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SURVIVE: If I Only Knew Then…

Three decades of trial and error from our favorite battle-scarred adventurer.
Survival TipsSurvival Tips

Admittedly, I’ve learned most things the hard way. For a number of years, this was a matter of pride. Now that I’ve grown older, I see it largely as a matter of extended adolescent hubris. Fact is, you don’t have to learn everything yourself—that’s what all those other jokers are out there for. My friends and I used to quip that the greatest asset of a good mountaineer is a bad memory—you know, the worse the trip the better the story. And although it’s fine to forget all the suffering, you should strive to remember lessons that might mitigate future misery.

For instance, once upon a time, my wife Sue and I were arrested on Mt. Kilimanjaro for an illegal ascent (guilty as charged). The park police frog-marched us 25 miles in one day to the warden’s office. We didn’t whine. We wanted to show them that we had no trouble keeping up. And we didn’t. But Sue severely blistered the bottoms of both feet. They were flayed. Looked as if they’d been whipped. It took her weeks to heal. Had we just said, “Hey, we need a break,” regularly chilled our feet in Kili streams, applied moleskin, and donned clean socks, that wouldn’t have happened. Pride goeth before the fall.

But it doesn’t have to. I’ve actually seen regular people learn by example. Some years ago, Sue and I climbed Aconcagua together. In basecamp, after the summit, we met two boys from Chicago. I don’t think either of them was 21. They were heading up the mountain, we were heading down. They took a long time setting up their tent, as if they’d never done it before. Later that night, we overheard them struggling to get their stove going. Eventually, I ducked my head into their tent and asked if they’d like a little help. Instead of puffing up their chests and telling me to mind my own business, as I might have done at their age, they said, “Sure.”

Once their stove was roaring, they cooked a freeze-dried meal for four (which they didn’t know would hardly serve two), invited us over for dinner, and we got to talking. One had once hiked a Fourteener, the other had never even been backpacking. This was their first mountain climb. “Figured we might as well start big.”

Their gear still had the price tags. Sue asked them how they had prepared for this expedition and they explained, with straight faces, that they’d spent one night in a meat locker in downtown Chicago.

The next morning, the notorious viento blanco struck Aconcagua. It was howling at basecamp. Up high, you could clearly see the summit capped in a jet-smooth, snow-white lenticular. The boys from Chicago were bewildered when we told them viento blanco winds could reach 100 mph. Sue and I advised them against going up.

For the rest of the day, as we packed up, we could hear them debating. A donkey passed by carrying an Austrian climber with frostbitten feet. He’d worn single-leather boots to the summit. We’d seen him at a high camp and warned him that plastic double-boots were essential, but he’d snorted, “I never use them in the Alps!”

As we were leaving, the Chicagoans walked over to shake our hands.

“Thanks for the advice,” one said.

“We’ve decided this trip is a reconnaissance,” said the other. “We’re not going for the summit, we’re just going to learn everything we can.”

Can you believe it? Climbers are never so humble.

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