PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — My friend and I have an amicable argument going as to whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine actually summited Mount Everest in their 1924 attempt. He has sent me articles that cite evidence that they may have reached the top and I counter with opinions from expert mountaineers that it is unlikely they succeeded. The verdict is still out, but to me, it’s more important that they tried.
I have always been fascinated by mountain and wilderness adventures and what they tell us about the human spirit. I have read many books and watched many documentaries on the subject, some of which I have chronicled in this space. I have read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” which details a fatal 1996 expedition to the top of Everest. And I have watched “Free Solo,” which captures Alex Honnold’s amazing climb of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park without the aid of a rope.
The chances of finding me on the top of Everest or clinging to El Capitan are well short of winning the lottery and equally remote. I don’t play the lottery. And I don’t plan on climbing Everest.
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Yet, I have stood on the top of more accessible summits, places of stunning beauty that are within my physical and mental capabilities. Let’s call them “poor man’s summits,” not for their financial accessibility but for their availability to those of us with an aversion to falling to our deaths.
As a child I stood atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River Valley. I went to visit the gravesite of Michael Brisbois, who, according to legend, asked to be buried there so “he could look down upon Joseph Rolette [his business rival] in death as he did in life.”
The accuracy of this myth is suspect, but I like the sentiment — it illustrates the value of a superior vantage point. One of my column’s readers, originally from my hometown, asked that I guide him to the grave to recall his own childhood memories. He stood at the top of the bluff, took in the expansive view, and cried. Now I know why eagles linger in the updrafts above the bluffs.
I have hiked the cliffs overlooking Lake Superior in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with my aforementioned friend. I have also stood at the top of a summit — only about a 462-foot rise — in the Grand Tetons overlooking Two Ocean Lake. When my wife and I reached the top, we celebrated the view with a newlywed couple. Perhaps they found in the view the excitement of their pending life together — the mysteries looming over the horizon.
Summits are equal parts achievement and perspective. There’s an indelible sense of accomplishment at having achieved a peak — regardless of its height — under your own means and without the aid of an elevator. And there’s the remarkable perspective of holding the world in the palm of your hand held at arm’s length.
On a recent trip to Sedona, Arizona, my family and I hiked to Devil’s Bridge, “the largest natural sandstone arch in the Sedona area.” It’s only about a 400-foot ascent, but the trail follows a rugged path through the Sedona desert. Young people sprint the path without much effort. For older people like me — with a hip that feels and sounds like my 1963 Corvair 4-speed missing a gear — it takes a little more effort.
We reached a plateau about 50 feet below the arch, where I stopped and looked at the steep rocky incline and decided to wait for the rest of my party to pick me up on the way back down. I sat down and looked up at that boulder-strewn staircase. I looked again. Against my better judgment, I ascended. I would not be denied that superior vantage point within my reach.
Scores of people waited at the top for a chance to have their picture taken on the bridge. They took turns walking across the narrow arch hovering above the Sedona landscape as if they were waiting for a rollercoaster ride at Disney World. Except this ride stood still while their spirits soared.
We need not summit Mount Everest or El Capitan to feel the exhilaration and beauty of the world. We only need to climb our own poor man’s summits.
Frydenlund lives in Prairie du Chien: firstname.lastname@example.org.