02
Jan
10

Touching the Void

I  just saw a great documentary called touching the void, which follows the story of two mountain climbers who barely survived their climb up a mountain in the Andes.

There are so many lessons in this unbelievable story, but here are two highlights.

First, there comes a point in the climb when a desperate situation forces one of the climbers to cut the rope supporting his partner, who he assumes tumbles to his death. The fallen climber however survives and end up climbing out of a crevass and down the mountain on his own power, without the use of one of his legs. He has to crawl the entire way. He returns to his partner and tells him that he made the right decision to cut the rope.

As Joe notes, his unbelievable journey was never about survival. Sure, he wanted to survive, but what was driving him was not the biological imperative often labeled the “survival instinct.” Rather, it was a special type of pride. First, Joe often talks about how he did not want to die in a certain situation. He didn’t want to die in his sleeping bag, he didn’t want to die alone, and he didn’t want to die with a certain song that he hated surging through his head (maybe as a result of his dehydration). In short, he thought his life had a value that would be insulted if he died in a certain way. Also, he had a kind of obsessive desire to achieve; this is why he tackled this particular mountain in the first place, but more importantly, he talks about how he kept setting a goal for himself such as “reach that ridge by 20 minutes” and what’s more, he often broke down crying when he missed these small arbitrary benchmarks and he celebrated when he did. Survival for Joe came about as a byproduct of an obsessive desire to succeed; his main goal was the accomplishment of goals under near impossible circumstances.

As near as I can tell, Joe didn’t make it because he wanted to live, he made it because he wanted to do something spectacular or difficult, and the confrontation with his own mortality was simply the most worthy challenge he had yet faced.

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