Jan Estep, “A State of Hypoxia,” Bridge, Vol. 1, No. 4, Spring/Summer 2002, 118-122.
Hypoxia: an abnormal condition resulting from a decrease in the
oxygen supplied to or utilized by body tissue.
Platonic: idealistic, visionary, or impractical.
lifting your knee, swinging the foot forward, pushing it down into the snow, shifting your weight, and pausing to breathe. For hours your activity has been reduced to this: stepping, breathing, stepping, breathing. With each move your heart pounds so fast and hard it’s deafening. It’s so loud you picture the muscle filling up and contracting, again and again, forcing blood to your extremities at a ridiculous rate. Each pause you wait for your body to calm itself and are amazed that a simple step forward can cause so much internal disturbance. You step again and wait. When you breathe the cold air rasps against your throat, never seeming to reach your lungs. You draw deeper against the thin air but you’re slowly suffocating. The pressure is too low outside the body, getting lower as you move higher. You step again and breathe, all feeling shunted to your weakened limbs. Preoccupied with the effort, you forget what you wanted, why you’re here, what the larger goal of this picture is. You wonder if you’ll reach the top, whether you’ll be aware of yourself when you do, or astonished that there is an end at all.
If someone from sea level were immediately taken to the top of Mount Everest at 29,028 feet, they would be unconscious within seconds and dead within minutes. Humans are not meant to survive in extreme altitudes—the highest permanent residents live at 17,000 feet in the Andes and 16,000 feet in Nepal—but given enough time, the body can adapt with a number of physiological changes that allow a person to exist, if not thrive at high altitudes. The problem lies in the low barometric pressure; relatively speaking there is less oxygen in the air the higher you go, and less oxygen means less fuel for your muscles and brain. The simplest and most immediate way of getting the body what it needs is to increase breathing and heart rates. The kidneys then begin to pass more urine trying to secrete the excess carbon dioxide caused by hyperventilating; this diuresis concentrates the blood fluid for richer oxygen transport. The kidneys also release the hormone erythropoietin or EPO, a common but banned blood-doping substance in athletics; EPO stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells and hemoglobin, further thickening the blood. Myoglobin, which binds with oxygen in the blood, increases, allowing us to take up more oxygen with each breath, and capillaries grow, branching out to bring blood closer to tissue cells.
Along with these positive adaptations, the body begins to compromise its own integrity in order to conserve energy. It starts shutting down, decreasing blood flow to nonessential parts. Climbers become anorexic and can’t absorb food, cannibalizing their own muscle mass. They lose fine motor coordination, and the ability to concentrate. As senses are blunted climbers become confused, even hallucinate. Because of the stressed gaseous exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, fluid begins to leak into the alveoli and other intercellular gaps; the lungs fill with fluid and the brain begins to press against the skull. Most climbers endure chronic headaches and disrupted sleep the entire time they are on the mountain.
Passed a certain point at 20,000 feet acclimatization no longer offsets the body’s decline. You literally begin to destroy yourself in order to go higher on the mountain. Immediate descent is necessary to stave off collapse, unconsciousness, and death.
The toll on the body that occurs when mountaineers summit high-altitude peaks such as Everest is remarkable; the structural transformation they undergo is a testament to our ability to adapt to hostile environments. However, in most popular accounts of expeditions, such physiological changes are underplayed. We tend not to hear about the intense discomfort and disorientation, or the brute force required to will oneself up the mountain. No one imagines that the dominant experience on the mountain comprises the simple act of stepping one foot in front of the other, a sheer act of stubbornness and masochistic perseverance. Mythically mountaineering is considered a heroic endeavor, symbolic of man’s conquest of nature, and a manifestation of our search for the sublime. Going where no one has gone before, going higher than formerly thought conceivable, seeking the purity of an unparalleled vantage point. The romantic image of the mountaineer is like the ancient yogi a person who seeks transcendence, not someone who is ambitious beyond sensibility, or driven beyond practicality. The mountain represents the unattainable ideal that only a few brave souls believe is within reach.
I climb the road to Cold Mountain,
The road to Cold Mountain that never ends.
Who can break from the snares of the world
And sit with me among the white clouds?
In Plato’s world the righteous soul rises to heaven to see the eternal forms clearly and purely, a heightened perception that is undistracted by the daily demands of one’s ordinary existence, befuddled as that is with shadowy images and ever-changing matter. Plato describes a vertical ontology of more and less real things and then encourages upward movement along an epistemological ladder that takes us from unquestioned opinion to general understanding and finally to certain knowledge. This rational progression is also a move toward brightness and light. As we rise to meet the sun our soul moves away from the false, illusory darkness of the subterranean cave toward goodness and truth. Ascent offers moral and intellectual salvation.
The parallel with mountain climbing is clear: With all the promise of a transformative event mountaineering rewards a climber with progressive knowledge and spiritual release. The high peaks are launching pads to a better life. We just need the constitutional fortitude to pursue the painful dialectical path.
This connection between seeking knowledge and high-altitude trekking is readily apparent in our ordinary language: “to see” or “to see clearly” means to understand; to have “far-reaching vision” entails an appreciation for complexity; we say “higher education” and “higher knowledge”; we learn in “steps”; we feel ourselves on “the edge of an abyss” or “on slippery footing” when we do not understand. Yet on the highest mountains, the higher a person climbs, the dumber he or she gets. Devastated by the means the climbing makes one physically and emotionally unable to recognize the ends. Hypoxia triggers a cascade of cognitive and physiological failures. The diminishing air pressure obstructs our breathing, the brain struggles to make sense and stay focused, the body fights against its own deterioration, there is severe danger of pulmonary edema and cerebral swelling. In most cases, as a climber moves to the summit awe and exhaustion render him or her incapable of exercising good judgment. Plus, the higher one goes, the windier, colder, steeper, and icier it gets. At the top of the world the exposure is too risky, the perch too dangerous, and the drop-offs are thousands of feet deep. Seeking such knowledge becomes perilous.
Furthermore, it takes so much time and effort to reach the summit, with an equal effort required to come safely down, that a climber cannot remain at the top for very long. One wants to rest after the arduous ascent, to contemplate the extraordinary circumstance, but the longer you linger, the more you are vulnerable to the effects of starvation, dehydration, suffocation, and hypothermia. All that work and persistence allow only a brief moment of contemplation. As tempting as it may be, even Plato’s philosophers cannot remain long in the lofty world of ideas.
If we pursue the paradoxical nature of high-altitude ascents: that a person becomes less and less capable of appreciating the summit the closer he or she gets to it, and relate this to the search for knowledge, then something similar happens when a person tries to conceptualize an extremely abstract idea. When questioning the meaning of a metaphysical concept like “freedom” or “beauty,” the closer one comes to grasping the truth, the harder it is to focus. Discriminations of meaning become more difficult to entertain the more ethereal and materially ungrounded they are. Do we really know what “the sublime” means? Isn’t the sublime precisely that which is beyond our ability to know clearly and distinctly? It’s like trying to make the invisible visible or the infinite comprehensible—or trying to make the gods speak in language humans understand. Mystics and mathematicians alike have gone mad in the quest. We wrap our minds around a particular concept and struggle to externalize an internal process, but we verge on nonsense with every step we take. At a certain point, knowledge becomes metaphysically impossible. We have these words and ideas, we use them trying to locate ourselves and clarify what we (think we) mean, and yet we are confronted with the Socratic conundrum of looking for something we do not know, and possibly cannot know: How will we recognize it when we see it? Are there criteria we can count on? When we seek something that is so dialectically other to sensibility, without empirical reference, we lose track of what comprises wisdom, what greater meaning the climb reveals. And yet such is the life of the mind that it repeatedly takes us to places that are unfamiliar and opaque, always just out of reach, pulling us ever upward but with delirious, haphazard results.
Trekking the high roads, we are always in jeopardy of contracting mountain sickness. Certain adaptations can be made preparing us for the impact of the climb: repeated exposure to abstract thinking acclimatizes a person to the feeling of ungroundedness and to the process of stepping forward and upward despite resistance and uncertainty. We get used to the internal disturbance and confusion. We grow accustomed to the unsure footing. Yet, despite our desire to know and to see from the top of the mountain, the way is riddled with paradox, and at a certain point descent becomes mandatory.
A man spends his whole life dedicated to discovering the meaning of what is good, beautiful, and true. He spends his days walking the high peaks of the Himalayas, the Alps, and the Rockies, conditioning his body to live at higher and higher altitudes. On his best days he takes three good steps, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and the last after the sun has gone down. It is this last step in the coldest, darkest night of which he is most proud, believing that this bravery will be rewarded best.
One day he sees another man climbing the mountain whose actions appear casual, calm, and unconcerned. Surprised, the man questions the fellow traveler about the seeming ease with which he moves. “I have fallen many times off these peaks, and many times I have survived. I will certainly fall again.”
On another day the man runs into a yak, laden with heavy packs lumbering up the mountain. The animal moves slowly but consistently, pushing his front legs ahead of him and digging a path in the snow. The man watches the yak swaying from side to side, head down to the ground, a resolute mass of conviction and instinct. The man watches as the yak is almost buried in the deepening snow, his hooves slipping on the increasing pitch, yet the animal moves forward at a steady, methodical pace. “I was born on the mountain. I live on the mountain. This is what I do.”
All in all the man’s progress is good, buoyed by the course of his fellow travelers. But on the lowest, loneliest days, when hesitation and doubt rule his thinking, and when confusion clouds his vision, the man pauses to rest, wondering if one more step is possible.
In the back of it all is the mountain, silently, indifferently waiting to be climbed.
copyright 2002 Jan Estep