A Mountain of Indecision

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on November 7, 2011.

James T Lester - Everest 1963

James T Lester - Everest 1963

Thirteen months after my father died, I read something he wrote before I was born. It was his account of an adventure, and it not only taught me about his approach to that adventure, but also opened a bright new window on decision-making that I never imagined was there.

My father was a psychologist, and in 1963 he participated in the first American expedition to Mount Everest, with a grant to study group dynamics at high altitudes. The story goes that he met the expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, at a dinner party in San Francisco when Dyhrenfurth was in the process of building the team. During their progressively Martini-soaked conversation, my father eventually just came out and asked, “Can I come too?” I’m not sure if Dad ever decided which was more astonishing: that he asked, or that Dyhrenfurth said yes.

In those days, getting to the foot of Everest required a strenuous three-week trek, followed by a long climb and establishment of a base camp. Most people have heard of the dangers of altitude sickness and weather when climbing such mountains. Not so many are aware that one of the most capricious areas of Everest is quite far from the summit: the icefall of the Khumbu Glacier. Dad described it this way: “within it small avalanches occurred daily, crevasses were constantly opening up or closing, monstrous blocks of ice and snow were shifting and slipping, as the whole of the glacier moved downward.”

This icefall was in view of the expedition’s base camp. They would climb a lot further up the mountain and establish their advanced base camp from which a select group would launch their assaults on the summit. But first they had to negotiate a way through the icefall, whose constant shifting and groaning made it not just a threat, but a slightly different threat every day.

It was the job of a few climbers to map out a ‘safe’ route. And one of these guys – the team’s youngest member, Jake Breitenbach – lost his life doing so, crushed by a chunk of ice the size of a house.

In his account of the tragedy, my father wrote something I never heard him say during his life. Nor have I heard anyone else around me express the same feeling. He needed to decide between staying at Base Camp and continuing his climb, through the icefall, to Advanced Base Camp. Expedition decisions often had to be made as a group, but this one was my dad’s alone. He was in control of the scope of his study, and could adjust for safety concerns in ways that the summiteers would never have considered.

Here’s what I read in his account: “I had to decide whether going through that icefall was a risk I wanted to take. (It took me a week to decide, but I never wished I didn’t have to make the decision.)”

I looked up from his words, and thought about all the times I’ve complained and made myself sick over some defining decision or other. I couldn’t recall ever having had the sense of gratitude that my father did when he had such an important decision before him.

After that week of indecision, Dad climbed through the Khumbu icefall, and proceeded to spend a month at Advanced Base Camp, studying the climbers as they wrangled with their own fateful decisions and welcoming them back from their successful summit attempts.

“I never wished I didn’t have to make the decision.” It’s funny that he put such a powerful statement in parentheses. I’m taking it out now. I’m passing it on.