Mountain-climbing: “He makes me walk on my high places”

He causes me to walk on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:19)

Monica Kalozdi is a New Orleans resident with a passion for climbing mountains.  For some reason, years ago after the birth of her third child, she developed a yen to climb things.  First she was climbing hills and mountains.  Then she got ambitious. She decided to climb the highest mountains on the seven continents of the world.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Wednesday, July 13, 2005), Monica Kalozdi scaled Kilimanjaro in 2000, Aconcagua in South America in 2001, McKinley in 2003, and then in the summer of 2005 she reached Everest.  And that’s what I wanted to tell you about.  (Btw, typing her name into search blanks will bring up videos of her interview on New Orleans television.)

Here is Monica’s story…

For 55 days, she and her team lived in the frozen regions of Everest, eating dried food out of bags, living inside tents that were sometimes shredded by hurricane-strength winds. The final 1500 feet of this 29,035 ft mountain, she said, is called the death zone. Monica says, “You’re exhausted. You feel your body giving out. You can’t see where you are stepping, and you know one misstep can kill you. You’re terrified to take another step because you know you could die. But you also know you can’t stop, because if you do, you’ll die.” Pretty terrifying, but it gets worse. “We knew we had not drunk enough water and hadn’t eaten any food. Those were mistakes.” She says, “It was the scariest, most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. It is a death zone.”

Just 1500 feet? A breeze, right? Monica says the path is not particularly steep, except for three places…where it’s straight up for anywhere from 50 to 200 feet. Sheer rock wall. Through snow and ice, the climbers walk with steel claws called crampons attached to their boots for traction. But in rock? Well, good luck. This is where people die.

Everest claimed six lives that season, she said. The weird part is that when you die on Everest, the bodies remain there, lying where they fell. No one has time or strength to get the dead bodies down off the mountain. So climbers step over the bodies and the families back at home try to get some comfort in knowing their loved one died doing what he or she loved best. At least, that’s the theory.

At one crucial moment when a misstep would cause her death, Monica spotted the body of a Slovenian who had died two weeks earlier. “He was lying on his back, with his hands and legs in the air, like he was climbing. His eyes were open. He was just frozen where he fell. You had to step over him. Then you kept moving on. People just ignored him, like he wasn’t there.”

Like he wasn’t there. In the minds of the climbers, she points out, the fallen colleagues become a cipher. “If you die, you cease to exist in that fraternity. You are nothing. No one talks about you, no one even uses your name to refer to your body. You become ‘green jacket’ or ‘black boot’. Your name is never mentioned again.”

Monica says, “I think it’s a defense mechanism to keep from thinking what you are placing yourself in. But I think it’s very cold.” Eventually, she says, someone will roll the dead Slovenian off the mountain, “so climbers won’t have to look at him anymore.” She says, “We didn’t have the strength or the courage. We just kept climbing.”

When they arrived at the crest of Everest, “on top of the world,” they call it, there was no exhilaration. She felt nothing. “It was something other climbers had told me to expect,” she said. Part of the reason is that the big problem now facing the climbers is getting down off the mountain.

“Niney-nine percent of all deaths happen on the way down from the summit,” she said. Over the next four hours of descent, Monica found out why. “You’re exhausted,” she said, “and you can’t see where you’re stepping…you want it to end, but you can’t hurry. And you know you’re exhausted, and your mind might not be working correctly.”

“I wouldn’t do it again for a hundred million dollars,” she told her husband. She did not say what she planned to do about the remaining three mountains still on her list to be conquered.

The strange part 

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the experience was waiting for her at the base camp. There, they expected to rejoice and rest and perhaps celebrate. It was not to be.

The atmosphere was all wrong. The camp was filled with climbers who had failed to reach the summit. Some were fatigued, some were hurting, some ran out of supplies, but for whatever reason, these had stopped their climb and returned to base camp. Now, as Monica’s party returns, they come out of their tents to greet the conquerors. Monica said, “They would come over and congratulate us in a solemn way, and then shuffle away with sad faces.” She added, “No one parties at a wake.”

The word mediocre is the result of the union of two Latin words: medi meaning “halfway” and ocris meaning “mountain.” Mediocre literally means halfway up the mountain.  Somewhere there is a list of all those who climbed to the top of Everest.  But nowhere is there a list of all who tried and got halfway up.  There is no list of the mediocre.

Know anyone who did not climb? 

Freddie Arnold, longtime missionary of the North American Mission Board and my colleague at the New Orleans Baptist Association, read the Monica Kalozdi story and thought of a parallel.  (Note: I was director of missions for NOBA 2004-2009.)

“We have mission groups come to New Orleans from churches all over America,” he said. “They will help us paint a church building and hold Bible schools in the parks and witness in the French Quarter. By the time they depart, they are sky high. They’ve had a great time and can’t wait to get home to share the experience.”

Freddie said, “I always caution them about what’s ahead. The people back at home have not been where you have, have not had the experiences you have had. They have been carrying on as usual. So don’t expect them to understand what you have been through and to be as excited for you as you are. It’s the people in your group who understand. You rejoice with one another.”

Same for campers who return from retreats and do not understand why the folks back home aren’t sky high also.

The big question is always…

The question mountain climbers always face is “why?” Why go to so much trouble and risk your life for such a momentary achievement? The classic answer from Sir Edmund Hilary is, “Because it’s there.” But for most of us, that’s not good enough.

There has to be something in the human spirit that craves this kind of challenge, that needs to face these fears, that cries out for this kind of world-class accomplishment. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, just a Baptist preacher, so I am out of my element trying to analyze the motives of these incredible people.

Now, personally, given a choice between having my tombstone read “He scaled the highest mountain in the world” or “He made a difference in the lives of a few people,” I’ll choose the latter. Some would say it’s not necessary to choose, that one can do both. Perhaps.

I will not judge the mountain climbers, particularly one whom I know only from the newspaper article. But may I raise one little question about this avocation of hers: where are her children? I wonder if they would not prefer having Mother home in the evenings to tuck them in, read them a story, share their prayers, than to hear of her exploits on the other side of the world, no matter how dramatic or historic.

And the same with daddies. I once resigned from membership as a trustee of our denomination’s International Mission Board, canceled a trip to Japan and closed some out of town meetings I had planned to preach the following year, in order to stay home with my family. In no time flat, the denomination chose a replacement trustee of the board, the missionary in Japan invited another American pastor to visit, and some churches selected other preachers for their meetings. I left no vacancy anywhere–except with my family when I was gone.

Those who devote themselves to raising their children, who stay with it day in and day out for the full twenty years or so–or even more, sometimes–are scaling their own mountains. And when it’s all said and done, they will have a lot more to show for it than a newspaper clipping. Or frostbite.

God, give us mothers and dads who see theirs as the grandest challenge in the world. And if they insist on climbing mountains, may they wait till the kids are old enough and take them along. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.