Some stories are powerful glimpses into the structure of Being itself and calls to actions of how to orient ourselves in this world. This is one of those
The story of Joe Simpson is one of these. He is a mountaineer who shattered his leg in a fall on the 21,000ft Siula Grande in 1985 and his exhausted climbing partner, Simon Yates, who had struggled for 12 hours to save him and was himself slipping over a precipice, cut the rope that connected them. Simpson fell to what seemed certain death but, four days later, Lazarus-like, clawed his way back to base camp.
What makes this all the more astonishing is that none of this is fictional or embellished. His book “Touching the Void” recounts the unbelievable suffering that he went through and yet, ten years later, Joe recounts his experiences saying: “I can add only that however painful readers may think our experiences were, for me this book still falls short of articulating just how dreadful were some of those lonely days. I simply could not find the words to express the utter desolation of the experience.“
Physical accomplishments or heroic feats like Joe’s are the most obvious forms of facing the unknown but the battles can be equally intangible and difficult. I believe that through great difficulty there is meaning, victory and a form of transcendence. Independence from a mechanistic and animalistic form of life. This is not a romantic journey but is a hopeful and noble one.
The structure of Joe’s story, I believe, is a potent narrative and call to action to Being, it forms a working template on Being and orienting oneself in this world.
“A Land without Pity” is the title of one of the later chapters in the book. I have borrowed this as the title for this essay. Life, as in this story, is grim with suffering and in most part without pity, and yet the attempt at overcoming of challenges contains a certain beauty and is filled with hope.
For me, this story begins when Joe’s rope, binding him to his climbing partner, is cut and he falls into the darkness. He survives and when he awakens, he finds himself in an ice cavern precariously resting on an ice shelf with a dark void on his left. This is the Abyss and it terrifies him.
“The black space held untold horrors”
… I imagined how long it would seem; a long long period of twilight, and darkness, drifting from exhausted sleep into half-consciousness. Maybe the last half would be dreamless sleeping, ebbing away quietly. I thought carefully of the end. It wasn’t how I had ever imagined it. It seemed pretty sordid. I hadn’t expected a blaze of glory when it came, nor had I thought it would be like this slow pathetic fade into nothing. I didn’t want it to be like that.”
Faced with death either way he opted for a death in this control:
I wasn’t going through that madness again, but I cringed from doing the only thing left to me. I wasn’t ready for such a choice
He did two things when he chose to enter the Abyss that are notable in their importance and meaning. He left the rope unknotted, and during the abseil, he wouldn’t be able to hold his position at the end of the rope as it would pass easily through the belay plate.
The second is that he abandoned his Prussik Knot he made to try and climb out of the crevasse. This is a friction-type knot that a climber can use to vertically ascend a rope.
“The Prussik knot hung unused just below the ice screw. […] I let myself slide off the ledge and watched the Prussik get smaller as I abseiled down the slope to the drop. If there was nothing there I didn’t want to come back.”
The rope in this story is, as an umbilical cord, once cut we are most part alone faced with difficult decisions.
We are all faced with the decision of remaining where we are or venturing into the unknown and the darkness, in every part of our lives, however small and yet meaningful.
Our choice is not certain death but a more subtle one (and therefore more insidious and difficult to identify). There are always /good/ reasons for not doing what is difficult, there is are always socially acceptable rationalizations to remain where you are. Perhaps it is the heroic within thus all that rejects a mundane existence and mere survival.
Melodramatic as it may be my personal stance is that stagnating without forward progress, the status quo, the mediocre represents the “slow fade into nothing”. There are some things worse than death. For me, survival is inseparable from growth.
To accomplish anything of value we must continuously venture into the unknown upon paths that appear darkest to us.
This is narrative, a way of Being that is also in fictional stories — In King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail him and his knights entered the forest at the point that “he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no way or path” – The Holy Grail was thought to be that which redeems. Redemption through darkness.
Leaving the Prussik knot behind and leaving the rope unknotted in the belay plate were deeply meaningful actions. Actions of commitment and steeling oneself to the challenge he faced. To steel oneself and move forward without doubt you cannot keep looking back.A common equivalent in literature of the Abyss is the “Belly of the whale” – It represents the concept of “no going back”, because even if there is a physical return to safety there is never a successful spiritual one.
Afterwards he said “I had made the right decision against the worst of my fears. I had done it, and I was sure that nothing now could be worse than those hours of torture on the bridge”
There are no rewards or prizes for taking the unknown path, no romance of the struggle and no spectators to encourage and congratulate you on your courage. That which you most need is found where you can least bring yourself to look. It is a decision that is not made once but made every day, only the closest to you will understand the loneliness and desolation.
in sterquiliniis invenitur – in filth it shall be found
In the Far Distance
After Joe managed to escape the crevasse (“the grave”) he crawled over eight miles with a shattered leg, for 4 days without water, until he reached their base camp. He was found by his climbing partner Simon which brought this Herculean feat of human survival to an end;
Reading through the four day crawl back to base camp, there are a few patterns that I noticed that were deeply meaningful and represent a call to action of how to orient yourself in the world. In this land without Pity.
I’m going to attempt to represent them and explain my understanding of them as best as I can. I believe doing this poorly is better than not doing it at all.
The first of which, is “The Voice” – In his state of shock Joe describes his internal state of mind:
It was as if there were two minds within me arguing the toss. The voice was clean and sharp and commanding. It was always right, and I listened to it when it spoke and acted on its decisions. The other mind rambled out a disconnected series of images, and memories and hopes, which I attended to in a daydream state as I set about obeying the orders of the voice. I had to get to the glacier. I would crawl on the glacier, but I didn’t think that far ahead.
If my perspectives had sharpened, so too had they narrowed, until I thought only in terms of achieving predetermined aims and no further. Reaching the glacier was my aim. The voice told me exactly how to go about it, and I obeyed while my other mind jumped abstractedly from one idea to another.
He refers to this voice again and again as the rational part of his being that expressed what was most necessary for his survival.
The bad leg slid along behind like an unwanted pest … The voice […] urged me into motion whenever the heat from the glacier halted me in a drowsy exhausted daze. It was three o’clock—only three and a half hours of daylight left. I kept moving but soon realised that I was making ponderously slow headway. It didn’t seem to concern me that I was moving like a snail. So long as I obeyed the voice, then I would be all right.
The voice was critical during these four days of suffering. Joe speaks about the voice repeatedly. Even when nearing the camp and almost giving up he refers to the argument within himself:
The voice countered this. I lay still and listened to the argument. I didn’t care about the camp or getting down. It was too far. Yet the irony of collapsing on the moraines after having overcome all those obstacles angered me. The voice won. My mind was set. It had been from the moment I got out of the crevasse. […] I would keep moving, keep trying, for want of other choices
The Voice represents doing what is most moral. The Voice commands us to do what is most meaningful, not what is most expedient. This is the call to adventure, the sense of direction that we all too often ignore in small and large ways.
The “Voice” answers the question of “what is the most important thing I can do now to further my goals”. By the nature of things, the most meaningful thing to do is usually also the most personally challenging, the most difficult. Maybe this is a good heuristic to find that Voice within yourself?
To accomplish your goals there is a level of measured cruelty to yourself that is required. Remember that the dosage makes the poison. To become free from the tyranny of others and the world, you must become a tyrant yourself.
The Voice can be difficult to hear clearly, or to interpret. It can get diluted, adulterated through lies we tell others and ourselves, and if sufficiently ignored over time will be muted to a murmur.
The voice has many interpretations including “God” or “Truth” – One’s strength should be measured according to how much of this “truth” one could still barely endure—or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.
Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness.
Beyond good and evil – Friedrich Nietzsche
Joe knew that his time to get back to base camp was limited. He used his watch to push himself to reach the next obstacle and to make the most of his daylight hours.
Then the voice would interrupt the reverie and I would glance guiltily at my watch before starting off again.
The voice, and the watch, urged me into motion whenever the heat from the glacier halted me in a drowsy exhausted daze … I kept moving but soon realised that I was making ponderously slow headway. It didn’t seem to concern me that I was moving like a snail. So long as I obeyed the voice, then I would be all right. I would look ahead and note some features in the waves of snow, then look at my watch, and the voice told me to reach that point in half an hour. I obeyed.
Sometimes I found myself slacking, sitting in a daydream, lost to what I was doing, and I would start up guiltily and try to make up time by crawling faster. It never let up. I crawled in a mechanical automatic daze because I was told that I must reach the prescribed spot in time.
Over time we, as a civilization, learnt that we could bargain with reality. We learnt that we could forestall gratification now, and that it will pay off in a place and time that doesn’t exist yet.
We are all constrained by time, it is one of the few things that unlimited wealth cannot buy. There will be many dark paths embark on in our lives, and it is difficult, really difficult, to find the right form of our success. We have to protect the time it takes to find it.
Time is a form of measurement and if we do not measure our progress we have no way of knowing how far we are from attaining our goals. Direction, is not enough without measurement. In our desire to traverse our lives we need to look for Frameworks and Tools that help us measure our progress.
Seek and experiment with these forms and accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work
—- Stephen King
To make progress with a broken leg Joe adopted a pattern of simple movements. Each on their own, delivered little visible progress but done with persistence and in a specific order were critical to help him make progress:
Patterns! I remembered how I had traversed to the col with Simon. It seemed so long ago. That’s the way. Find a routine and stick to it.
Then I bent down to dig another two steps and repeat the pattern. Bend, hop, rest; bend, hop, rest…The flares of pain became merged into the routine and I paid less attention to them, concentrating solely on the patterns. I was sweating profusely despite the cold. Agony and exertion blended into one, and time passed unnoticed as I became absorbed with the patterns of hopping and digging.
Each new piece of landscape (ice slope, glacier, boulders) presented new challenges for him to traverse with his broken leg. He kept coming back to these patterns to make progress.
I remembered the patterns I had employed when traversing the ridge and climbing out of the crevasse, and concentrated on the same technique. I broke the hopping down into distinct actions and then repeated them faithfully. Place the axe, lift the foot forward, brace, hop, place the axe, lift-brace-hop, place-lift-brace-hop…
Patterns are habits, routines, disciplines. On their own they do not provide an outcome or a way of Being but put together, enable the seemingly impossible.
Creating and persisting with the execution of patterns or routines is the fine line that separates those who know what needs to be done, how to do it and those who may accomplish what they set out to do. Your patterns, habits, routines are those what you choose them to be. It is a daily battle to live in defiance of weakness and in rebellion of decay.
There is a certain confidence in understanding that small attempts, repeated, will complete any undertaking
I will consider each day’s effort as but one blow of my blade against a mighty oak. The first blow may cause not a tremor in the wood, nor the second, nor the third. Each blow, of itself, may be trifling, and seem of no consequence. Yet from childish swipes the oak will eventually tumble.
Og Mandino (The greatest salesman in the world – The Scroll Marked III)
All-together now (Voice, Watch, Patterns)
Here is an excerpt from the book that brings the Patterns, the Voice and the Watch together to accomplish the impossible.
The voice kept urging me on, ‘Place-lift-brace-hop…keep going. Look how far you’ve gone. Just do it, don’t think about it…’
I did as I was told. Stumbling past and sometimes over boulders, falling, crying, swearing in a litany that matched the pattern of my hopping. I forgot why I was doing it; forgot even the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it.
Running on instincts that I had never suspected were in me, and drifting down the sea of moraines in a blurred delirium of thirst, and pain and hopping, I timed myself religiously. I looked ahead to a landmark and gave myself half an hour to reach it.
As I neared the mark, a furious bout of watch-glancing would ensue, until it became part of the pattern…place-liftbrace-hop-time. If I realised I was behind time I tried to rush the last ten minutes of hopping. I fell so much more when I rushed but it had become so damned important to beat the watch. Only once did I fail to beat it, and I sobbed with annoyance. *The watch became as crucial as my good leg.* I had no sense of time passing, and with each fall I lay in a semi-stupor, accepting the pain and quite unaware of how long I had been there.
A look at the watch would galvanise me into action, especially when I saw it had been five minutes and not the thirty seconds it had felt like.
Tears in the night
I believe the real power in the story lies in the unintentionally symbolic narrative as a template to orient yourself in the world. Touching the Void was a lucky novel. Replayed a hundred times, maybe 99 of these there would be no story to tell.
This in itself is a lesson for me. I read it as “You may enter the Abyss but know that the odds are against you and if you fail you will be left in the land without pity”. I do not find this depressing, or pessimistic but noble. This archaic word has gone out of use today but is all that remains to us who reject the opaque and leaden world of comfort.
If you enter the Abyss to tell the story, to receive the prize, the obtain the medal, or even because of fear then you have done it for the wrong reasons. Never compete with others but rather against what is most difficult for you each day. If you enter the Abyss because it is the best grindstone by which you can sharpen yourself, the truest way to test your metal and physical limits. Seek the process and the outcome will no matter.
It is the faith that is the decisive word here – to take up an ancient religious formula in a possibly new sense, is a fundamental certainty that the noble soul has something about itself, something that once found, cannot be lost – A reverence for what you are capable of.
The prizes of life are at the end of each journey, not near the beginning; and it is not given to me to know how many steps are necessary in order to reach my goal. Failure I may still encounter at the thousandth step, yet success hides behind the next bend in the road. Never will I know how close it lies unless I turn the corner. Always will I take another step. If that is of no avail I will take another, and yet another. In truth, one step at a time is not too difficult.
(Og Mandino – The greatest salesman in the world)