The Courage to Climb

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

We're coming into climbing season now. Brave souls, somehow driven to the tops of the world, are just now planning the final stages of their expeditions, some of them already in the lowlands of the Himalayas, acclimating to the thin air.

I have on occasion compared the long distance swims I did to mountain climbing, especially in a cultural, historical context. Tribal people have lived at the base of mountains, as well as on the shores of lakes, rivers, and oceans since the beginning of mankind. Just as one man would eventually look up at the mountain he's seen towering above all his life and wonder if he could make it to the top, one man would eventually stare across that familiar lake and wonder if he could swim to the distant shore. Once one man made it to the summit of that mountain, the next wondered if he could make it up faster. Same with the lake. And people have been summiting the Earth's peaks, stroking across its waters forever more.

There are further connections between mountain climbing and marathon swimming. There's the literal immersion in unforgiving elements. It might be the 48o chill of the North Sea or the 60o-below breathless altitude on the final ascent of K2. In both endeavors, there is the inevitable waxing and waning of physical well-being, accompanied by commensurate dips and swells of clarity and motivation. You've been swimming, non-stop, for two days. Battling 5-foot white caps. Under the sun, under the moon. The sun again. Again the moon. You've lost more than 20 pounds in only two days. Your tongue and lips are swollen twice the size from salt water exposure. You forget why you wanted to do this crazy thing in the first place. You picture yourself cuddled in a warm, toasty blanket, safe on the boat deck, motoring across the sea that you could in fact have crossed with the power of your own will. A surge of courage wells in your heart and you choose to forge on to the other shore. Or you've been climbing for ten days, each step becoming more labored as you gasp through thinner and thinner layers of oxygen. Your 60-pound pack feels like a hundred. Your nausea has crescendoed to the point that you have to talk yourself into eating at least tiny bites of jerky to maintain your strength. Winds of 50 miles per hour come up and you use every ounce of energy left in your body to pitch a low tent. Once in the supine position, you grasp your teammate for body heat, you tell him you're heading down toward base camp come sunrise. But sunrise comes and your commitment pushes you up the mountain, not down. You press on.

Then there's the quiet kinship with the unadulterated Earth that is the ocean... and the mountain. In both cases, you're not so much conquering Mother Nature as becoming one with her.

But for all these connections between us ocean swimmers and you mountain climbers, there's at least one aspect that swimmers don't experience. And that's the risk of death. I've just finished reading climber extraordinaire Arlene Blum's book, Breaking Trail, about her lifelong pursuit of dangerous summits. She writes poetically of the mystery and grandeur at 29,000 feet. She describes standing in blinding sunshine, looking down an 8000-foot crevasse, wide-eyed to witness a thick pocket of black clouds way below. She's seeing a raging storm, lightning flashing like a Vegas show. And she's nearly two miles above it all, in a false paradise that actually claims many of the souls who try to reach the stars and get that far up the mountain.

Actually, I'll be having a conversation with Arlene Blum on next Tuesday's Politics of Culture here on KCRW. That's at 2:30. I'm so looking forward to it. And now that I've read of the fatalities that inevitably transpire on these extreme expeditions, I'll make sure not to draw any comparisons to my time stroking across the Earth's oceans.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad