My neurologist tells me that I have a chronic progressive neurodegenerative disease. I assume that all the repetition is for emphasis. The double-down does help the rest of his news, “but it is treatable”. He says the last bit enthusiastically. I suppose you don’t get to say that very much in neurology, and I don’t blame him for taking advantage of the opportunity.
But I know what treatable entails too. In medicine generally, but especially in neurology, it means things will go downhill in a way that we control. I understand how that might count as a win, because I’m going through the 5 stages of grief as I begin a long goodbye to climbing. Passing through the stages of grief, like controlled deterioration, may seem like a process to which winning and losing should not apply. However, I have access to a secret. I know about a transformational 6th stage to the process.
For those who are unfamiliar with the stages of grief model, some background is in order. Unfortunately, adequate understanding requires a foray into the underbrush of academic psychology. The incursion will be brief and relatively painless.
Psychologists have a penchant for stages of this and that. They use the terminology to craft formulas explaining the psyche, much like chemistry and physics employ formulas to describe their domains. Some may have heard of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.
There’s a similar model for addiction. And then there are the stages in the cycle of abuse. With the exception of some models of learning, psychological formulas are of little practical use. They can’t tell you what to expect when you mix Clorox and ammonia (look at the chemical formulas; you shouldn’t do this). They can’t tell you what you’ll need to enter low Earth orbit.
All that psychological models can tell you is what happened before, based on what other psychologists think they saw happen before. This dubitable power is supposed to offer emotional comfort.
For example, when a bereaved friend is sitting in his room mute and motionless, a counselor can reassure all the concerned onlookers that this is expected. The bereaved is going through the phase of denial. When that friend screams in anguish and throws a lamp at the wall, the counselor can maintain calm in the living room by reassuring everyone that their loved one is simply experiencing the stage of anger. He is overheard beseeching God for mercy? Don’t worry, bargaining is the next stage in the model. He is crying now? Meet depression. At last he emerges, drying his eyes and taking a deep breath. Now he has reached the stage of acceptance, and we are through.
Certainly, certain people feel reassured by these expositions. I’ve observed that the same people would probably feel reassured by a certified professional reading Jabberwocky in a calm voice, under the same circumstances. I’ve also observed that any reassuring effect following from the formulaic explanation of a psychological phenomenon currently in process, occurs in the observers. For the one actually experiencing a stage of something, explaining to them that they are merely experiencing a stage of something tends to breed resentment instead.
Like other, similar psychological models, the stages of grief formula does not do much work., That is, unless you add the 6th stage. Because, unlike any other stage in any other psychological formula, the 6th stage in the stages of grief is inherently action-guiding.
I call it the stage of Alpine acceptance. This stage actually occurs only intermittently, mostly to those in the know, and when it does occur, it can pop in at any point in the process.
To permit a complete understanding of this unique stage in the model, we must briefly explore the source of the terms once again: in this case, the practice of alpinism.
First off, I want to be clear that people don’t actually agree on what alpinism means. I don’t mean on a metaphysical level. I mean nobody agrees on what constitutes alpinism. Some say it is climbing a route on a mountain. Of course, that statement begs the question. Some say alpinism is climbing to the summit of a mountain by any route harder than the easiest route. Many climbers would call most of the routes encompassed by that definition “mountaineering”.
This definitional mess is further complicated by the fact that almost any climbing route, can be ascended in Alpine style, which means climbing with just what you can carry with you on your back. To expand on the implications for a moment, on any big climb, one frequently wishes for more equipment than one can carry. The reason that the practice of traveling dangerously light gets called “Alpine” style rather than “big wall” style or “mountain push” style is because one always wishes for more equipment than one can carry on an Alpine route. That is because these routes often wander over steep, half frozen, crumbling rock and unconsolidated snow which would realistically require a 12 pound electric hammer drill with spare bits and batteries along with 50 pounds of expansion bolts to ascend safely, and which actually permits a 25 pound pack, inclusive of survival gear, given the strenuous nature of the climbing.
Despite the definitional vagaries, there is little dispute regarding the Alpine nature of individual routes, and even less dispute regarding who is practicing Alpine climbing.
I hope it is clear, based on the above, that the Alpine climber risks it all (and often at kind of bad odds) to experience the inexplicable and perhaps to achieve the undefinable. This doesn’t always work out well.
Sometimes, alpine enterprises end definitively, and in the worst way, with the death or serious injury of one or more persons. However, the incidence of definitive endings is astonishingly low. Because those who undertake such improbable ventures are (or quickly become) quite canny. They can smell when things are getting rotten, and when that scent hits the nose a singular psychological process begins, to a much different end.
It is a way of giving up and carrying on at once, and it defies a clear and simple explanation. I will attempt an illustration with a summary.
The following is based on actual conversations, both internal and between partners:
“The rock quality is really deteriorating I don’t know if I can climb this,” said as he climbs it.
“Yes, this is really bad. What does it look like for the next pitch?”
“No better. This anchor isn’t the best either, but we could rap from it.”
“Maybe we should bail. Let me just try this crack over here. I think I can aid through the overhang.”
The crack can’t be climbed.
“Are you sure you can’t aid it?”
” Yeah, I can’t reach the next placement. Let me take a look around the corner”
“How does it look?”
“50° slab with gravel on it – somehow.”
“Damn, maybe we should go down”
“Let me try the crack again”
The crack still can’t be climbed.
“Maybe the slab isn’t that bad?”
“Let me take another look”
The slab has not changed.
“I can’t make it go. Do you want to try it?”
“No, we have to go down. I mean, conditions looked good from camp, but obviously this is in no shape for climbing. But now we know what to look for.”
“Yeah. You want to try the crack?”
“No. What are you doing next week?”
The above conversation is typically followed by retreat to camp where the whole endeavor gets painstakingly analyzed, until all parties are satisfied that no other outcome was possible. Then everyone goes home, regroups, and begins planning on coming back, maybe just to wait in bad weather at a campground for a month. If the weather is good though, the aspirants may convince themselves again that the route looks to be in great shape from camp, which inevitably leads to another effort, ending at the same impassible terrain that scuttled the last one.
The remarkable thing is that deep down, everyone knows that the climb doesn’t go. Throughout the futile efforts there are no recriminations, tears, or tantrums.
And that is Alpine acceptance. At a certain point, regardless of all the anger, depression, bargaining, etc. – all of which simply leaves you back where you started – the only way to succeed is to be sure that you fail completely. That is always an achievable goal, and it often proves the only way forward.