The Hillary Step is a 40-foot wall of rock and ice at the top of Mt. Everest. It lies in the “death zone,” the altitude above which there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life for more than a day or two. By the time most climbers get to this point on Earth’s tallest mountain, their brains and bodies are starved for oxygen, making every step a burden. Hypoxia can cause climbers to hallucinate, opening the door to danger, disaster, and death.
Or so I have read.
For the record, I have never been to Everest. Nor do I climb mountains. Ice, snow, and heights are so not my thing. But over the past decade, I have become obsessed with stories of mountaineering, and read a dozen books on Himalayan expeditions.
What strength and hubris do climbers possess to scale a 29,000 foot mountain? How do men and women leave their cozy homes and beloved families to put their lives into risk of dismemberment and death? The tales of survival and rescue are grizzly, but also spellbinding and suspenseful.
I am also fascinated by the Sherpa. This Buddhist folk has a rich and mystical culture. Without their hearty endurance for high altitude while carrying huge loads of gear and supplies, ascent of Everest would be impossible.
These stories take me out of my element to an exotic locale where I will most likely never travel.
At least not physically.
Mentally and emotionally, I think of Thursdays as my Hillary Step- my last big push before the summit of Friday, and the descent into the base camp of the weekend, where I can breathe a little easier.
Thursdays are my long day. I kiss the kids good bye and do not see them for 11 hours. By the time I get home, around 7:30 pm, the children are exhausted. Both they and my husband are grumpy. I am hungry and tired myself, but set that aside to help finish homework, nurse, read stories, and kiss good night.
I wonder what David Breashears, acclaimed mountaineer, film maker, and author of some my favorite Everest books, would say about me comparing my life as a working mom to scaling an 8,000 meter mountain? No doubt, he would call me an “Armchair Alpinist,” or something of the like, with a haughty snort. (Mr. Breashears, by the way, if you have googled yourself and hit on my blog, I think you are sexy as all hell and would love to shake your hand, even if you are snorting haughtily at me!)
This much I understand: There is monumental mindfulness in mountaineering.
Climbers are totally in the present moment. A climber puts his or her life, and the lives of anyone else on the mountain, at risk if they are not completely aware of their breath, body, and surrounding at every moment. A misstep could trigger an avalanche or send them plummeting thousands of feet to their death.
My office is plastered with calendar pictures of Hawaii. I have trained my brain to respond to a quick glance of these pictures of surf and palm trees with a little endorphin boost, to help me through stressful times. Hawaii is my “happy place,” without a doubt.
But sometimes, I close my eyes and imagine myself clinging to a blue wall of ice and snow. There is peace, silence but for the sound of my breath, raspy in my oxygen mask. I hold on and calculate where next to plunge my axe, place my crampon. I do so, with great deliberation, and then slide my carabiner up the fixed-rope, open my eyes, and move on to my next task. (Yes, Mr. Breashears, in my imagination, I do climb with bottled oxygen and fixed-ropes. Mock away.)
So, no, people do not die if I happen to screw up at my job or in my home. The only avalanche in social work is of paperwork, and at home the only thing I have resembling a crevasse is my never-ending pile of laundry. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t equally important for me to be mindful of each and every step.
From what I understand, there is euphoria at the top of the mountain, and joy in the art of climbing. But this is not to say that every moment on the mountain is a joy. I’ve never read any climber write that they relished a bivouac at 27,000 feet with 100 mile per hour winds whipping around their tent, sleepless in minus 30 degree temps.
If that isn’t analogous to my journey as a parent, then I don’t know what is.