Monday, February 4, 2013

Is it worth it?

I'm the first person to admit that I'm not adventurous.  I have never felt the desire to climb a mountain or go on a long trek into the wilderness.  I've never been able to get past my fear of death or serious injury and suffering to participate in any activity that even remotely resembled Herzog's expedition to Annapurna.  In fact, my ideal adventure is riding cross country across Ireland and, of course, stopping for lunch at a local pub.  In fact, I've had this adventure.  While it was memorable and breathtaking, apart from falling off my horse, there was no danger involved.  As such, I had a hard time understanding why Herzog and his compatriots risked frostbite, snow blindness, and death to reach a summit.  To me, the toes and fingers that Herzog and Lacenhal lost and the emotional and physical pain that they experienced during the return march seemed unnecessary and even silly.  Was climbing Annapurna worth it?

Herzog attempts to answer this question throughout his account; however, he only provides the most plausible explanation at the end of his account (Somehow climbing a mountain because no one has ever done it before seems a bit too simplistic and hubristic).  "For us," Herzog writes, "the mountains had been a natural field of activity where, playing on the frontiers of life and death, we had found the freedom for which we were blindly groping and which was as necessary to us as bread.  The mountains had bestowed on us their beauties, and we adored them with a child's simplicity and revered them with a monk's veneration of the divine" (223).  Like Krakauer, mountain climbing enables the members of Herzog's expedition to free themselves from the immaterial details of everyday life and to truly appreciate life.  In short, it gives them the freedom that they could never find while surrounded by modernity.  Although Herzog clearly appreciates the technology and comfort provided by modernity - the appearance of a refrigerator, furniture, electricity, and Alsatian wine when he reaches Katmandu nearly sends him into the throes of ecstasy (216) - he deeply regrets leaving the Himalayas: "Even after all we had been through, we hated to feel that we were now leaving - for good as well, we realized - the scene of our great adventure" (197).  Clearly, the victory of climbing a peak exceeding 8,000 meters and the freedom it gave the climbers made the entire journey and all it's sufferings worthwhile.

Nevertheless, Herzog loses something precious and central to his identity during the expedition.  As a result of his injuries and the amputations that they necessitate, he will lose the ability to climb mountains, a prospect that he finds extremely disheartening and cannot even face: "I'll never be able to climb again . . . . The mountains meant everything to me - I spent the best days of my life among them - I don't want to do spectacular climbs, or famous ones, but I want to be able to enjoy myself in the mountains, even it's only on the old standard routes" (183).  By conquering Annapurna, Herzog jeopardizes the very thing that makes him whole.  The climb not only changes how Herzog views himself, it also changes how other people view him and, as the expedition's return to France reveals, not necessarily in the way that he would wish: "But the minute we started down that iron ladder, all those friendly eyes looking at us with such pity, would at once tear aside the masks behind which we had sheltered.  We were not to be pitied - and yet, the tears in those eyes and the expressions of distress, would suddenly bring me face to face with reality.  A strange consolation for my sufferings to have brought me!" (223).  As such, I remain unconvinced by Herzog's statements that the climb and the victory were, in fact, worth all the suffering that it precipitated.  Was the climb worth it?

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