I think I understand what Viesturs means when he writes, “The mountain decides whether you climb or not.” And yet, I’m sure he would also recognize that there is a point at which the body, apart from the mountain or the mind, dictates a “stop.”
Wilkerson reached that point in the night. It was a bitter decision when he was forced to abandon his summit attempt and return to High Camp.
Now, at half past ten in the morning, he looks up to the switchbacks and spots the summit group descending. We spot him as well. Nine hours have passed since our two groups parted: Celîl and the six headed up, Uraz and Wilkerson headed down. Now, we reunite beside the little cluster of tents called High Camp. It is a bittersweet meeting. Uraz and Wilkerson embrace us one by one as we pole over boulders and into the camp.
Wilkerson is physically sick. We are physically exhausted. Wilkerson is coping with the reality of not making the summit. We are elated, but subdued in the presence of our dear friend. We all smile weakly, but awkwardly, and for different reasons. He is the one who runs marathons. He is the one who played college football. He is the natural athlete among us. And yet, he is the one who became sick. He celebrates with us and among us, and yet, apart from us. It is stunning. Somehow, I believe, there is a deeper truth about the human condition lurking here. There are lessons to be had, each bigger than Ağrı Dağı: camaraderie, grace, priorities, family. We are finished, but God is not.
Rather than put words in Wilkerson’s mouth, I let him address the situation:
“'(The) Thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’ I can remember growing up with those words on ‘The Wide World of Sports.’ Our team was successful in having 6 of the 7 enjoy the thrill of victory and 1 suffering the agony of defeat. I am proud for 6 others . . . I was the one who did not summit Mt Ararat and am tasting the agony of defeat. Somehow I came down with something intestinal about 27 hours before the summit day. Combined with a strenuous climb to the 14,000 camp, it really sapped my strength by dehydrating me and not allowing me to eat much. I tried to make the summit anyway and did not have the strength. I can only describe what these other men did that day and it was unbelievable . . . They scaled some of the most rugged terrain, climbed across and up a glacier in below freezing temps and strong winds. They are mountain men! That was one of the most rugged adventures I dare say any of us has ever attempted. The team’s support, understanding and concern for my condition was truly amazing. We turn to many things, people and places for comfort in our agonies of defeat in life. I turned to CJ, my wife who made sure I had a note from her, our children and our grandchild for every day I was to be gone. I was reading one a day. I returned to my tent and read all of them over and over while crying like a baby. She above all but the Lord knows my heart. Her comfort is a blessing I have and will enjoy. I am coming home with an experience of a lifetime to my best bud and pal.”
We leave Wilkerson and Uraz and stumble to our tents, each carrying his own thoughts.
In the tent, Greg looks up and remarks: “The wind was so bad up there, it blew a contact out of my eye!”