Featured Insights Risk — 20 August 2016

Srajan writes about a perilous attempt to climb Mt Olympus in Washington State, USA, and ponders the significance of taking risks.

Glancing upwards through the now swirling snow we awaited the fateful decision. Mark, the lead climber, was surveying the route to the summit now fully obscured by whiteout. He turned, signaled retreat and, roped together, we about-faced headed steeply downward. “Head for the snow shelf!” he yelled, “We’ll hunker down there.” We couldn’t hear him but his gesture was evident.

Blue Glacier

Blue Glacier

The blizzard had struck without warning after a beautiful clear day’s climb across the mystical Blue Glacier that approached Mt. Olympus (elevation 7,828 feet = 2386 meters). A December climb of this highest mountain in the Olympic National Park, located in the northwest corner of mainland USA, was an uncommon endeavor. We definitely had the place to ourselves. Who else would attempt such a risky climb over Christmas vacation?

The five of us, Norman, Jeff, Mark, Autumn and myself made it back to the snow shelf which was flat enough to reasonably set up our four-person Mt. McKinley tent. The wind however was not obliging and, after dropping packs and ropes and removing crampons, the five of us struggled to secure the tent. Finally it was anchored and raised and one by one we placed our packs along the outer edges of the dome style tent, grabbed sleeping bags, pads, water, food and cooking gear and crawled inside.

The wind was howling, gusting against the sides of the tent. Nevertheless, we kicked into survival mode, laid out our pads and sleeping bags, changed clothes, and prepared a quick meal. We were exhausted and wondering how we were going to escape this storm.

You may be wondering, what were we doing on this mountain?

Many years ago I had been helping in the development of Hawaii Bound School, an outdoor adventure program based upon using the wilderness for teaching young people valuable life lessons on Hawaii’s Big Island. Lessons such as the importance of working as a team, the value of finding one’s own deep sources of strength and stamina, of taking risks, pushing through fears, and in developing the ability to accept and celebrate living with a wide variety of people, were among the results of our 26-day courses.

By some means I had received a grant and scholarship to study with an unusual man at an experimental college. The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, offered student-designed programs towards BA degrees (and later MA programs). After having spent four years slogging through and disenchanted with a normal college curriculum, then traveling for a few years and living in a Zen center (Maui Zendo of the Diamond Sangha), this opportunity was very welcome. To work with Willi Unsoeld, the heralded mountain climber known as “The Father of Experiential Education” and the first man to climb Mt. Everest’s west ridge, was an outdoor educator’s fondest dream. At least it was mine. So along with 39 other college students I, the eldest at age 28, joined the program.

Willi had just returned from India where a great tragedy had befallen the climbing expedition of which he had been the leader. The story really reaches back 24 years prior to this when, whilst hiking in the Nepalese Himalaya’s he had seen a most splendid mountain in the distance. As the story goes, he turned to his wife, Jolene, and said, “If we ever have a daughter, let’s name her after that mountain, whatever it is called.” Later they found out the name of the mountain and did have a daughter, who they named Nanda Devi.

Nanda Devi

Nanda Devi

Nanda Devi, the highest mountain entirely in India, is considered a goddess. The striking geographical feature of Nanda Devi has spawned a religious cult in the surrounding region and the peak is considered a manifestation of Parvati, the consort of the Hindu God, Shiva.

The peak, whose name means ‘Bliss-Giving Goddess’, is regarded as the patron-goddess of the Uttarakhand Himalaya. She is almost inaccessible, and was only “summitted” in 1936 by a British-American team.

Nanda Devi the person and the mountain were inextricably connected. Nanda, an attractive blond woman, became fascinated with mountain climbing at a young age and through the years accompanied her famous father and others on many highly technical climbs. Finally she and Willi decided it was time to go to India and climb her namesake mountain. Upon arriving in India she said she felt it was as if she were coming home.

Willi Unsoeld and Nanda Devi

Willi Unsoeld and daughter Nanda Devi

It is a long story about this climb that was plagued by accidents, arguments, and finally by tragedy. Stuck high on the face of the mountain in a blizzard one pitch below the summit, Nanda succumbed to altitude sickness and intestinal problems, and died in the tent with Willi and Nanda’s fiancé, Andy Harvard present. Her body was given to the mountain and the expedition was cancelled. (To know more read a review of the book, Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition.)

This had happened a month prior to the start-up of the one-year long Evergreen program that I joined. We studied diligently during the first fall months, reading and writing upon a wide range of material. All 40 members of the Outdoor Education program offered individual workshops for participants to choose from and each of us led individual workshops. I led a Zen sitting group and organized a three day ‘solo’ experience whereby a number of participants spent three days alone at a secluded campsite. Finally we were given our Christmas break assignment: Go have an adventure!

Willi, you see, believed that a life without “risk” was not a life at all. It was easy to recognize, while attending the fall seminars with him, that he was still deeply grieving the loss of his only daughter. But he was stalwart in his belief in the power and necessity of risk. He was once asked by a fearful mother if he could guarantee her son’s safety on an outdoor program. “No,” he told her, he could only guarantee exposure to risk. But, he added, that by sheltering her son from risk, the mother would be guaranteeing the death of her son’s soul.

And the day came when
the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful
than the risk it took to blossom.

Anaïs Nin


So, together with my girlfriend Autumn and three young men who had minimal mountain climbing experience, our five-some set out to climb Mt. Olympus in December 1976.

After hiking through 11 miles of rainforest and sleeping cheek to cheek in a small wooden shelter, then rising in the pre-dawn and hiking roped together across the remarkable Blue Glacier, we were now hunkered down inside a tent with a raging blizzard and sheer drop-offs on two sides.

The wind was stressing the sides of the tent but we did manage to eventually squeeze together and drift into a semblance of sleep. At 2:00 in the morning however, an unusually smashing gust of wind broke the center pole which flew across inside the tent, ripping a gash in the nylon of the tent on the downwind side.

We scrambled to wakefulness, with Norman, the smallest of us, grabbing the pole, reinserting it as best he could and holding the tent upright. The gusts continued for the next few hours as we took turns holding the repaired tent pole as vertical as possible, leaning into the strongest gusts of wind, and began preparations to evacuate. This meant crawling out of the small entrance hole in between gusts and uncovering the backpacks with all our needed gear now buried in snow and then pulling them inside. Finally, as we were fully clothed and prepared, the first light of day brightened the sides of the red tent and the wind seemed to abate somewhat. It was time to vacate.

We crawled out and quickly saw that the tent was not retrievable being nearly fully buried under snow and ice. A bright white world greeted us. Now a decision had to be made. Do we descend to the Blue Glacier via a rocky slope where footing would be precariously hidden in the new snow or should we attempt moving down the lower reaches of the snow dome and risk an avalanche? The latter was chosen by Mark, our selected leader of the expedition.

We reached the glacier without incident as the winds continued to die down. We had 18 miles to walk to our vehicle parked at the trailhead of the Hoh River valley. But first we had to navigate the glacier now covered with a new coating of 1-2 feet of snow. Fortunately we had the presence of mind the day before to place bamboo wands (4-foot-long thin sticks of bamboo) along our approach path. We followed these back as they provided the best chance of avoiding any crevasse that might have opened during the storm.

As darkness set in, we finally reached our old station wagon. Some of us had been hallucinating and Jeff was hypothermic. Exhausted we dropped packs, stuffed them and ourselves into the wagon, drank large amounts of water, turned up the heat and headed out to the highway.

The next stop was a Chinese restaurant 30 miles away where we ordered everything we fancied, which was half the menu!

So we returned to classes in January with a story to tell. Others had stories as well and it made for some very intriguing realizations about life and the importance of living it to the maximum. We had risked and tasted the ramifications of such a venture. Within the center of the cyclone that was that flapping tent, a peacefulness and resolve had been activated. Grateful to be alive, we had been humbled by the forces of nature.

Willi did remind us of this, however, in our first meeting back:

“Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles. The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of life amongst people. If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t – then it sometimes pulls you right out into the wilderness and you stay there for the rest of your life. When that happens, by my scale of value, it has failed. You go to nature for an experience of the sacred… to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively. Seek ye first the kingdom of nature that the kingdom of man might be realized.”

What we consider risky varies from person to person. For some, being the first to say, “I love you” in a relationship is high on the list. To another, skiing down the Eiger during winter avalanches might be paramount. Or does swimming with sharks raise your anxiety level? Betting your life savings at roulette? How about becoming a disciple of a controversial, inconsistent, and outrageous enlightened master?

Willi Unsoeld died on Mt. Rainier in 1979 at the age of 52. While descending from high camp at Cadaver Gap he was swept away by an avalanche. He had climbed that mountain dozens of times over the years and was leading a dozen students from The Evergreen State College on an ascent of Mt. Rainier for his last climb. He died along with Janie Diepenbrock, a young student from Sacramento, California.

So I ask myself, was the risk worth it? In the case of our attempted summit climb of Mt. Olympus I would say certainly, “Yes it was.” But was the wildly dangerous climb of Nanda Devi worth the risk? Willi’s daughter Nanda Devi lost the most on the climb, and she can’t answer the question. Or maybe she did, just by taking the challenge.

What are a person’s limits to risk taking? When does prudence and the responsibility to others outweigh the rewards of risking it all in an extremely dangerous endeavor?

Anyone who has become a sannyasin or who commits themselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual path qualifies to have answered this question, “Risk, is it worth it?” with a resounding “Yes!”

SrajanSrajan is a regular contributor

All articles by this author on Osho News


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