“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
― William Shakespear
I almost fucked up last weekend. Big Time.
I took 4 young lads (21) to climb Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak. A week before the hike, on the same mountain, one son saw his father die before his own eyes as he slipped and fell to the rocks, crushing his skull. The mountain is no joke, it kills people yearly.
I had been in the mountain many times before, but this was my first expedition as the main guide. It’s not the same to follow than to be in charge. Especially when being ‘in charge’ involves being responsible for lives. Me and my partner, we planned everything. From nutrition to the perfect logistics. But if there is something that I’ve learned in the mountains and other adventure trips, is that things will most likely not go according to plan. You have to get good at improvising. So improvise I did when I learned that we didn’t have radios nor GPS for the climb, the rental guy didn’t have any to lend. If you’re thinking about climbing a big mountain, trust me here, do not go without them.
Stress and guiding go hand in hand. That’s one of the reasons they’re paying you for, to be the provider of calm, even when you’re dying inside.
So, we didn’t have radios nor GPS. ‘No big deal’, I thought. ‘There’s plenty of people in the mountain, plus, my supporting guide knows the mountain quite well, plus, these guys look really strong, everything should be good!’.
We woke up at 12:00 AM. I did not sleep at all. I was excited however and was happy to begin the job. We had a light breakfast that consisted of toasts with peanut butter and tea (we forgot the oatmeal). I double-checked everyone’s equipment one last time and yelled: ‘Crampons? On! Trekking Poles? Good! Warmers? Good! Ice Axe? Good! All set then, let’s go!’
We climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and climbed with the little light the moon provided alongside our headlamps. Eventually, we reached the 1k long glacier. We were all tired, but still doing pretty good. Just one of the young lads wasn’t feeling well. The day was beautiful and clear, so I took the decision to send the tired lad down with my supporting guide. Thing is, this ‘supporting guide’, was the guide that knew the mountain best. And so they went down and we went up.
We summited. After many pukes and pooping in a bag, we summited. It was glorious. We were all devastated, but we did it. Success. There was another team up there. They were having tequila shots, I told them no thank you. We took maybe three pictures and began the descent. Going down is easier, but by then, you’ve already hiked for hours and hours and altitude sickness usually begins to kick in around that time. What I want to say is that we were all tired and some were sick. Rule #1 Don’t fall! Especially on the glacier.
Down we went. I looked to the right and saw clouds coming in. Shit, not a good sign. Especially on the glacier. I didn’t count on clouds moving in. The forecast said that it was going to be a clear day, all day.
If you freak out, everyone freaks out as well
This is the first rule of guiding if you’ve ever given it a thought to guide something extreme yourself. Fear is smelly. If you have it, people will easily smell it, and it doesn’t smell good.
We kept climbing down the 50° degree and sometimes 65° angle glacier. There was a route marked by the other group’s crampons. I decided to go straight down and make our own way. You see, the clouds were coming in fast, and I didn’t want to be stuck up there within the clouds. Dumb fucking decision. The clouds came in fast and surrounded us. In a glacier, with clouds, and the sun on your head, visibility is zero, nada, nothing. You can’t know if you’re walking east or north or anything. Adding to that, Orizaba’s glacier is currently melting because of global warming, and that meant that a new deadly crevasse with a profundity of 15 meters had just popped open for the season. On a clear day, you can see it no problem, but with clouds? Good luck son.
I moved one foot at a time. Slowly, very slowly. No Gps, no radios. We were stuck on the glacier with a crevasse waiting for us to make one mistake.
I know I’m an idiot. In that situation, there’s no ‘learning of your mistakes’. One mistake and your death. It’s a really tough situation to be in. If I’d just had a GPS, I’d just follow it down and nothing would’ve happened.
Nothing happened, luckily. The clouds went away after an excruciatingly stressful hour of hiking down, we found our way again.
Now, it was stressful, trust me. But, you cannot freak out. You freak out and you die. What you have to do is that you have to direct your emotions towards effectiveness. What can I do? That’s the question.
Control the controllable
A crevasse does not want to kill, he is not a bad guy, nor a good guy, it just doesn’t care. Your past is just the same. I was an idiot without a GPS on the glacier. But no matter how much I cursed myself, the past was done, and it didn’t care either. It was me against the situation.
‘Curse all you like, the crevasse is not going anywhere and your past self is not going to be any smarter. This is it.’ I realized.
Life or death situations are sobering. They show you with surgical precision the things that you can actually do and control to not die. Your focus becomes as sharp as a Japanese knife. You become a master sushi chef.
I don’t believe you have to study Stoicism to be able to practice it and apply it to your life. Sometimes life rips an instinctual Stoicism out of you.
Have you ever experienced something like this? It usually happens in emergencies. When someone you love is about to die, you don’t fuck around, you do what needs to be done.
The ability to know what we can do and act upon is innate. But in daily life, we forget it. Whenever you think about a project that you want to do, you know what you need to do, but you don’t do it. You find excuse after excuse and time goes by without you taking action. This reminds me of that scene from Fight Club. The one where Tyler points a gun to a clerk and tells him that if he finds out that he is not pursuing his dream, becoming a veterinary, in a month, he will find him and kill him. From the book:
Tyler Durden: An expired community college student ID. What did you study, Raymond?
Raymond K. Hessel: S-stuff.
Tyler Durden: Stuff? Were the mid-terms hard? I asked you what you studied!
Raymond K. Hessel: Biology mostly.
Tyler Durden: Why?
Raymond K. Hessel: I don’t know.
Tyler Durden: What did you wanna be, Raymond K. Hessel? The question, Raymond! Was “What did you want to be”?!
Narrator: Answer him, Raymond! Jesus!
Raymond K. Hessel: Veterinarian, veterinarian.
Tyler Durden: Animals.
Raymond K. Hessel: Yeah animals and stuff.
Tyler Durden: And stuff, yeah I got that. That means you have to get more schooling.
Raymond K. Hessel: Too much school.
Tyler Durden: Would you rather be dead? Would you rather die? Here, on your knees in the back of a convenience store?
Raymond K. Hessel: No, please no![Tyler takes his gun down, takes out Raymond’s driver’s license throwing the wallet in front of Raymond.]
Tyler Durden: I’m keeping your license. I’m gonna check in on you. I know where you live. If you’re not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead. Now run on home.[Raymond gets up and runs into the night.]
Tyler Durden: Run Forrest, run!
Narrator: I feel ill.
Tyler Durden: Imagine how he feels.
Narrator: Come on, this isn’t funny! That wasn’t funny. What the fuck was the point of that?!
Tyler Durden: Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.
Voice-over: You had to give it to him. He had a plan. And it started to make sense in a Tyler sort of way. No fear, no distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.
We forget too easily that we have a gun pointed to our heads all the time.
I want to play the role of Tyler Durden with this article.
What do you want to do? Honestly?
There’s a gun pointing to your head. Think about a life or death situation. This is Memento Mori (remember that you’re going to die) on its most crude form. What do you want to do? What do you want to say? Why don’t you tell your loved ones that you love them and that you’re grateful for having them in your life every time you see them. When are you going to begin to actually live?
CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLE.
What’s the next step? You know you know it. Sharpen your mind and get on it.
Thanks for reading,
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