I’ve been thinking about a chance happening this week; I was in Colorado to climb Longs Peak, one of its more famous 14,000-foot summits, while an old workmate from Los Angeles was in the Sierra Nevada trying to ascend 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48.
We are both men in our mid-forties and I joked on Facebook that we were “trying to prove that we still have it”.
I’m still trying to figure out what the “it” that I was referring to is. But it was not just lazy throw-away line. Well, it might have been as far as my friend is concerned but he is stuck on a mountain in California with limited reception so I can’t ask him.
One hesitates you use the term midlife crisis. A crisis is when you do something really reckless like buy a Ferrari or run off with a younger colleague. Suddenly deciding you are going to drop tens of thousands of dollars paying someone to guide you up Mt. Everest might count, but not these peaks. They represent more of a midlife measure. An accounting of what you are still capable of.
According to this account in the Havard Business Review a midlife malaise affects people of all classes and cultures. Psychological well-being takes a U-shaped trajectory through-out life. We are happiest when we are young and very old, but have a notable dip in life satisfaction in our forties and fifties. This can manifest itself in different ways.
So, it is possible my ex-workmate and I were responding to a similar impulse despite our many differences. I am an introverted stay-at-home dad. He is gregarious and unmarried; From my settled perspective he seems like a playboy without a trust fund. Maybe, I am reading too much into that time he summed up his weekend by claiming that “50 was his new 40” when it came to women?
A statement that inadvertently captures a truth. Our generation is getting older later in life. It’s hard to feel old when you have kids in elementary school. I notice I am getting older. I’ve started having to move the screen in and out to focus on the words in front of me, but I’m not panicking about it.
When I turned forty-five I calculated that I’d probably already lived half my life, but that realization didn’t shake my equilibrium. I was just as much of glass-half-empty guy as I’ve always been.
Perhaps I haven’t entered my midlife nadir yet? I wonder if my current occupation will make it worse. I tell myself that traditional conceptions of masculinity are out dated and that I am near the leading edge of some great and necessary social change. That works intellectually. At a deeper emotional level those old macho stereotypes can still work me over.
I posted a photo of one of acclimatization hikes on Facebook. Someone commented that I should “Get a Job”. Because he was English, I could brush it off with a timely sports-related retort. But it did bring up some self-doubt, even though I suspect he was motivated by envy, rather than the imposition of traditional ideals.
The journey up Longs Peak is a substantial endeavor; 15-miles round trip from the trail head with a 4,800 foot up and down on the way. Furthermore the last mile and a half from the Keyhole is off trail and there are a few spots where you wouldn’t want to slip. In good conditions it requires a head for heights and some scrambling, otherwise proper mountaineering skill is required.
Before I left I doubted I could still do it. The alternative to a 10-15 hour day was to camp at the Boulderfield, 6 miles up the trail and 12,760 feet above the sea. I brought my tent, although it was not clear that hauling camping equipment that far up the mountain would make the trip any easier. As it happened a stormy forecast the day before my summit push ruled out a two-day expedition.
I used to hike for a living. When I wasn’t getting paid to do it, I did it for pleasure. Then I moved to places where the hiking lacked the aesthetic appeal I’d grown addicted to and I did less of it. This was no random addition to my bucket-list, which only added an element of pressure.
I was definitely a middle-aged man out to prove he could do “it”. I imagine this was like a marathon. I got pre-race jitters. At the last minute I rented an ice axe and crampons because word around town was the conditions on near the summit were “technical”. I was worried about having to use them. I’ve done it before, but I am not an expert. Hell, I was worried I might not make it to the point where I would have to use them. Was I fit enough? Was I acclimatized to the altitude?
Then I started my climb on the internet, which is never a good idea if you are in a compromised frame of mind. This meticulous climber died, and these guys, by their own all-capped admission, got lucky (This is not a good route description. Several names and elevations are wrong. I used 14ers.com)
I went to bed at 8:06 pm and probably got less than 2 hours sleep. I was trying not to look at the clock, which didn’t stop the possibilities stampeding through my head.
The mountain would still be there if I didn’t make it. Don’t get summit fever. The top is only halfway. Bailing out 300 feet from the summit was a great and noble story. At one point I planned the video farewell I was going to record for my wife and kids in the hope my phone would survive a 1000-foot fall better than my body. That brought me to tears, although it was hard to find the right balance between the sentimental and frivolous.
It would be quite an interesting thought experiment if you weren’t also counting the minutes your weren’t asleep. I know I got some sleep because when the alarm went off at 2am I felt like absolute crap.
As it happens the conditions were ideal. I made good time, fatigue didn’t cloud my judgment, the ice axe or crampons were not required and got back to the car just as the forecast afternoon rain began to fall. Afterwards, I treated myself to a massage, which I’ll regard as a sign of maturity rather than an admission of my eroding capacity.
I felt good. I didn’t turn back the years as much as they haven’t caught up with me.
The next day on the rental car shuttle bus at Denver airport I almost offered my seat to a man standing in the aisle. I didn’t, which was just as well as on closer inspection I realized I had more grey hair than he did!
So, yes, right now, I can say, “I’ve still got it”. Until the next fourteener comes along.