The Real Summit

Having served in the British Armed Forces for 13 years — during which time he saw action in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, experienced four explosions, and was left blind in one eye — Leslie Bins is no stranger to perilous adventure. On the morning of May 21 — only 1,500 feet from the summit of Mount Everest — Bins suddenly heard screams of terror as he looked up and saw Sunita Hazra sliding down the fixed climbing-line toward him, gaining momentum with every passing second.

Bins didn’t panic. Bracing for impact, he succeeded in stopping the rudderless plunge. Looking at Hazra’s oxygen regulator, Bins immediately discovered the reason for her ordeal: it was registering empty. After recovering, Hazra attempted independent descent, but a second collapse after just 60 feet convinced Bins to give up his Everest bid in order to save a life. With only 12 hours left to an expedition that usually occupies the better part of two months, that was no small sacrifice.

On the way down, another struggling climber joined, and the two sufferers were frequently collapsing. Waist-deep snow and exceedingly slippery ice made for quite a dangerous and taxing situation. Unable to continue with both, Bins only managed to save Hazra. Once in a tent — after treating Hazra for hypothermia and severe frostbite — Bins literally collapsed into sleep as he heard the second climber’s voice in the distance.

“I am immensely proud,” Bins reflected, “that I was able to help … I just wish I could have done more.”

Leslie Bins’ significant self-sacrifice can and should inspire us as to the supreme value of saving a life.

Another thought that struck me, though, is how incredibly dangerous it is to attempt climbing Everest. Despite a significant decrease over the past decade, the Everest fatality rate still boggles the mind at 1.4 percent. And Everest’s popularity is only growing. The 1996 disaster (in which eight people perished in a blizzard) was partly blamed on a bottleneck-effect of 30-plus climbers summiting in one day. But on May 23, 2010, 169 climbers summited on the same day!

So why are people doing this? Yes, we all know the clichéd retort of George Mallory — one of the key members of the British 1922 expedition, whose body was lost on Everest for 75 years — when that question was posed to him. But do you really think “because it’s there” is a good answer? Eight-hundred-pound tigers and 20-foot great whites are also “there.” Should someone, then, hop on their backs for a joyride?

In the words of Harav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, people do this because they are dead. The emptiness of contemporary culture can strip adherents of any semblance of inner vitality, to the point that they can feel driven to activities that provide a feeling of being face-to-face with death and overcoming it. The adrenalin rush of “surmounting the insurmountable” gives them a feeling of being alive.

The drive to experience a real sense of being — of feeling alive — Harav Weinberg elaborated, is one of the strongest that comprises the human condition.

In the very beginning of Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, the Rambam sets down, in his crystal-clear way, the most basic tenet of emunah: there is only One Absolute Existence Which is the source of all other existence. If one would think that He does not exist, nothing else would be able to exist. And if one would think that nothing else exists, His Existence would nevertheless remain constant. This is what the passuk means, the Rambam elaborates further, when it says, “ein od Milvado — there is nothing other than Him” (Devarim 4:35) — that there is no true being other than Him.

The reality of Hashem, then, is the only true reality. It is His that is absolute, real being. All else is but a created, connected continuum of past and future, with no true present. Only Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the Havayah Ha’amitis, the true, actual Existence Who is limited by neither space nor time.

The drive for the sense of “I am!” exerts an extremely powerful pull on mankind. We are hardwired this way so that we may be led to connect with the Source of all existence, the only true, real Being. Humanity is inevitably engaged — whether it likes it or not — in an insatiable quest for purpose and meaning in life.

Fortunate are we that we know the secret of this quest; as the Ramchal writes at the very beginning of Mesillas Yesharim: “Man was only created to experience the pleasure of Hashem and delight in the shining splendor of His Divine Presence, for that is the true pleasure and the greatest gratification out of all gratifying experiences that could possibly exist.”