John Long: Impossible Moments
Largo on George Mallory, the jungle of Borneo, Jim Bridwell, and life lessons.
In 1923, during a publicity tour for his trip to the Himalaya, a New York Times reporter asked British mountaineer George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, and he famously replied, “Because it’s there.” For going on a century, this spontaneous reply has echoed through Western culture and is commonly trotted out whenever someone tries to justify an unjustifiable objective. Why shoot for the moon? Why explore the depths of the ocean? People die doing that stuff. Because Mallory’s answer is indirect, “Because it’s there” sounds more like a paradox than an explanation, but the gist seems simple as pie once we understand motivations.
We are programmed to seek comfort and security. But if this is our only metric for living, we eventually rust from the middle. Few have feared this so keenly as George Mallory. “Because it’s there” was Mallory’s affirmation that if embracing toil and risk were the price for escaping existential corrosion and experiencing magnitude, he would gladly take them. Note that we never ask why? of the person going to a NASCAR race or a bull’s-only rodeo. Thrill and excitement, if only through proxy, are the straws that stir our drinks. The question always is: How strong a drink do we want or need?
The few Mallorys among us require the 100-proof stuff, stiff doses of enormity, gravity, and the challenges of risk management. But the pull toward comfort and security is never overcome, only momentarily escaped. That’s why “Because it’s there” is a paradox, a statement that contradicts itself. Not as a trope, but in an impossible moment, when our need to escape smallness and boredom crash into suffering, fear, and sometimes death. In 1924, Mallory and his partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, found their impossible moment on the northeast ridge of Everest, while attempting to make the first ascent (on May 1, 1999, my friend Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s frozen corpse on the northern slopes of Everest).
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Experienced hands are seasoned through their struggles with impossible moments. No expert mountain biker has not crashed so hard they wished the wheel had never been invented. No long-distance thru-hiker, humping a spine-bending pack up a slushy draw in a hailstorm, has not asked herself a thousand times: What was I thinking? When first encountered, impossible moments are violently disorienting because our secret sauce has suddenly gone toxic. For the moment, there’s no elixir and no escape. Those first few encounters can be soul crushers, and have ended many promising careers.
Like the time when we were attempting the first coast-to-coast traverse of Borneo, the fifth-largest island on the planet. Our team included climber Jim Bridwell, whitewater guides Jim Slade and Stan Boor, adventure cameraman Peter Pilafian, and alpinist and expedition organizer Rick Ridgeway, who’d come to this equatorial hellhole straight from Mount Everest and looked like a wrung dishrag (he later got typhoid and nearly perished). We were somewhere near the central divide, though nothing was certain. Back then, in 1986, satellite images of the island were unavailable, and the map we had was totally blank in the middle.
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With any luck, once we finished trundling down a steep, muddy footpath under triple canopy jungle, we’d find the river and could raft toward the central divide, as the nomadic Punan Dyaks had promised. We had a dozen of them along with us, including the chief, to show the way and help carry loads. After a sixteen-day march from the headwaters of the Kapus, the Punan were just as jungle weary and beat down as we were.
We weren’t lucky. When we got to the bottom of the jungled mountainside there was no river, as all had hoped and prayed for. Only a tiny, diamond clear creek, purling in deep shade. The cool water tasted like God after our brutal march but I didn’t care. We’d have to slog up and over and all the way down another range, and maybe then we’d find the river. The chief hadn’t made this march in ten years so he wasn’t sure. I was starting to lose it. I stared at the little creek, glanced at Bridwell and said, “Why couldn’t this be a river?” Bridwell just looked at me.
We paused and ate lunch, passing around a palm frond full of mushy white rice flecked with jungle chicharrones—boiled pig fat stripped off the flank of a wild boar that, two days before, a tribesman had chased down and killed with a machete. The rice tasted like flavorless gruel and the pig fat, shoe leather. Bridwell took a few bits and said, “Why couldn’t this taste like pizza pie?” I glared at him, and he said, “Because it ain’t.” If George Mallory would have stumbled up just then I would have shot him.
We started up the next mountain, the tiny, seldom-used path teeming with leeches, clouds of mosquitoes, and thorny creepers, the jungle cacophony so loud and shrill we had to yell to hear each other. Three hours later we were still trudging uphill, our tongues hanging out because we’d misjudged the height of the range and hadn’t brought enough water. By the time we crested the ridge we were all so cooked and dehydrated we panted in reedy gasps. Halfway down the far side, the sky cut loose and drilled the canopy like grapeshot, muddy rivulets streaming down on both sides. I put my lips to the mud and slurped, I was that thirsty—and spit out a mouthful of sludge. The jungle, it seemed, was laughing at me. I started seeing double as we hunkered between the flutes of towering banyans, prey to every mantis and bloodsucker, as lightning dashed the jungle. All I wanted was to be back at that cool shady creek with the water that tasted like God. There was nothing to do but wait, for another two hours, an impossible two hours for sure.
My life, and every life I’ve ever seen, is nourished by impossible moments, just as new trees live off the deadfall. As every passing year feels increasingly miraculous and impossible, I sometimes wonder why I once sought out what I now have in spades, as I vault toward a moment that really is impossible, a drop with no bottom. “Because it’s there,” no one gets around the Big Drop; nobody escapes to comfort and security. Perhaps all those times battling the wild places, and myself—across the polar ice cap, on the lone and level sands of the desert, and somewhere in Borneo— were so much practice for my last impossible moment. On the other hand, maybe I just didn’t want to get a regular job.
Excerpted with permission from The Little Book of Outdoor Wisdom: An Adventurer’s Collection of Anecdotes and Advice by John Long (Falcon, 2019).
There’s a reason we pause at the vista overlook and be quiet for a second. The wilderness, or simply being outside in the natural world, provides us with a psychological reboot. It declutters our minds, washes off the guff, gives us a chance to see and feel ourselves as expansively as the Tunnel Overlook in Yosemite Valley. But the process is different, and in some ways, more powerful than the benefits we get from sleep.
The Little Book of Outdoor Wisdom is a collection of all-new essays from legendary climber and outdoor writer John Long, an exploration of what connects us fundamentally to the outdoors and of why we return again and again. Through evocative anecdotes and sketches, told in Long’s visceral yet poignant style, readers will rediscover their love for nature and glean a deeper appreciation for its rejuvenating effect.
John Long is an acclaimed rock climber and author of more than forty books, including several in Falcon’s catalog. He is one of the most prolific adventure writers out there and has authored magazine articles, screenplays, documentary films, and television and movie scripts, as well as instructional rock climbing books.
Beginning in the mid-1970s with his historic one-day ascent of the Nose route on El Capitan, Long became a mainstay in the world of extreme sports and adventure. He and his elite group of climbers, the Stonemasters, ushered in a new era of big wall climbing with their epic climbs in Yosemite National Park and elsewhere. In the years that followed, Long transitioned from rock climbing to international exploration, traveling around the world from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the North Pole. Some of his many achievements include the first coast-to-coast traverse of Borneo and the discovery and exploration of the world’s largest river cave.
John Long has also built a successful television and film career, producing the “International Guinness Book of World Records” television show before moving to feature films. The Sylvester Stallone movie, Cliffhanger, is based on one of Long’s stories.
In recent years, John Long has continued to write books and articles and to work in television and film. He is also an Adidas Ambassador and frequently works with them at various events around the country.
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