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When strength fails

Lessons learned by the tragic deaths on Mt. Everest

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

Two years ago this month eight climbers died on Mt. Everest. That was the largest single death toll for any mountain-climbing accident in history. The leader of the American team, Scott Fischer, was among those who perished. He was a friend and former climbing partner of mine. When I learned of his death, I thought back to a climb more than 20 years ago. We had set up a climbing base camp in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. For three weeks we climbed and worked on strength and skills. Scott was by far the strongest and boldest climber among us. His workout routine included three sets of 50 two-handed pulls-ups, 25 one-handed pull-ups, and 15 two-finger pull-ups. After his death Newsweek described him as "one of the strongest climbers in the world." No one would have argued with that back then. Scott was the one to be with when you were in a difficult spot; his confidence would get you through the scariest times. We spent our days climbing, and our nights talking around the campfire. As with many conversations that go deeper, the topics often touched on religion. Scott argued one night that there was no plan for anyone's life. When you died it all was over, so he encouraged everyone to "live life to the fullest," because this was all that mattered. I remember very much wanting to believe that Scott was right. The next day Scott, another climber, and I set out on a particularly difficult climb. After a few hours we found ourselves standing on a very narrow ledge. Below us lay about 3,000 feet of "free space," commonly known as air. In front of us lay a four-foot gap, and above that and to our right was a very smooth nose, which we had to make our way around in order to continue to climb higher. The move required us to drop across the four-foot gap, grab a fingertip ledge about 18 inches above our heads, and work our way around the nose using only our fingertips. Because the rock was so smooth, we were unable to find any crack into which to clip our rope; therefore the first climber had to attempt the move unroped, since if he were to fall he would take the other two climbers roped to him with him. All was very quiet as each man waited for someone else to volunteer to go unroped. Scott's boldness was being challenged, and in the end he agreed to go first. Then he did a very curious thing. He knelt on that thin ledge on one knee for a few seconds, made the sign of the cross, and stood up. Surprised, I asked, "Scott, what's the deal?" He simply replied, "Sometimes you never know." There is not a lot to say when someone loses faith in himself and reaches out to a higher power. But I remember thinking that although Scott knew many things, he did not know the answers to life's most important questions. We made the climb that day and many other climbs in the days to come. One of Scott's teammates on his fatal Everest climb two years ago said, "Scott was like a god to us, so strong, fast, and bold, but in the end he was only Scott and he died." I do not know where Scott was with the Lord when he died. I pray that as he lay dying on the top of a wind-swept mountain, that Paul's words became real to him: "His strength is made perfect in my weakness." I pray that Scott reached out to the God of all comfort. What is the meaning of the Mt. Everest fatalities? If your faith is in your money, your family, your beauty, your home, your job, your intellect, or your physical strength, it will fail you. That is the way our God wants it to be, so that we rely on him only. I still remember the day the "strongest climber in the world" prayed for strength. Mr. Cusack is managing director at McDonald & Co. Securities, Inc.

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