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It’s All About Perspective: The 2009 NY Section Dinner

Posted on: November 20th, 2009 by Erik Lambert

by Susan E. B. Schwartz

It was about perspective.

At first it seemed like another highly entertaining and enjoyable evening. The guest of honor at the (as usual) sold-out, black tie New York section dinner of the American Alpine Club was Stephen Venables, the first (and only) climber to solo the East/Kangshung Face of Everest (also known as the most technical and hardest of the mountain’s three faces).

Venables’ presentation, delivered with droll British wit, followed his climbing trajectory from vertical beginnings at age 16 and on through his Oxford years (driven more by membership in the university mountaineering club than attendance at the library). Soon climbing became Stephen’s passion and lifestyle. Along the way he made significant forays to Antarctica (inspiring some wickedly funny Reinhold Messner tales), retraced Shackleton’s steps across South Georgia, and joined the successful American 1988 Kangshung Face expedition – a spirited team of four who tackled Everest in purist style, without radios, without supplemental oxygen, without any support team, including sherpas.

The only one to summit, Stephen was forced on descent to bivy in the open at 28,000’. (He would lose several toes to frostbite but more poignantly, teammate Ed Webster ended up losing most of his fingertips after removing his gloves high on the mountain to snap photos.)

The Kangshung Face helped solidify Stephen’s place among the climbing elite. Afterwards, he went on to many other significant climbs and to pen nine mountaineering books, including his latest, Higher Than The Eagle Soars. Yet to put all this in perspective, in his native England, one of Stephen’s best selling books,Ollie, is only secondarily about mountaineering.

Ollie, Stephen’s oldest son, was diagnosed with severe autism at age 2, developed leukemia at age 4, and died of a brain tumor at age 12. (Stephen’s Wikipedia entry notes that he is the father of the only known child in the UK to be diagnosed with both autism and leukaemia.)

Further perspective was provided by the absence of long time dinner attendee, Clif Maloney, who two months ago became the oldest American to summit an 8,000 meter peak but died without warning in his sleep on the third night down from the top of Cho Oyu.

Clif had already been scheduled to give the “mini-slideshow” preceding the main event. (Instead, Mike Barker and Michael Lederer delivered up an extremely entertaining and fresh-spirited slideshow on the English Mountains of Labrador.) On his last night on earth, Clif declared to his guide, “I’m the happiest man on the planet. I’ve just climbed this beautiful mountain.”And then Clif went peacefully to sleep and never woke up.

Stephen Venables and Clif Maloney raise the inescapable and painful questions in climbing: Is climbing worth the risk? If so, how much risk?

Is climbing worth a few toes? Most of our fingers?

But what if the costs are higher? What if we lose our life, even if we die with joy and without pain? And what about family and friends left behind? What if Clif had died on descent without summitting?

And what about making sense of seemingly mundane risks that we face in everyday life…such as risks we take on when becoming a parent? We assume that the biggest one as a parent will be smarty pants teenagers stressing us out over college admissions, pimples, and prom dates.

Some of us climb, I believe, as a way to bring order and control to our personal universe. But climbing also has a way of yanking hard on our chain to remind us that there is a limit to how much we can control. At some point, no matter how stubborn, talented, or hard working we are, we step out of our world of personal control. And we enter one of cosmic caprice.

Whether on Everest or Cho Oyu… or autism or cancer.

It’s all about the perspective.