything they have, everything they hope to be to stand on a 3 foot by 3 foot square piece of rock that cuts into the sky.

I don't get people. I don't get this impulse. But not for lack of trying to understand.

Straddling the border between Tibet and China, Everest is the elder statesman of the Himalayas. And until 1953, that mountain bested every attempt to climb her. Then New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stepped onto her summit.

That climb I understand. There had been several attempts on Everest before Hillary and Norgay conquered it.

Aside--Neither Hillary or Norgay ever disclosed who actually was the first one of them to step into that last foot of the 29,029 they had taken. They knew that it was only by combining efforts that they could reach such heights. I have to wonder... Would that level of nobility and teamwork have been possible today? Or are we now living in a world where the first to post a photo to Instagram wins?

In 1924, an attempt on the summit was made by British climber George Mallory. Mallory will live forever in our lexicon because of his answer to a reporter's question about why he was going to climb Everest.

In response, he famously quipped, "Because it's there."

Indeed it was. It still is.

Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were last seen from a Base Camp telescope, about 800 feet from the summit. Mallory's body was discovered on the mountain in 1999.

I think I understand Mallory, Hillary, and Norgay in the same way that I understand Armstrong and Aldrin. We went to the moon because it was there.

But I just can't wrap my admittedly mottled brain around why humans are still climbing Everest today.

These days, for the sum of the average middle class annual income, you can pay to be guided to the summit. You will be shepherded up the southeast ridge, hooking your climbing line into ropes that have been fixed by Sherpas prior to your arrival. You are lead over aluminum ladders pre-placed over great cracks in the icefall. Your Sherpa will haul your tent, your gear, your supplemental oxygen as he climbs by your side up the steep rock faces and through the dangerous, hovering seracs.

These days, you can buy your way to the top. But even though you have parted with $50,000 and have taken two months from your work and your family, you still have no guarantee that you will make it to the top. And even if you do, there is certainly no guarantee that you will get back down. At least not before you sacrifice a couple toes to frostbite.

I know that the adrenalin rush is real. That is why we bungee jump or sky dive, or SCUBA deep into sinkholes. I know that there is no feeling quite like conquering your fears. I know that there is a power in belonging to an elite group of people that share a common experience. I understand that. I get it.

But here is where you lose me. Doesn't the brotherhood of Everest survivors become diluted with the growing foothold of Everest tourism? Has a novice climber, who was pulled up the mountain, truly earned his way into that fraternity?

Everest has been conquered. At this point, the summiting of Everest has become--if not quite routine--within the grasp of a mere mortal, given enough disposable income and free time. Over 3,000 summits have been recorded. And more than 250 deaths. The number of dead Everest climbers is greater than the number of summits of Everest's sister mountain, K2. That peak, reaching 28, 251 feet, has claimed 55 climbers. Are those K2 expeditions not somehow more noble than the guided tours up Everest?

And then there is Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan. That 24,836 peak has yet to record a successful summit attempt. Isn't that mountain the embodiment of "because it's there"?

I just don't get it.

Aside--I am perfectly aware that there are similar risks in other extreme pursuits. In 2004, technical diver Dave Shaw became one of 11 people to have reached depths of 800 feet using SCUBA gear. In 2005, he died at that depth in Bushman's Hole, South Africa while trying to recover the body of another diver who died trying to reach that depth. But for reasons I haven't quite defined, I don't feel the same puzzlement about these divers. Perhaps only because the deaths from these adventures go relatively unnoticed and therefore not sought after by those seeking no more than bragging rights?

For the last 15-some-odd years, I have been following the annual May pilgrimage up the face of Everest, noting the success-to-death ratio. It isn't morbid curiosity. Or, at least it's not only morbid curiosity. I just keep trying to understand this amazingly human--and oft-amazingly stupid--quest.

There is a line of demarcation marking the breathable (although painfully thin) air below 8,000 feet above sea level and the deathly lack of oxygen beginning at 8,001 feet. They call it the Death Zone. Nothing living exists there. At least not for long. No birds. No insects. Not even vegetation. The longer you are in the Death Zone, the greater your odds of remaining there forever. Because, as it turns out, getting up above 8,000 feet is the easy part. Coming down from that height alive is where most of the danger is found.

And if you do suffocate or freeze or fall into a crevasse at that altitude, your body will lay there for all eternity. The air is too thin to allow a helicopter to maintain flight. No one will risk their own life in the Death Zone to bring down your lifeless body.

I don't understand it. To reach the summit of Everest, you very literally have to step over the bodies of fallen climbers.

Take Green Boots, for example.

Green Boots is a nickname given to the unidentified corpse of a climber that died curled up in a slight alcove that had been eroded into the mountain. Since his discovery in 1996, Green Boots has become not so much as a cautionary tale, but a mere trail marker on the path up Everest. Climbers trudge past his frozen body both on the way up and on the way back down from the summit.

Of the more than 250 Everest casualties, approximately 200 of their bodies are still up on Everest.

I just don't understand it.

Since I first started to learn about how the desires to climb Everest can overpower caring about the dangers involved in that act, I have thought that urge to be not-just-a-little crazy. But since last spring, I have realized that it is also not-just-a little selfish.

2014 was--to that point--the most deadly year in the history of the mountain. In an avalanche, 16 Sherpa guides were killed. Here is why I find that is so troubling. These Sherpas are not men that have giant bonus checks or can take work sabbaticals. These are the workers that are risking their lives to make going up the mountain more attainable for the people actually on sabbatical.

And these Sherpas earn only a tiny percentage of the fee a client pays to be guided up Everest.

But this year's climbing season has already dethroned 2014's Deadliest Year title. The devastating earthquake in Nepal triggered violent avalanches that swept through the camps of the climbers. So far, 18 climbers have been confirmed dead. Between 20 to 30 more are missing. And dozens have been injured.

This is the selfishness I mentioned before. Because, now, these climbers who, very deliberately, put their lives in danger are using valuable time and resources being rescued. While there are still victims buried under a crumbled brick temple or flattened schools and shops. The climbers on Everest are not victims. At least not in the sense of the people of Kathmandu, who are being pulled from
the rubble. The climbers aren't victims, they are volunteers.

I think that part of the social contract that should be agreed to before anyone straps crampons to their hiking boots is that they waive the right to be rescued. Climbers need to agree not endanger another person who risks his own life to extract that climber from a situation that they very purposefully put themselves in.

I just don't understand people.

Isn't life dangerous enough? What are we trying to prove? And to whom are we trying to prove it? Can anyone explain this to me? Please?


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Something or Nothing

I have got to quit watching the news. It has become an exercise in frustration. For that matter, I need to stay off Twitter too. I have to make myself stop checking the trending #Blackfish tweets. I have to accept that I can't free the orcas. I can't make Israel deal with Iran. I can't prevent tornadoes in the Midwest and I can't keep Chris Christie from tossing his extra large girth into the next Presidential election.

But two news items--running in strangely parallel tracks in my (admittedly perforated) brain--are occupying more that a fair share of my thoughts today.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Michael Slager are both facing the death penalty. The Boston marathon murderer and the cop that shot Walter Scott in the back eight times might both be on that Green Mile in the very near future.

I can't think of another issue that I feel so equally passionate as I do impotent. But we need to stop allowing our government to kill its citizens. You know what other countries have the death penalty? China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. Aren't we in good company?

Aside--To those people who claim that they are restricting women's rights in the name of the sanctity of life, you better drag your ass out to protest the next government-sanctioned execution in your state. Because a life is a life, no matter how small. Right? Isn't that what you keep screaming in front of woman's health clinics?

Now, hear me out on this one. Let's knock out a couple of the common arguments for those that support executing the worst criminals.

Logistics: It costs the government exponentially more money to shepherd a felon through the appellate process than to house him for life. And speaking of him, capital punishment application has huge disparities when it comes to race or gender. If you are a black man who kills a white woman, you can count on a death sentence.

And then there is the lethal cocktail of drugs that are used to end a convicted felon's life. They must be concocted by compound pharmacies. These drugs do not exist in a single shot or pill. They must be brewed up from a combination of drugs invented to serve other purposes. Invented to benefit humans. Not to kill them. And as it turns out, these compound pharmacies are no longer eager to serve as the mixologists to the prison wardens. We are, very literally, running out of lethal injections. It's back to firing squads and electric chairs. Personally, I think we should return to the days of public hangings. I think we should all have to see what we, as a society, can do.

Ethics: Studies show that the long legal battles granted to a death row inmate will, very likely, extend the suffering and grief of the victim's family. And many families report that, after witnessing the execution of the felon that victimized them, they do not find the immediate peace or closure that they anticipated.

Study after study have also confirmed that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. In one survey published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reported that 88% of criminologists do not believe that capital punishment serves as any form of disincentive. So once again, I am pleased to report that George W. Bush was wrong again. The death penalty does not save lives.

I think the death penalty is only a few steps beyond catching a child hitting his sister and spanking him while you are telling him not to hit.

Mistakes: It must be the very definition of hubris to think that our legal system makes no mistakes. We have, in fact, executed men who were later exonerated. Since the early 1970s, more than 150 people have proven their innocence and were released from death row. Our justice system--while being the best in the world--is still susceptible to the very human condition of occasionally making mistakes. Mistakes happen. But should we, as a country, be meting out punishments that we cannot undo or make right?

And none of those things are why I am against the death penalty. It's because of this:

There are only two things that can happen to us when we die. There are only two things that can happen to the criminal after we execute him. Only two. It's a binary state. Only one of two things can ever happen.

Something or nothing.

Maybe something happens to us when we die. Maybe some form of a soul or spirit can leave this world and move on. To whatever on that might be. Maybe all of our energy floats away into the stratosphere and we dance in the stardust until what's next. If that is the case, why are we so eager to release the souls of forces that do humans so much harm? What is the rush to grant them release?

Maybe we have a soul that gets measured and judged based on what we do as we occupy our earthly bodies. Maybe those people who irreversibly harm other people will be plunged into an eternally fiery pit. Here's the thing about eternity. Eternity minus 50 years is still--magically--eternity. So what is the harm of letting a murderer sit in a prison cell until he dies from some reason other than a lethal injection.  Let him sit on his metal toilet, thinking about what he has done, until he is an old man.

Maybe nothing happens after we die. Maybe we are just gone. And if that's the case, are we not cheating victims, families, and society of the knowledge that the perpetrator that caused us harm has been spared the remaining years of his punishment?

Tsarnaev and Slager are both monsters, in their own ways. But what will we serve by executing them other than a fleeting feeling of vengeance. Are we really that small?