When I was six years old, I wanted to be the first woman to climb Everest.
Well, I won’t be. That was Junko Tabei, a Japanese woman–a record which will forever be hers.
And neither will be I be the oldest person to climb Everest. That’s Yuichiro Muira, who climbed Everest aged 80. Nope, not going to train for decades to beat him (though it would guarantee keeping superbly fit!)
Ah, Everest. Shimmering Everest. A savage place, holy and enchanted. You have long inhabited the landscape of my imagination, and that is where you will stay. South Col, the Death Zone, the Khumbu Icefall, a river of ice with frozen cascades and romantic crevasses deep as a fifteen story building which abruptly open or close. Sheer faces of ice to be scaled with axes and ropes. Blizzards and avalanches; seracs: massive tottering blocks of ice; 360 degree views that stagger the mind–it’s all part of the architecture of my soul.
I will never climb Everest. The practicality of middle age forces me to admit this.
Because. I do not really like walking uphill. I am afraid of slipping. And I am afraid of heights! I am nervous on narrow mountain paths with precipitous drops. I do not enjoy extreme cold. And I really like warm clean private toilets and hot baths, and these will be in short supply on Everest.
As though as Jon Krakauer writes, commercial expeditions (in which barely fit socialites like Sandy Pittman are hauled to the summit by hardy sherpas) have made it possible for the just-about-fit to summit, I feel no call to devote two or three years to get fit enough to plausibly think of summiting Everest without dying in the attempt.
Everest in a vision once I saw.
The beautiful dream of climbing Everest, that symphony, that song, was just that, alas: a young girl’s dream.
Some dreams are meant to be dreams, dazzling dreams of the night, but not of the day. You imagine peaks bathed rose and orange by the rising run, and rivers and mountains of ice, and they are glorious. You look at photographs, read accounts of exploration and watch documentaries, and your soul thrills.
Everest has added beauty to your life. You do not need not haul oxygen bottles up to the summit, and stagger up the last few steps in the death zone, behind the long files of those who summit for bragging rights, or take your mandatory selfie where the earth stops and the flags of the nations flutter. You have travelled there in imagination. You have Everest within. There you on honey dew have fed and drunk the wine of paradise
* * *
I have another dream: Antarctica. No–not walking to the South Pole like Scott or Amundsen, just seeing it on a cruise ship. A friend got to do it for free, and write about it for the American Express magazine. I looked up prices.
But school fees, school fees. Antarctica or school fees? I am a good Indian mama, after all. Antarctica must wait.
Wait forever? Perhaps not. But should it wait for the rest of this life, my soul has been enriched by male Emperor penguins waiting out the long sunless winter, guarding their eggs; the great glaciers calving off into massive icebergs; crevasses into which you simply disappear; gleaming snowy expanses in which one could wander directionlessly forever.
I met Geraldine MacCaughrean at a Writers in Oxford /Society of Authors party a few years ago. Our family had listened to her White Darkness in the car, a description of Antarctica so vivid that it makes you shiver, and reach for a sweater. “Have you been to Antarctica?” I asked. “Oh no,” she said, frowning, shaking her head, and laughing.
She was a writer. Imagination and research can make Antarctica as vivid to ourselves and to our readers as if we had actually travelled there.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for? Robert Browning wrote.
Our imagination and longing exceeds what we can do in this life, with its adamantine parameters of strength, time and money. God imposes some limitations on us; others are the fruit of our own imperfect choices.
And though we never grow too old to dream another dream and set another goal–some dreams, most dreams perhaps, will remain dreams. And that’s what a heaven’s for.
In eternity, which will far exceed this life, as this life exceeds the wildest imaginings of a foetus crouched in the dark and wet of the womb, I will fly and soar over Everest and over Antarctica. I will gaze at the views, and shiver with pleasure. And I shall be very warm while doing so.