I can remember it as clearly as if it were last summer rather than a summer more than a half century ago. I was 17, a soon-to-be senior, and I really thought I had quite the handle on this whole life business.
During that idyllic and, looking back, reckless summer, my mates and I surely took some chances. Yes, there was a liberal amount of 3.2 consumption a year before our legal age of 18, and if you’re unfamiliar with what that “3.2” reference is, stop reading. You’ve taken a wrong turn and wound up in the wrong readership audience.
Among my group of pals who shared my miscreant moments, some, sadly, are no longer of this earth. But back in that summer of ’68, truth be told, for all of us death was merely a rumor, so snugly did the mantles of invincibility that we donned cling to our shoulders.
I suppose that’s what led us to some cliffs overlooking a quarry on a late June Saturday afternoon. It was a quarry we’d heard about from some others who said it was the perfect place for cliff jumping and diving from about 30 or so feet above the water. Our encouragers said, using the parlance of the ’60s, that it was “a blast.”
When we got there and selected our embarkation point, without one thought of checking out the expanse of water below for some barely submerged rocks or other potential dangers that may have lurked beneath the lapping waters, one by one, we each leapt out into the fragrant summer atmosphere. Some jumped and the more intrepid dove, seconds later plunging beneath the water. And, since God sometimes takes care of fools, for all of my merry band, the day became a pleasant memory.
As I look back on that and other impulsive and imprudent moments of my past, it’s almost as if I’m remembering someone else’s actions, so cautious have I become in my autumnal or winter years, whichever God decides my current season is as I approach my 70th birthday.
I thought about my own risk-avoidance lifestyle recently while driving my work roads and listening to a podcast where comedian Joe Rogan was interviewing Emily Harrington, who’s quite well known in mountain-climbing circles. She’s known both for the uniqueness of her gender in a thrill sport dominated by men and, more importantly, for her accomplishments, including in early November of last year becoming the first woman to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on the Golden Gate Route in a single day.
To clarify, the term “free climb” means that ropes are used but only as a safety measure if the climber falls, not to aid the ascent. Now, lest you think that makes free climbing short on danger, think again. Harrington spoke of the injuries she sustained when she fell a year earlier some 50 feet before the ropes took hold. When she failed to get her feet positioned properly to brace herself against the side of the mountain, she banged her head against the rocks and severely concussed herself. Harrington has a videographer that shoots every climb, and in analyzing the video as to what went wrong, she realized she fell a heart-stopping 32 feet per second.
Even if I were Harrington’s relatively youthful 34 years and attracted to climbing, that would have been my last climb. However, Harrington, still suffering post-concussive symptoms and against her doctor’s wishes, just four days later was in Ecuador climbing a volcano with her father, who still climbs in his mid-60s.
For those like Harrington who’ve chosen to live life at the very precipice far beyond the teen-aged years when risk assumption is more common, I’ve often wondered as I did years ago watching Evel Knievel, arguably, America’s most famous daredevil, just what makes some assume such unnecessary risks.
Rogan did indeed ask Harrington the money-ball question, as in why she does it. She’d once been a 22-year-old who’d graduated from the University of Colorado after growing up in Boulder and climbing since her father introduced her to the sport as a little girl. She was intent on going to law school before North Face approached her with an offer to work for them. The job description was climbing mountains, wearing the company brand and using its gear, posting on social media for the company and making personal appearances, and it was goodbye law school and hello Mount Everest and other summits.
Harrington told Rogan that she can’t really explain why she does what she does, but she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, as in ever. Said Harrington, “I’m terrified most of the time. I cry a lot. But I can’t live without it.”
Now, dissecting her quote, of the three admissions she made, I can check two of the boxes. Much of what I see in the world and much of what I envision beyond my last breaths terrify me. And, yes, tears come so much more easily to me now in whatever the two seasons of my life I occupy, especially when I think of the short road that lies ahead compared to the one I’ve already traveled and when I think about what lies beyond the last boundary of my mortal existence.
But, as for any one single-focus search for that next tallest of peaks and steepest of ascents, well, far too many summers have passed since I once stood on the edge of a cliff and took my youthful leaps of faith.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest. Reach him at [email protected]