“It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Sir Edmund Hillary
“Just write about this whatever comes to mind,” MaryAnn, our writing teacher, said as she put down the marker pen on the ledge of the easel.
Here’s what I wrote:
This quotation spikes my unanswered questions about people who attempt to do dangerous things. In the case of Sir Edmund Hillary I'd think, (but not venture to say,) Is the conquering of oneself by doing something that dangerous that rewarding? For being first to make it to the top of the world and spend fifteen minutes there you no doubt gained a unique feeling of some sort and a mountain of praise and well-deserved high regard later. No doubt you think it was worth it.
What turns me off about stories of people like this, like Sir Edmund Hillary, mountain climber, Charles Blondin, the man who crossed over Niagara Falls on a wire, and others who have become famous for their feats of daring, is that they were willing to risk life itself to achieve their goals. Why?
My reaction is probably due in part to an experience I had when I was a young mother. I left our three children at home with their father one late afternoon to walk down to the beach in Laguna and watch the sunset. I was curled up in a little lagoon alone savoring the whole experience until I began to notice that the breakers were getting higher and closer. Soon I realized I was trapped in that lagoon! If I didn’t get out in a few minutes I’d be swept against the rocky cliff behind me. There was no other way out, I had to climb that cliff! And I am no cliff climber! Never was. But my life depended on doing it then. No cell phones in those days. It was getting dark and sane people had gone home. Even if they were up there they probably would not see me. No one would come so close to the edge, and with the noise of the surf no one could have heard me if I yelled. I was completely alone, on my own.
I knew instinctively then the truth of Sir Hillary’s comment. I’d need to conquer myself and my fears. Slowly and deliberately I picked out a way, though I could barely see by then. I put one foot on a ledge, the other on another, making sure the outcroppings were secure and would bear my weight. I needed to use my fingers too. I had to trust each step I chose. All the while breakers came in rapidly, fiercely lapping against my feet and ankles and spraying cold salty water against my whole body. I prayed like never before, 'Please, God, help me!'
I felt an inner voice telling me, “Keep calm. Don’t panic. Your life depends on getting up to the top, so do it.” And I did. When I got home I didn’t tell my husband at first. I just went to the bathroom, cleaned up and got into my pajamas, slippers and robe. Then I went to the kitchen to prepare spaghetti dinner. After we were nearly through and there was a break in children chatter I said, 'Oh, by the way, I had a scary experience at the beach.'
I didn’t get much in the way of praise. The kids knew the beaches. It must not have seemed a big deal to them. No piece appeared in the local paper like it would have if I’d failed. Just one reward for my careless outing and the conquering of myself. My life. My life! I’ve lived probably fifty years or more since then. Was that little lonely escape from home to view the sunset worth it? No! Not in the least! I’ve viewed many a sunset since. They were worth it, and I didn't risk my life for them.
Reading about Sir Edmund Hillary since leaves me glad that he achieved this honor. He was a man in other ways also worthy of his fame and accolades. He had a spirit of humility, grace, generosity and bravery that made his life worth it. I’m truly grateful he lived to enjoy a less risky life long into his advanced years. I’m glad, too, that he made it safely home. And that prompts me to give another of his quotes: “...it's always good to be going home.”