The Pretender

One day you pretended to be

Strong;

One day you pretended to be

Brave;

One day you  pretended you could

Know;

One day you pretended to be

 Me;

/

That day you got broken

In every place;

That day every demon

Took notice of your face;

That day you knew how great was

Your ignorance,

And yet you refused

To stop pretending;

/

And as you healed,

You found strength;

And as you met your demons,

You made friends with fear;

And as you learned,

You grew honest,

And thus you truly

Summoned me:

/

Because you,

Who was so fragile,

Who used to be scared

Of her shadow,

Who felt unworthy

Of knowledge,

Played me

With such deadly abandon;

/

I have come,

And I’ll always protect you,

Be for you a shoulder

To lean on;

You’ve made it so

I could never leave you;

Mine are the eyes

That look back from your mirror

Ten

Sunset in the VisayasI’m building castles

In the sand

Like I’m a little girl

Again

/

I swim forth

Without looking back,

Trusting warm, silky waves

Again

/

I sit and stare

At sunset lights

Dancing with the moon

Into the night

/

And it’s as if

I never left,

And never aged,

And never died

/

Nine quiet deaths

/

I’m building castles

In the sand,

With dry old hands,

And a dry old heart

/

I swim forth

Without looking back,

Knowing the hells

I leave behind

/

I sit and stare

At sunset lights

That fade the way

All fades away

/

It feels like I’ve

Been gone forever,

And like I didn’t

Quite make it back

/

This – tenth – time

‘Everest is Easy!’

From a recent Skype conversation with a long-time friend:

 – Mila! Omg! I saw the photos from the summit of Everest! SO Awesome!

 – Yes, it was amazing up there. I’m really tired, though: they say you need several months to recover after an expedition to an 8000-meter peak, and at this point I think this sounds about right.

 – Really? I actually read or heard somewhere that Everest was easy to climb these days: you know, with all the porters, and the guides, and the oxygen…And there are all those really young people doing it, and older people, too… So many people up there!

 – They’re not just random ‘younger people’ and ‘older people’ – those of them who succeed train very hard before they come to Everest. And I doubt it that any of them would refer to the climb as ‘easy’.

 – But it must have been easy for you! You’re so sporty – you’re doing something crazy all the time!

 – Not at all. Climbing Everest was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I believe, many Everest climbers have similar conversations with friends when they come back home from Nepal: ‘I read/heard/saw on TV that there were steps carved into the face of the mountain, and that they were building an elevator to the summit…’ Mainstream media portrays Everest as both deadly and easy, drawing the ‘wrong’ demographic to the foot of the mountain. Unfortunately, faced with the harsh reality of Everest, those people can’t help but demonstrate their lack of climbing- and mental preparation for an ‘adventure’, which was supposed to be easy. In this post I would like to say a few words about the media reporting on Everest news. I will also try and explain that Everest is nothing if not hard, and draw future climbers’ attention to the fact that mountaineering experience is required to climb it safely.

I brought enough good books with me to our base camp in Tibet that I had little interest in world and Everest news. Many of my team mates, however, did keep track of current affairs via their iPhones, Blackberrys and Kindles, and 3G at base camp. Alan Arnette’s blog at www.alanarnette.com was our team’s go-to site for Everest news and analysis thereof. The reason is that, in addition to other mountains, Alan has been to Everest 4 times, reaching the summit in 2011. As an experienced climber, he knows exactly what he’s talking about, unlike, unfortunately, most journalists who report on Everest in the mainstream media. When the team came down to base camp after summiting and looked at some of the many media articles about overcrowding on the South Side and of the 10 deaths linked to Everest, the sentiment we shared was disappointment. Chomolungma, the Holy Mother, the stunning mountain which is a dream to climb on for so many, is only in the news when another picture of, perhaps, a hundred climbers following fixed lines emerges, or when a fatality occurs; the deaths on the mountain are usually – incorrectly – blamed largely on overcrowding (I won’t go into this in this blog but here’s a great article to look at if you’d like to know more: http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2012/05/30/everest-2012-season-recap-a-study-in-risk-management/ ). The same journalists, who write in dramatic language about the dangers of Everest then come to the most unusual conclusion – that Everest is easy to climb. Imagine: you see a photo of tens of people moving obviously slowly and painfully towards the highest point on Earth; they are dressed almost like astronauts and are breathing supplemental oxygen; you probably know that people have died on the mountain before; so then, naturally, you think: ‘this is a piece of cake’… How?

It is true that nowadays almost anyone can attempt to climb Everest thanks to the presence on the mountain of many commercial expedition operators with varying ethical standards. But would it be easy for ‘almost anyone’ to actually climb it? A climb on the normal route with a well-supported commercial expedition could, perhaps, be relatively easy for Reinhold Messner who made the first solo ascent of the mountain with no oxygen in 1980, in addition to being the first to summit all the 14 8000ers. However, an average Everest climber with her/his average skill, strength and stamina is very different from someone like Messner – so different, in fact, that calling them different species would not be too much of an exaggeration.

For me, an average climber, Everest was very hard indeed. I could never have reached the summit and come back down without Altitude Junkies’ support: logistics, Sherpas, oxygen… Still, even with all this support available, all the climbers on our team had to bring something to the table before we could join the expedition – something which the ‘Everest is Easy’ articles make ‘climbers’ believe is not required – experience in mountaineering. Experience won’t make climbing Everest easy but it will make it safer for you and those around you. It will also give you a better chance to reach the summit, or turn back if your body tells you it’s time. Experience is understanding – of mountains and of oneself in the mountains, and this understanding is survival, with a bonus of 10 fingers and 10 toes.

I believe that the media with its ‘Everest is Easy’ stance is at least in part to blame for the abundance of inexperienced climbers on the mountain. A relatively wealthy person could sign up for an Everest expedition out of sheer curiosity or boredom, inspired by the media’s imaginative accounts of Sherpas carrying climbers to the summit and back down. Thus, one often sees ‘climbers’ looking at crampons with childlike wonderment, unsure as to their application – at the foot of the world’s highest mountain. When such long-time climbers as my team mate Grant Rawlinson from New Zealand bring this lack of experience to attention, and in their personal blogs give their personal opinions in their personal style, the media jumps on and criticizes them for their ‘insensitivity’. One of the most emotional pieces from Grant’s post (http://climbforhope.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/may-24-climb-to-the-roof-of-the-world/ ) was picked up by the media in his home country, taken out of context of the mountain and the person, and offered to the general audience for ‘judgement’. And the audience readily judged. In spite of all the controversy, which Grant’s blog post generated, I would like to say that I second the sentiment he expressed. Knowing Grant and having climbed on the mountain, I can say that it is out of compassion for them that he criticizes some mountaineers for their lack of preparation. How is wanting to ‘stick a burning teddy-bear up someone’s behind’ an expression of compassion? It is, if the alternative is to watch people injure themselves and endanger their peers’ health and even lives. In my opinion, telling the truth about how risky and difficult something is, and writing about the possible consequences (for oneself and others) of pursuing potentially dangerous goals without adequate preparation, understanding and respect, is an act of compassion.

To finish this rant, I mean, post, I’d like to suggest that those of you reading it, who are contemplating a climb on Everest take your time to gain some real mountaineering experience – which your adventure company may call ‘recommended’, but which is absolutey ‘required’ – before you pay your bills and pack your duffel bags. Not that you won’t stand a chance to succeed if you don’t – you may well be lucky… However, you will doubtless enjoy your expedition more if you know what you’re doing on the mountain; you will also be able to appreciate where you are – on the slopes of Goddess-Mother of the World – if you climb on several other mountains first; if you summit, you will feel like you actually earned – as opposed to just paid for – your place on top of Everest.

 

The Good Student

‘It’s just a paper, Lilya! It’s not worth getting hurt for!’

‘I know, mum, but it’s not just a paper. Well, it is now but after I’ve done this – actually participated in a bullfight – it will be so much more than just another ethics dissertation!’

‘I can’t be there, you know. I can’t stand the sight of you killing animals like that.’

‘I’m glad you can’t make it. I really don’t need another pouting, judgemental PETA-face in the audience.’

‘I love you, Lil, but you will regret what you’re doing now. You’re nineteen and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Important as your dissertation might seem now, you will never forget that you had to… kill to write it. It is just a bull, an animal, but we both know how you are. You won’t ever forgive yourself if…’

‘Eat your stake, mom, and let me do what I’m here to do!’ Lilya growled at the phone, ‘it’s not even a proper bullfight, just a novillada!’ she added quietly, after hanging up.

Her capote, muleta and sword resting on the rooftop terrace floor, she realized she’d never felt more alone. The eccentric Finnish girl. The people at home could never understand why she wanted to be part of what they called a ‘barbaric tradition of killing animals for fun’; the local bullfighting aficionados disliked her for being a female and, in addition, a foreigner; the boys she attended bullfighting classes with couldn’t stand her for having to pose in the background while Lilya would be interviewed for TV, magazines and web-sites. ‘She shouldn’t even be here, let alone be famous! She’s not that good at bullfighting – she doesn’t deserve to be where she is! This is just a study for her – she doesn’t care about it.’ Lilya couldn’t help agreeing with these and other countless accusations being showered on her: she knew as well as anybody that a bullring was the last place in the world where she should be. Yet, every evening she stubbornly climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace, gear in hand, practiced for at least two hours and then stared blankly at the roofs of Seville, the traffic in the busy Jose Laguillo steet, the windows of the hotel next door, the dust on her shoes; very rarely did she dare look into herself. Now, the night before her first real fight in La Algaba, she felt she owed it to herself to do so.

‘Good evening, professor!’ she greeted her dissertation supervisor on the phone, ‘I must speak with you about tomorrow.’

‘Thank you, sir; I’ll see you there in an hour.’

***

Sitting alone on her bed, barely able to breathe in her stiff suit of lights, de catafalco y oro, Lilya, was staring at the floor.

‘Vamonos, torera!’ one of her bullfighting teachers called cheerfully, knocking on the door.

Lilya’s eyes glistened in the dimly-lit room but didn’t move; her hands were shaking a little.

‘Vamos, mujer! Que llegamos tarde ya!’ Hearing no answer, he carefully pushed the door open.

‘No tienes porque hacerlo, Lilya, si no lo quieres de verdad,’ his kind whisper sounded next to her. Lowering his grey head so as to see into her eyes, he put his heavy leathery arm around the girls’ shoulders, noticeably fragile under the armour she was wearing.

Tu no tienes porque hacerlo,’ he repeated, ‘ya has demostrado que tienes mas cojones que nadie!’ She laughed quietly.

‘Tiene Usted razon, tenemos que darnos prisa,’ Lilya said resolutely after a moment’s pause, tension spreading down her body.

***

She had to hit that exact spot between its enormous black shoulder blades. Banderillas sticking out of the bull’s ravaged back helped her focus and aim. The girl took a deep breath.

‘That’s it, it will never be this hard again,’ she thought, hearing the deafening applause of the audience as a distant, dying whisper. When the black novillo stumbled and rolled in the sand of the ring, Lilya threw her head back and lifted her hands high in the air – like a bullfighter, a real bullfighter –still, all she could hear was the sound of her sword sinking into the muscular flesh of her now dead opponent. ‘Nothing will ever be this hard again.’

***

‘Well, you did it, Lil,’ her mother’s voice sounded from thousands of miles away, so far away that Lilya could barely hear it, her whole being full of that other sound. It was late in the evening after the fight and the girl was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her rooftop terrace. She listened carefully but couldn’t understand what her mother really meant.

‘It’ll pass, sweetheart! Just finish your paper and come home, and it’ll pass, I promise,’

‘I had known it wouldn’t pass before I walked into the ring,’ Lilya mused in response, ‘and it won’t.’ ‘You see, I forgot I was the researcher, not the subject of the research.’

‘You can be both, Lil. You can be anything you want to be – I think you’ve proven this much today.’

Slowly Lilya got up from the floor and stumbled to the edge of the terrace. Her blank stare wandered among the dark roofs, and cars, and people in the windows of the hotel across the street till it paused on a girl of about fifteen, reading behind the glass.

‘I fear I have proven the exact opposite,’ she replied.