Warmth

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The hardest part was always getting out of the sleeping bag. Every morning in New Zealand I’d wake up, cocooned in my own little heat burrito, and want to snuggle as far into the puffy synthetic lining as I could. The last thing I wanted to do was emerge out into the cold, take off my layers, put on my frozen-solid boots and socks and start to hike uphill. It seemed infinitely the better choice to roll back over and drift into that delicious kind of second-sleep you get when you ignore your alarm. It was comfortable in the sleeping bag, and I didn’t want to leave.

We delayed it as long as we could. We cooked breakfast in the vestibule of the tent, unzipping the inner door and sitting with our puffy coats on and our sleeping bags around our waists, trying to glean a little heat from the stove, or put ourselves in the path of the steam coming off the boiling water. I stayed in my sleeping bag to change out of my sleep clothes and into my hiking clothes, to deflate and roll up my sleeping pad, to pack my equipment into my backpack.  We delayed, we hung there, clinging to the comfort until we could finally avoid it no longer—we had to leave the warmth and venture out into the morning and what awaited us.

Being comfortable is stealthily dangerous, a silent killer. Being comfortable is nice, it’s easy.  Staying in your sleeping bag in the morning is nice, but it’s never going to be more than that. It’s never going to be dizzying or staggering or make your chest burn. It tops out at this perfectly lovely level of fine that gets stale after a little while. In many ways, it is worse for things to be nice and easy than to be bad. When things are bad, there is motivation for change. There is an impetus for movement. You are likely to strive for something better, for something different.  The unpleasantness of your circumstances makes this the obvious and only thing to do. But when things are nice and easy, that momentum is absent. There is nothing that is propelling forward motion. It is easy to be lulled into nice and easy, into comfortable, and to stay there well past the moment we needed to leave. When things are bad, when we have to fight through to make things better, we at least gain the experience of struggle, we are at least strengthened by the process. We get nothing from being comfortable.

On the morning of October 26, 2012, we woke up at 3:30am on a glacier.  The past 48 hours had been a grueling series of mental and physical trials that had left me drained and discouraged. Two nights before, we had stayed up through the night to brace our tent against 120 kilometer an hour winds that barreled down off the mountains and into the tunnel we were camped in. Every hour one of us would venture out into the frigid, unforgiving night and try to use one of the knots we’d learned to tie the snapped guy lines back together while we could still feel our fingers. The next day we’d had to hike several kilometers uphill onto the glacier, postholing through hip-deep slushy snow the entire way. When we finally arrived at the spot we’d planned to camp at, we had to spend the next four hours probing out a perimeter, building tent platforms and snow walls to protect our tents. Glacier camping required a far more elaborate camp-making process than just tenting on snow. By the time we ate dinner, it was 8pm and dark, and we crawled into our sleeping bags immediately afterwards, wasted of energy, huddling together to try to stay warm. It was at 3:30 after that night that we woke up, put on our crampons, headlamps, harnesses and avalanche transceivers, roped ourselves together in groups of four, and began to ascend Ashburton Glacier.

Others talked about it afterwards as one of their favorite memories of our time in the Arrowsmiths, the stars glinting above our heads, the silence of the sprawling wilderness pounding in our ears, the crunch of the ice beneath our feet, the glow of the headlamps up ahead, our rope teams like tiny constellations in the snow.

It was one of my worst mornings out in the field. I was weak and lethargic and miserable. It didn’t matter that we were on our way to summitting our first peak, that we were climbing on a glacier, that the peachy pink alpine glow was starting to hit the crests of the mountains above us as the sun prepared to emerge. I was sweating and freezing at the same time, my legs felt like crepe paper beneath me, and all I could think of was the warmth of my sleeping bag that I’d left behind.  With each taxing, carefully placed footstep, I was longing for nice and easy.

Too often we allow ourselves to settle for nice and easy, to settle for comfortable because we are trying to avoid the struggle. We are trying to avoid the difficulty. We are trying to avoid moving uphill in the dark and cold. We think that by not struggling, by not making ourselves get out of the warm sleeping bag, that we are doing ourselves a favor. That we are avoiding suffering. That we are happy. We think that nice and easy is something to aim for, something to aspire to. We allow ourselves to think that being comfortable and avoiding unpleasantness is as good as it gets.

It is an indulgence, an allowance, and the longer we let it go on, the more difficult it is to free ourselves from its grasp. The longer you remain in the cocoon of warmth, the less appealing leaving it becomes. We can convince ourselves that there’s no reason to move, no reason to change, no reason to bother ourselves, to upset the loveliness. The more complacent we become in the arms of nice and easy, the more sleepy and bewitched the simplicity makes us, the more we are selling ourselves short. The more we are settling. Nice and easy feels good but it doesn’t make us better.

Just before 7:30 am, we angled to the right to attempt the final pitch of our climb, our bid for the summit. Light had drenched our surroundings, the sun punching through a high-hanging layer of fleecy clouds in orange and gold. My rope team had been the first to leave camp hours before and we were the first to climb, one by one, onto the snowy knife-edge that jutted 2,236 meters into the sky.  We carefully removed our packs, planted our trekking poles in the snow and kicked out seats for ourselves, watching the others gain the final few meters of elevation to meet us. And though for the entire morning I hadn’t felt capable or energetic or enthusiastic, as I sat perched on the uppermost ridge of the glacier, I was filled with an elation, a sense of accomplishment and pride that seemed to overwrite all the struggling I’d done to arrive here. I wouldn’t have crawled back into that sleeping bag for anything. From our camp below we could see the mountains directly next to us, projecting directly up like saw-toothed walls. From the tip of 2236 I looked out at mountains as far as I could see in every direction, ranges beyond ranges stacking themselves in never ending snow-capped tiers.

I often have to remind myself in memory that the morning wasn’t just this unbelievable victory, but actually a fairly dismal endeavor up until the final moments. But sometimes you forget that when you look back. It was a struggle, and that was an important aspect of it, but you don’t get the sunrise over the mountains, you don’t get the soaring ecstasy if you stay comfortable in your sleeping bag with your eyes closed. You have to get out in the cold, you have to climb uphill, you have to work through your exhaustion and your bad attitude. You have to push yourself. You can’t stay still, and it’s not fine or easy. Not at the beginning or the middle or the end. You get the full range of the spectrum, from freezing and miserable to towering and triumphant. None of it’s easy and none of it’s fine. It’s worse than fine and it’s also better than fine. Stunningly, unimaginably, overwhelmingly better.

It would be simpler to settle for nice and easy, to stay in the sleeping bag. There is immediate gratification, there is warmth. There is no struggling, there is no discomfort, there is no discouragement. But there is also no triumph. There is no awe, no unbridled joy or boundless beauty. It doesn’t push you, it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t propel your life forward in a way you never imagined.

And even if life can’t be that sprawling and blinding and ignited all the time, even if you have to spend an overwhelming amount of time in the trudging-uphill-in-the-cold-and-dark part, once you know that kind of life exists, you will never be able to stop chasing it. A life that challenges you and astounds you and demands of you everything you’ve got and then a little bit more. A life that’s sprawling and expansive and extraordinary.

Because there is a different kind of warmth, a kind that doesn’t come from wrapping yourself in down or synthetic fill, a kind of warmth that you create, that emanates from the deepest part of you, that stings and tingles and makes it a little hard to breathe.  It’s the radiance of the newly-risen sun on your face, the burn of exertion in your muscles, the glow of the bright white light in the hollows of your chest. It’s real and it’s attainable. But you have to get out of the sleeping bag.

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