"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Donkey, A Sack Of Gummi Bears And Mt Everest

Herein lies a convoluted tale of, yes, donkeys, and of gummi bears, and of Mt Everest, but it is not what you are picturing, because it is also of staircases in my house and of a peculiar little obsessive idea.

Our story begins in the hills of Burgundy, France, in the summer of 2010. My wife, Lorraine, my eight year old daughter, Isabel, and my five year old son, Alexander, and I had booked a "donkey trekking" holiday. Donkey trekking, at least in the French context, involves hiring a donkey to carry your bags while you walk through the countryside from farm to farm and village to village, staying in pre-arranged B&Bs that can also accommodate donkeys (outside, in a barn).
I described some of the foibles involved with this in a previous post:

It was more or less as idyllic as it sounds, like walking into the pages of Peter Mayle's "A Year In Provence". Our donkey, Odyssee, was a pleasant and compliant companion and the landscape was tourist-brochure gorgeous. In part it was made so by the steep hills. If you were paying attention
you'll have noticed that Odyssee carried bags, not people. An occasional exception was made for Alexander, but otherwise we all, children included, hiked up and down these hills for up to 15 km a day during what was one of France's hottest summers on record.

Predictable difficulties ensued.

Five and eight year olds can't really murder you for your foolishness, but they can complain and wail and cry in a way that makes you wish that someone would. We reached "the hill too far". You know the one. The first few can be made fun with the right amount of jollying up, but by the time "the hill too far" comes along you and your spouse are yourselves comprehensively exhausted and are no longer capable of the superhuman jollying required. Things were looking pretty grim.

Then I remembered. Then I remembered that my uncle had given the kids a giant sack of gummi bears when we visited him in Frankfurt. Like a kilo or something. I was appalled and whisked it into my pack before the kids cottoned on. I was looking at the topographic map when the idea struck me.

"Isabel! Alexander! See this map? See these lines? Each one represents a ten meter climb. That hill is six lines up from here. I'll give you..." and here I paused dramatically while I fished out the gummi sack. "... one gummi bear for every line you cross going up without complaining."

God bless that drug-like gummi goodness for motivation and the concentrated sugar for energy. The rest of the walk went splendidly. They actually began looking forward to hills.


So, fast forward to later that year back in Winnipeg. It was a foul stormy winter day and cabin fever was setting in. In a desperate gambit to avoid having to watch Despicable Me for the 14th time (it's a fine film, but a man has his limits) I remembered France and popped out to Safeway to buy gummi bears. The kids and I then measured our staircase. It turns out that it is 5.4 vertical meters up the two flights from the basement to the upstairs hall. I told them that they could have a gummi bear for every two times they went up and down the stairs. They didn't quibble about the extra 0.8 meters.

As they did this I began idly wondering how many times you'd have to do that to climb Mt Everest... The answer is 646 times. As there are two flights per ascent, that means 1292 total flights of stairs to climb the vertical distance from Everest base-camp at 5360 m to the summit at 8848 m.

And so a peculiar little obsessive idea was born. I began calculating the stair height of various smaller mountains and of various famous tall towers. I began climbing their equivalents and found that for some reason that remains unclear to me I actually enjoyed it. "Climbing Everest" in this odd fashion began to seem like a realistic prospect. At least at first it did as I made rapid progress extending my heights from 100 flights to 200 to 300 etc.. But then at about 500 I hit some sort of limit. Fatigue, pain, boredom, the feeling of futility - all of these became large enough factors to make pushing to almost 2 1/2 times that seem not only foolish (more foolish?), but impossible. So I slowly... quietly... dropped it, going from stair climbing twice a week, to once a week, to monthly, to never.


Now another six years have gone by. In the intervening time I had occasional thoughts that perhaps I could still do it if I mirrored the actual climbers and did it in five stages spread over five consecutive days: 238 flights to Camp 1, 148 to Camp 2, 296 to Camp 3, 278 to Camp 4 and then 332 to the summit. Even that seemed like a lot and the motivation still eluded me.

Then last week something happened. There was heavy rain on Monday, followed by a deep freeze and scouring winds, making it the iciest I can ever remember. It was impossible, or at least very hazardous and unpleasant, to ski, cycle, skate, run or even walk. The wild wind whipped spindrifts into the clear blue sky off of roofs and the remaining snow piles. I thought, 'this is like the summit of Everest...' And then I considered that I had a stretch of days off and suddenly the motivation returned. Like flipping a switch.

And now it's done. Yesterday at about 12:30 p.m. I "summited". I took the inevitable selfie, told my family (Lorraine smiled, Alexander looked at me blankly and Isabel rolled her eyes), took a shower and had a big lunch.  And began to think about doing it again, but doing some of it breathing through a snorkel to simulate low oxygen...

But that would just be weird.

This is me in 1993 looking at "the real Mt Everest" in the distance.

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