As I turned 60 years of age on Tuesday, I was gladdened to read the following:
MARCH 31, 2010, 9:00 PM
Everyman on Everest
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
mount everest, mountaineering, seven summits
John Rudolf on Mount McKinley in 2008.
SEATTLE — My friend John Rudolf left for Mount Everest on Monday, off to clamber up toward the roof the world at an age, 62, when some people have trouble getting out of bed in the morning — or at least finding a motivation to greet the dawn.
He’s in great shape, full of the kind of energy that could keep a poker game going at 3:00 a.m., and I’m convinced if weather, luck and logistics are on his side, John Rudolf will join a very small club of people who have climbed the highest point on each of the seven continents. For him, Everest is the last one left on this most rarified of bucket lists.
Oh, and he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer as well, though at this point it’s in a wait-and-watch stage.
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning like that character in the Kafka novel ['Metamorphosis'], I look at myself and say, ‘How did I get old?’” he said. “Because I don’t feel like that guy.”
He is a divorced father of two grown children, a money manager with his own firm here in Seattle, who is most happy when pedaling his bike over the braid of roads at the punishing waist line of Mount Rainier. He describes himself, athletically, as “an average guy” who is as tough as a goat gnawing on a salad of tin.
I’ve known Rudolf for a long time. Our families are close, with shared interests in sports, argument and the outdoors. I spent a morning with him just before he left, putting on my journalist’s hat for the first time in our relationship. I came away in awe — and mystified at his motive.
Certainly, there’s a Walter Mitty quality to his quest. Who doesn’t dream, while feigning interest in price-to-earning ratios, of standing in the company of alpine gods like Reinhold Messner?
No doubt he also hears “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” to quote the poet, but he denies being in the grip of any kind of midlife crisis, and I believe him.
He’s gone out of his way to make this vertical challenge less about him, donating large sums of money and dedicating the climbs to four worthy causes, which you can find on his blog.
Still, none of this adequately answers the question — why? — to which George Leigh Mallory, having grown tired of struggling to find the words, famously snapped: “Because it’s there!”
At the beginning of Jon Krakauer’s book about the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest, “Into Thin Air,” which is all the more extraordinary on a second read, he quotes the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset:
“Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world.”
Rudolf says he never had a late middle-aged plan to top the tallest mountains. But after climbing Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America and Elbrus in Europe, and gaining confidence with each peak, he started to think he could follow the Seven Summit goal first articulated by Dick Bass, another businessman who traded his loafers for climbing boots.
Ascending Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the Alaskan giant that is the highest peak in North America, Rudolf walked past a dead man on the summit — someone from another expedition who had collapsed on the top the day before.
While biking in the Pyrenees just a few years ago, following the Tour de France route of his hero Lance Armstrong, Rudolf took a high-velocity fall from his bike and shattered his shoulder, which gives him a bit of a slump to this day.
On Vinson Massif, at 16,000-plus feet the high point of Antarctica, Rudolf thought his body would never warm, wrapped in the constant chill of 40-below-zero, the most inhospitable place on earth.
Risk, by its nature, enhances life.
And in about month or more, he will face the two biggest obstacles that stand between him and the 29,028-foot apex of Everest. One is the Khumbu Icefall, a jumble of groaning, splitting frozen slabs, many of them bigger than a suburban house. Entering the maze of the Khumbu, which guards the entrance to higher country, is a kind of Russian roulette, Krakauer noted. The other is trying to stay alive in the Death Zone — that troposphere air above 25,000 feet, where the body breaks down and the mind is mush from trying to breath air with one-third of the oxygen at sea level.
All this is, as the philosopher says, is playing at tragedy. But I’ve known enough mountains and mountaineers that I understand the playing. Risk, by its nature, enhances life. That’s the allure of danger — walk up to the edge, take a deep inhalation, and walk away in triumph.
Most of us will never find a cure to cancer, or broker a Mideast peace deal, or even grow a truly great tomato. But, as John Rudolf says, he can put one foot ahead of the other, gutting it out, grinding ever-upward, even as he qualifies for early Social Security.
If he stands under cobalt blue sky on the frozen perch of Everest in mid-May, he will be one of about 110 people to make all seven summits. Death is not something he worries about.
“If your time is up,” he says, “death will get you wherever you are.”
At the end of our chat, I walked outside with him in the bracing Seattle spring, thinking of the days ahead when he would not see anything green or blossoming, nor draw a bath or get into a fluffy bed. I gave him a hug. “I want to see you alive,” I said. “I don’t care if you make the summit.”
“Neither do I.”
“To summit is optional,” he said, paraphrasing the mountaineer Ed Viesturs, “to get back down is mandatory.” And, again, I chose to believe him.