I’m in bed before 9 p.m., but it
hardly lessens the jolt of our 3:30 a.m. reveille. I wake to a frozen water bottle, the tent walls glazed with icy condensation. An awkward cage fight ensues with my clothing, fumbling with sweaters and boots in the dark, breath tufting through my headlamp beam. I recall a few lines from “Four in the Morning,” a poem by Wislawa Szymborska that some of my mountaineer friends can recite from memory. “The hour when earth betrays us/The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars… No one feels good at four in the morning/Let five o’clock come/If we’re to go on living.”
When five o’clock comes, I’m in a tight line with the rockers and trekkers, lockstepping our way up the breach. In the early morning glow, basalt minarets dagger at wisps of cloud above. We stop for a snack and I register now how easy it would be to stumble off a ledge and fall several hundred feet to the boulder fields below. Still, as the day brightens and warms, so does the mood.
“I think the mirth barometer is on the rise!” says Nick Harper, who lives at sea level in London. Harper has a heavy jaw and a brooding poet’s disposition, leavened by a sharp, sometimes acerbic wit. His mother died abruptly from breast cancer in 2000. By chance, it was on her birthday in 2007 when he received a call from Mike Peters about joining LHS. “That was one of those moments that you look back on and think, yeah, that’s when everything changed.”
Since then, Harper’s been one of LHS’s most ardent participants, releasing singles and funneling the proceeds to the foundation. “After my mother died, I realized there are a lot of families out there with holes in them, and that we can help them, just by pushing ourselves a little bit, by having a laugh, and playing guitars,” Harper tells me. “It’s not just about the grief either. It’s the development of children, and how they grow up without a family member, and how it might not have happened if, say, a scan had been done on someone’s breast at the right time.”
His sentiments aren’t just shared among our group, which seems to skew toward an earnest world view. There’s a gathering body of research suggesting that altruism and philanthropy, and even small daily good deeds, don’t emanate from some carefully developed higher moral faculty, but are hardwired into humans. Brain scans of individuals merely thinking of selfless acts light up the same neural networks associated with appetizing food and sexual arousal.
Does helping actually help the helper? Quite literally, yes. Studies have suggested that compassion serves those who give as well as those who receive in quantifiable ways, stimulating our immune systems, decreasing inflammation, and reducing pain, among other things. It appears that the very cause that brought us to Kilimanjaro might be the same thing that enables us to reach the top.