Matterhorn of the Gods
September 10, 2013 by Andrew Titus · 16 Comments
[Editor's Note: Like many, Andrew Titus was inspired by what Kilian Jornet did on the Matterhorn a couple weeks ago and what other members of our community do on a regular basis. In the following essay, Andrew talks about how inspiration from others has made him a better person.
We published two additional stories related to the Matterhorn the day we published this story: an Interview with Kilian Jornet on his Matterhorn FKT and a History of the Matterhorn.]
At the 2000 NBA All-Star game, Vince Carter (half man, half impossible) pulled off a slam dunk that made the gods blush and he knew it. In Michael Jordan-style (because really, basketball players are the greatest entertainers), he looked right into the camera, waved his hands back and forth in a nonchalant manner, and mouthed, very distinctively, “it’s over.”
To his credit, it was—the slam dunk contest, perhaps ALL slam dunk contests, and certainly the mediocre dreams of the rest of the couch potatoes out there guzzling wine and hoping for a second chance. It was over.
A couple of years later, I found myself laying on a bed beside my very sick two-year-old son at a relative’s house in Quebec. This sickness had him boiling up with fever to the point where a solid dose of Advil and sleep were all the relief we could give him. As I laid there, I absentmindedly (magically?) reached over to the nightstand and grabbed the top book. It was a nondescript, softback edition with little introduction. I have no idea what it was called or who the editor was. I can tell you, without any doubt at all, that it was the catalyst for a series of life changes that would start small, roll and roll and roll, gain momentum, and eventually completely demolish the life that I had been leading and lay the foundation for a most dramatic transformation. I know this sounds dramatic—it’s because it was.
I opened the first page and read: it was the story of man going bouldering, a sport of which I knew absolutely nothing. If I think back with as much honesty as I can, clearing away the associations I have with that event as best I can and just picturing myself sitting there, beside my feverish son, and try to recall exactly the kinds of germinating thoughts and feelings that were going through me in those crucial moments, I can almost taste the sense of curiosity and excitement that was growing, a hungry seed growing like a wild weed in a rainforest. This sport, this adventure, that was being described was so simple: truck loaded up with a bag of chalk and climbing shoes, the author would drive to edge of town where millions of years beforehand glaciers had deposited a field of misplaced boulders. He’d stop at one that looked promising and spend the rest of the day pushing his body to and beyond the laws of physics and physique while slowly, slowly making his way up, around, and over this chunk of discarded earth. I was sold.
I was already sold, but then I turned to the next essay. This one was about Everest and in it, from somewhere that I had never accessed, my mind exploded with excitement. Everest! His story was of freezing-cold fingers and thousands of cups of tea in the snow, waiting to get used to altitude, slow and tenuous hikes up from Base Camp to Camp 1 and back, storms, more waiting, and then the surge for the summit. I recall looking at my sleeping son and thinking, very clearly, that the eyes through which I was looking at him now were not at all the eyes that I had looked at him through not two hours beforehand. Maybe it wasn’t over.
From that day, and for the next several years, I read about mountains, Antarctica, deserts, and open oceans voraciously. I became something of an expert on Everest and the Seven Summits; I came to know mountain legends; I read about misguided and failed attempts to charge the poles. And I did all of this from the comfort of my home. See, I was busy—I had convinced myself that it wasn’t over, but my gut didn’t buy that, so I filled it full of wine and empty dreams and I became my own worst story: a drunken hypocrite.
What I was really learning, however, is that dreams can save you, they can grab you, slap you around, and whip you into shape. Dreams are the place where cliches resonate with truth and, while on their own they have no power, they are the repository for all the power in the world, maybe even the power that made the world possible in the first place, and though they can’t lift you off the couch in and of themselves, they can feed the will that wants them.
One day, quite simply, in just the way that a devastating fever can break miraculously, my will woke up and a titan that I had rendered nearly dead, in two long decades of ignorance, debauchery, and self-loathing, came roaring to the surface. For crying out loud, I awoke! Against all odds (how many people do you know that went down that path and never returned, either consumed by it or so asleep that they didn’t notice life had given them the slip?), I awoke! And with that, I piled up the books, shelved them, like a man dismantling a wall and throwing the bricks and mortar into a hole upon which a strong castle was to be built, bought a pair of sneakers, and went running.
I gave up a lot of things (drinking, smoking, crappy food, and a worse attitude) and picked up a lot of things too (honesty, integrity, a healthy diet, better sleeping habits, genuine bliss) when I started running. I found new friends too—friends who were crazy like the old ones but who saw living on the edge in a completely different way. See, I believe, with Joseph Campbell, that “we aren’t really looking for the meaning of life as much as we’re looking for the experience of being alive”, and sometimes we mistake extreme behaviour for having a wicked time, we confuse self-destruction for rebellion, and we miss out on the adventures of a life well and fully lived because intoxication seems like adventure enough.
So I ran—I ran quite literally towards life instead of away from it. I ran through the woods and the mud and the rain; I ran in knee-deep snow and nearly unbearable heat. I ran alone and I with others, before the sun came up and after it went down and, after a time, I got pretty good at it and I decided that I would start to race.
Racing is fun—especially when you’re a trail runner. Crowds at trail races are small. The community, even in a place as spread out as the Maritimes where I live, is tight and the locales are some of the most pristine that I have had the great pleasure of seeing. Needless to say, I dove right in—I raced and I did okay, then I trained harder and read books, got a trainer and delved headlong into racing culture, and did better. Then I ran my first ultra trail race and, amazingly, I won! All of a sudden I wasn’t just some guy that liked beating it through the woods and waxing poetically on Facebook about the joys and spoils of running, I was a contender. I can’t lie—after treating myself so horribly for so long because of suffering from a beleaguered sense of self-worth, it felt great to be on top, to be in excellent physical shape, and for it to pay off. Not only that, but because of all of the long, loooooong miles on the trail, my mind had settled too—make no mistake, you can’t run trail ultras without developing a really friendly and compassionate relationship with yourself.
But even with all of that, there is this ‘other world’ that I am tangentially a part of—the world of ultramarathon running as a whole—a world chalk full of really remarkable and almost superhuman athletes. Timothy Olson, Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek, Ann Trason, Ellie Greenwood, Lizzy Hawker, Mike Morton, Sage Canaday, and, perhaps most notoriously, Kilian Jornet. This is the pantheon of my world—the men and women, gods and goddesses, whose stories we tell, whose legends we feed, and to whom we look into the forests and mountains to find.
Mountains. I love running hills, especially in the woods, but I’m a coastal boy and I don’t know anything at all about mountains. But the gods do—they know their language, their temperament, and they know that if gods are to be gods, they must tame them. Last month, that is exactly what Kilian did, if only for a day or a moment—he tamed the Matterhorn.
Make no mistake, his record-breaking time running up and down this monstrosity is not only astounding, it is calculated. Look it up anywhere and you will see that this beast leaves even the most scientifically inclined writer wanting for words. Its perfect pyramid shape, its isolation on the landscape, and its history (largely of taking lives and dreams by the fistful) etches a spot onto the collective imagination of humanity unpopulated by any other natural locale. Hell, it’s not even a ‘locale’—it’s a tooth, a monster, an entire ecosystem, a resplendent destination for a god.
A conquest which this time took less than it took Beowulf to subdue Grendel (which took nearly two days, thus his status as mere hero), less time than it took the first manned flight to get to the moon (historical note), and less time than it took to finally reach the South Pole (historical footnote): in two hours, 52 minutes, two seconds, Kilian Jornet charged, mounted, summited, and descended the Matterhorn. The only question is, where is the minstrel to sing the song?
I can admit it: I waited for it from first thing in the morning. I waited and then when it happened, I cheered out loud. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook with the attached line: “Was there ever any doubt?” We want our gods to be victorious and, like in Ancient Greece, our gods live among us. At the Vermont 100 this year, we sat beside Ian Sharman and Nick Clark, another buddy of ours recently met up with Timothy Olson on the trails of UTMB and had a nice little chat with him, and I’ve even spoken with Ray Zahab myself on the phone. They are there, listening, the gods with the people and helping us.
And yet, when it happened, my heart sunk; my heart sunk and for no reason other than the fact that I realized I would never be able to do that. I would never summit the Matterhorn in such a fashion any more than I would be the first to reach magnetic north or win Western States, as Scott Jurek did, over and over and over. For a moment, my heart sank, and in the moment I lost my way a bit.
It didn’t last though—it didn’t last because I am no longer prone to poor self-esteem and self-destructive behaviour. See, I am a runner, a long-distance runner, inheritor of endurance, the will to run far, handed down since ancient Pheidippides worshipped Pan and saved us all. I am a runner and I survive, I watch for the signs, I listen intently. In my own way, I am an athlete, from the Greek athlos, ‘to contest, to suffer, to overcome’. Sure we all long to be gods, but it is only in youth that we become discouraged when we realize it’s not so; in maturity we see there are many places for us all—and I am also teacher and writer.
I sat on my bed, flipping through articles and drinking tea, and there it was—an essay by someone I had never heard of, one Rickey Gates, who reminded me that I decided to do this, that I was even called to run, not because I am a racer, but because I long for adventure. And the man that longs for adventure, runs into it with his will full blown, and comes back to tell the tale, is a bard. Rickey Gates reminded me that I tell stories, that as much as I do not run through the woods but am instead that part of the forest that runs, I do not sit around waiting for stories to be told but am the one who lives this life most fully and tells the stories that spin the world.
On the bed with my boy more than a decade ago, my life began a remarkable transformation. It has been a transformation that took me from loser to winner and brought me to myself. A disillusioned youth bent on cataclysm, I have come to believe in the gods again in a way befitting my outlook on life. A grown man, I have taken the best part of my youth and shaped it into the stuff of my everyday life. A poet, I have turned my stories towards telling the tales of the heroes I know and the adventures that I and my band of merry runners take on. I have come to know pain from the inside, truth as a lived experience, and friendship as mutual respect.
And I intend to live this life for some time to come.