Catching Monkeys

This is not a riddle.

Question:  How do you catch a monkey?

Answer: The same way we get caught ourselves.

Catching a monkey is fairly easy.  Find a coconut and go to the jungle where monkeys live.  Cut a small hole in one end of the coconut  so that a monkey can just slide its hand in. Fill the coconut with fruit. Tether the other end of the coconut  to a stake driven in the ground.

Now here’s the cool part:  a monkey will come along and, smelling the fruit,  stick its hand into the hole in the coconut.  When the monkey closes its fist around the fruit, it won’t be able to pull its arm free from the coconut. Voila, it’s caught!  Go get your monkey and take it home.

Of course if the monkey gave any thought to this, it would realize that it isn’t really caught at all.  All it has to do is release its grasp and slide its hand out of the coconut. And run free.

But, you see, monkeys like their fruit.  Once they get their hands around some, they’re not about to let go.  Even if it means freedom.

Sometimes holding on is a good thing – like when the drop below is a couple thousand feet.

But most of the time refusing to let go leaves us caught – like monkeys.

The image was made by my friend and fellow photographer Matt Stauble in Tanzania while we were on safari together.  Check out his website at Matt Stauble Photo.

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Avoid being a monkey.

Route Finding

The young woman behind the information desk was perhaps 20.  “Could you tell me where the Boot Spur Trail intersects with the Tuck Trail?” I inquired.  

She cocked her head to one side and asked, “Do you have a map?”  

“No,” I replied.  “I just want to refresh my recollection as to where the trails intersect.” 

“You should really have a map, sir,” she said.  “Sir,” I quickly discerned, was code for “you look old and stupid.”

Knowing where to go can be a challenge.  

Some routes are clear.

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Some routes are not.

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Some are marked with cairns.

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Some are marked with signs.

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Some routes go up.

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Some go down.

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Finding our way is pretty important. In the mountains. And in life.

But even when you’ve found the route, it isn’t always easy to stay on it.

Sometimes we have to feel our way along.  Sometimes we have to stop. Sometimes we go the wrong way and we have to turn around and go back. Oftentimes, we need help.

I am fond of saying that if it seems too difficult, we’re probably off route.  Ann is quick to remind me that sometimes a difficult route is just that:  difficult.  Being able to tell the difference often feels impossible.

Which path is the “right” path?

Maps can help.  The stories of those wise thinkers who have gone before us too.

Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”  The best path is the one we chose ourselves.

Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda this:

“Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.  Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question.  This question is one that only a very old man asks.  My benefactor told me about it once when I was young and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it.  Now I do understand it.  I will tell you what it is:  Does this path have a heart?  If it does, the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

When thinking about paths, I am often reminded of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

               Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
               and sorry I could not travel both
               And be one traveller, long I stood
               and looked down one as far as I could
               to where it bent in the undergrowth;

               Then took the other, as just as fair,
               and having perhaps the better claim
               because it was grassy and wanted wear;
               though as for that, the passing there
               had worn them really about the same,

               And both that morning equally lay
               in leaves no feet had trodden black.
               Oh, I kept the first for another day!
               Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
               I doubted if I should ever come back.

               I shall be telling this with a sigh
               Somewhere ages and ages hence:
               Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
               I took the one less travelled by,
               and that has made all the difference.  

Fortunately there are many routes.  There is no “right path.”  The only true path is the one that is our own – even when we’re feeling old and stupid.

Disconnect(ed)

As climbers and adventurers, we could do a whole lot more for the places and the peoples that we love.

This past Sunday’s New York Times carried an excellent Op-Ed piece by Thomas Friedman on the devolving quagmire that is Afghanistan.  In the same section, Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called The Afghanistan Abyss.  Both authors shared the view that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the tribal dynamics in Afghanistan and how those dynamics play out in the presence of  an occupying force. “More troops, more blood, more chaos,” believes Kristof. “Frankly, if a bunch of foreign Muslim troops in turbans showed up in my home-town in rural Oregon, searching our homes without bringing any obvious benefit [such as education, agricultural development and infrastructure], then we might all take to the hills with our deer rifles as well,” he said.

In the book review section of the very same issue of the Times, Greg Mortenson’s incredibly inspiring memoir, Three Cups of Tea, is listed as a best seller for the 134th week.  As many of us know, Mortenson was a climber who, although he failed miserably in a climbing attempt on K2, fell in love with that far off place where the mountains grow so big. But instead of leaving with his memories and his photographs, he decided to give back to the place.  He founded a non-profit foundation and  built dozens of schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through education and awareness, he seeks to end tribal repression and the need for more troops, blood and chaos.

Mortenson’s book is beautifully written.  It’s a great “story.” And it is easy to read it just as a “story.”  But the suffering of which both Friedman and Kristof write is real. Can we connect with both the story and the reality? Is there something we can actually   “do?”

Afghanistan was this past week’s headline.  But we don’t need to look far beyond our own footprints to find other places that could use our help as well.

Ann and I had the great privilege of listening to Geoffrey Tabin speak at an American Alpine Club dinner a number of years ago.  Tabin, an ophthalmologist, climbed Everest. Like Mortenson, he fell in love with the beauty of the place.   As he travelled through the region, he saw countless cases of preventable corneal blindness. Returning to Nepal year after year, he single-handedly treated thousands of these cases restoring sight to those who could no longer see the majesty of the mountains that surrounded them let alone the faces of those they love.

Sir Edmund Hillary too.  For years after his historic first, he returned to the Sherpa people founding schools and hospitals, lifting countless numbers out of poverty and ignorance and disease.

None of us need be a Mortenson or Tabin or Hillary.  But perhaps we could connect a little better.  I so admire my friends Andy and Bob who participate in the Israel bike ride for the benefit of the Arava Institute. Arava is “the premier environmental education and research program in the Middle East, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges.”  The goal is to build networks and develop understanding that will enable future cooperative work and activism in the Middle East and beyond. Andy and Bob love the place where their roots run deep.  They give back.

In this time of economic crisis, it is so easy to circle the wagons around our own little compounds.  But we cannot forget to look outward.  Whether through tangible actions or through the support of those who take those actions, we can connect with those in need.

Charles Houston was another climber who “failed” on K2.  In his retreat from the peak, his team fell on a steep icy slope.  Tied to his fellow climbers, Houston and his partner Pete Schoening miraculously arrested the fall and saved their comrades. Houston, also a physician, went on to give back to many over his 91 year life.  But he is perhaps best known in climbing circles for his role in that dramatic improbable rescue.  His biography is called The Brotherhood of the Rope.

We are all tied together.  Climbers and adventurers and explorers and those who don’t wander far from their tribal homes.

I want to do better at remembering the connection.

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The Brotherhood of The Rope.  We depend on it.

Is There A Point?

The wind battered the tent for the second night.  Or maybe it was the third night. Trapped at 11,000 feet in a horrid storm.  The wind blowing – not gusting but blowing – a constant 70 mph.  We’d cut countless snow blocks to protect the tents from imploding.  I lay in my bag sleepless as the tent bent and snapped against the wind and thought, “What’s the point?”

It wasn’t the first time that this thought had occurred to me. On the carry to 10,500 feet, I’d flamed out under the weight of a 70 lb load, sure that I was too old, too fat, too out of shape, too “something” to be doing this stupid project. I never uttered the words out loud, but I sure wondered what the point was.

Ann later confided that she too had struggled in her own private hell – more than once – asking the same question.  Is there a point to all this?

It is, of course, a question many of us ask ourselves from time to time.  I do, like when I’m arguing with a recalcitrant teenager or endeavoring to understand why a client has made the same bad choice for the third time.  Should we be concerned that there be a “point? ”  Should we only engage in activities that have a “point?”   Is a well lived life one that has a “point?”

Should our objective be to leave some “legacy?”

Our 43rd President, George W. Bush, was utterly consumed by the concept of legacy. In the fascinating fictionalized biography of Laura Bush called  American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, the character who becomes president is single-mindedly driven by the notion of how his political decisions will impact his legacy.  Most of us have an opinion as to how that turned out for the real character.

I was thinking today about Alison Hargreaves.  She was the Brit who wanted to be the first person to climb the three highest peaks in the world solo without supplemental oxygen. She died on K2 leaving a husband and two small children. Many asked, what was the point.  What, in fact, is her legacy?

Ann has a friend who wants his legacy to be that he has read all of Western literature before he dies. That seems rather narcissistic to me.  But is it any more so that wanting to climb the Seven Summits as I do?

Most everyone has an opinion on the politics of Ted Kennedy, who died this past week.  It would be difficult though for anyone to argue that he failed to leave a legacy. He was part of the national discourse for more than 40 years and authored more than 1000 pieces of legislation. Many would say that he left something of importance behind.

Leaving something of importance is what motivates many writers and artists. Photographers too! (I even suspect it may be a motivating factor for parents, although it is so easy to lose sight of that!) We want to create something meaningful. Something tangible.  Something that stands the test of time.

And what is that?  What is the proof of a life well lived?  What is legacy?

I am reminded of the poem that some attribute to Stevenson, others to Emerson or Stanley:

She has achieved success
who has lived well,
laughed often, and loved much;
who has enjoyed the trust of pure women,
the respect of intelligent men
and the love of little children;
who has filled her niche and accomplished her task;
who has left the world better than she found it
whether by an improved poppy,
a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;
who has always looked for the best in others
and given them the best she had;
whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.

Much of life is like hauling a 70 lb load up a steep hill. To climb, to adventure, to journey on the edge is to live deeply into the richness of life. But, finding the “point” is up to us. We create meaning and legacy out of the ordinary fabric of our lives, with vision, boldness and determined action, especially when the load is heavy. What do you think?

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