Sunday, July 24, 2011

Today's fortune: July 24, 2011

Today's fortune: Life always gets harder near the summit.

To help get a clear vision of this fortune, I'm going to consult the most chilling account of a journey to the highest summit in the world - Mount Everest - written by author Jon Krakauer in the book "Into Thin Air." If you haven't read it, you can read the first chapter for free here. Here's the opening scene from that first chapter, which begins with Krakauer at the peak of the mountain:

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.
Krakauer was wiped clean of energy because this fortune is right: the hardest part of the journey is always near the summit.

But let's dissect that for a second: "Near the summit," the fortune says. You can be near a summit on the way up... but you can also be near the summit on the way down.

For Krakauer, at least, the descent was more dangerous than the climb. In fact, he nearly died, a fate many people on the mountain that day couldn't avoid. Let's go back to the text:

As I began my descent I was extremely anxious, but my concern had little to do with [the high-altitute storm rolling in, which resulted in the deaths of 11 people that day]: a check of the gauge on my oxygen tank had revealed that it was almost empty. I needed to get down fast.

Krakauer, as most climbers do, used bottled oxygen to reach the summit because of the high altitude. But if running low on air is not enough to freak you out, check out what happened next:

Wanting to conserve whatever oxygen remained in my tank, I asked [another climber] to reach inside my backpack and turn off the valve on my regulator, which he did. For the next ten minutes, I felt surprisingly good.... Then, abruptly, I sense that I was suffocating. My vision dimmed and my head began to spin. I was on the brink of losing consciousness.

Instead of turning my oxygen off, [the other climber], in his hypoxically impaired state, had mistakenly cranked the valve open to full flow, draining the tank. I'd just squandered the last of my gas going nowhere.

I thought a lot about Krakauer today, but this fortune applies, of course, to more than just mountain climbers. This is going to sound like a silly comparison after reading Krakauer's passages above, but I think it'll bring the fortune back down to earth. Jamie had an appointment today, and I drove her there. To kill time during the appointment, I found a nearby McDonald's restaurant and went in to read, have a snack and a beverage and enjoy the air conditioning.

This McDonald's, you could tell, had recently been at a summit. Within the last five years it had been completely remodeled, the but the owners hadn't kept it up. The last two years had been hard on the place. It was dirty. The recently-new upholstery on the booths was worn and ripped. The staff members were nice but not well-trained. The mix was off on the soda machine, and the pricing was off in the cash register: I ordered a plain biscuit, and the cost was $1.09. The same biscuit with a piece of sausage on it would have cost only a dollar.

Back before this restaurant had been remodeled, I probably wouldn't have noticed these problems. But the place had reached a summit, and the slip down the slope was fast and difficult.

I don't know if this fortune applies to my life right now. I don't feel like I've reached a summit of any kind, and I hope I'm not close to one. I guess that means life is going to become more difficult. But that's okay. I can take it.

In the meantime, I'm thinking about an ascent of my own, nothing comparable to Krakauer's climb, but significant nonetheless. I'm thinking about taking on Mount Sunflower.

That's it up there. Okay, so it's not a mountain. It's in the middle of a field in western Kansas, a spot that's just slightly higher than the rest of the field surrounding it. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it's 4,039 feet above sea level, making it the highest elevation in the State of Kansas.

When you arrive at Mount Sunflower, you're greeted this message on the front cover of a guest book, left there by the owners of the property, who graciously allow visitors:

Congratulations! You have conquered Mount Sunflower.... Feel free to stop by our house and tell about your trials and tribulations to the lofty summit. Local native guides are also available at the homestead for an outrageous fee.

Someday, I'd like to take that road trip out to western Kansas and stand on the highest peak in my state. But I'll be a real man about it - I won't use bottled oxygen.

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