I'm a Loser, Baby
It's been one week to the day since I was banished from Aconcagua, summarily sent down from it, like an inept baseball player kicked from the major league to the minors. I haven't really had time to process what happened, or to understand what it ultimately means to my life, other than to label it a failure. After all, I wanted something - to reach the tippy-top of the highest mountain outside of Asia - and it didn't happen. I didn't summit Aconcagua. Hell, I didn't even get close. I didn't even make it past the approach camp, a victim of mountain sickness, according the physician who fretted over my vitals before announcing, with great gentleness, that I was in jeopardy and would continue to be until I descended.
That's failure and I will always label it as such, which seems to confound and annoy just about everyone around me. I've heard this week that I can't be a failure because I tried to accomplish something most wouldn't, because it was my body that gave out and not my will, because this kind of setback is just a part of mountaineering and because, simply, I didn't die. I understand the reasoning behind all that, and am grateful for the kindness that led my friends and fans to share these thoughts with me. I just don't agree.
I had a goal. I didn't achieve that goal. I failed.
Why are we so afraid of failure in this country? Why do we twist and turn the situation in which we failed upside down and all around, spinning it like a kid appraising a package on Christmas morning, just so we can call it anything but what it is? The way I see it - and I'm quoting President Obama here - "If you are living life to the fullest, you will fail." As Oprah Winfrey says, "If you're constantly raising the bar, if you're constantly pushing yourself, higher, higher, higher, the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus, predicts you will at some point fall."
And that's okay. Because the alternative, to not even try, is far worse for me. I don't mean to sound like Dr. Phil or Tony Robbins or Brene Brown, as much as I love her, or Yogi Bear or the Dalai Lama himself. I don't feel comfortable making pronouncements about how anyone else should live. But for me, passion, adventure, excitement, which I now get mostly from pushing myself damn hard and then harder and harder still, make life bearable. If I didn't try - be it anything from climbing a mountain to moving to a country where I know no one on not more than a whim - there's a chance I might go mad. Or at least back to the self-destructive ways I once utilized to get my fix of chaos, the metaphorical equivalents of driving too fast in a big-motored car down a dark highway, fucked up on mania and dope and lust, the thick fingers of the dangerous man perched beside me in the passenger seat creeping up my naked thigh. Or, actually, the literal equivalents, too.
I'm not a great white shark - I don't need to be in constant motion to survive, although I have some former lovers I expect would disagree on both counts. But I do need something to work toward. Looking ahead keeps me sane. I need to challenge myself, the more viscerally the better. That little divot I have inside my soul, the place damaged, if not quite broken, by what I've never discovered, is filled for a time when I do. Risking it all, or as much of it as I can, soothes me.
My plan to climb Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, which I announced a little more than 18 months ago, was undoubtedly an outgrowth of this need. But more crucially, it was an attempt to save myself. I was in danger back then, more danger than I ever faced on that mountain. The loss of my brother to a heroin overdose, an event that still lurks beneath every moment of every day, ready to rise up and throttle me with grief; the decline of my parents, with whom I live, rendered in cruel close-up and most recently encompassing my mother's dementia diagnosis; and the final blow that nearly destroyed me, the end of a relationship filled with enough love and toxicity it's taken me nearly two years to emerge from it fully, like a freed prisoner creeping slowly from a basement cell - these events and more, piled fast one atop another, made me question whether living was a worthwhile effort. I questioned it a lot back then.
I needed to find a way to quiet all that tragedy, to hush it, so I could hear the sounds of life again, find the path back to it. Embarking on a quest so massive it was ridiculous, like scaling two of the Seven Summits within a year, seemed the way to do it. I hoped along the way it would turn me into someone I wasn't - a woman not vanquished by pain, but one heroic, strong, invincible. A warrior, inside and out. A woman who ascends big damn mountains. And I failed. I came down from Aconcagua two days after I went up it. I suppose I should be humiliated.
But I'm not. Because I have felt a shift within me. Maybe I'm simply riding high with a giddiness born from emerging off Aconcagua with fingers, toes and nose intact (I was never really afraid of the mountain killing me, but not so the idea of of losing bits and pieces of myself to frostbite). Maybe I'm simply grateful to be released from the exhaustion I felt nearly as soon as I started the first trek. Pervasive and absolute, it destroyed my resolve, turning what was supposed to be an easy five-mile hike into a grim battle marked by my tortured, runaway breath and staggering feet. The next day, when I was forced to ask one of my expedition's guides to take me back to camp less than halfway through our trek, was worse. I didn't understand why, when I'd trained so hard for Aconcagua, I felt a fatigue on its lower trails that nearly trumped what I endured during my eight-hour push to Kilimanjaro's 19,341-foot-high summit.
Would Aconcagua have killed me if I’d have bullied and begged, stamped my feet and cried, somehow convincing the physician - an improbably beautiful and compassionate Argentinean woman who looked like a grittier version of Salma Hayek - to let me continue the ascent? I don’t know. I don’t know how sick I really was, only that over the course of two nights my blood pressure had risen from 140 over 90 to 165 over 110. My heart rate increased to 130 and my oxygen saturation fell to 84. Not awful numbers, but what concerned my glamorous doctor was that my vitals were worsening instead of getting better. I wasn’t acclimatizing to the altitude.
It hurts that I failed to summit Aconcagua, hurts like a pinch cruel enough to leave a bruise, a result common to the collision of dreams and reality. But I'm grateful for the experience I had in Argentina. Right now, as I sit here typing this, I feel something that could be called hope and I think that brutal bitch of a mountain that I love and fear in equal measure returned it to me. Will I return to her? I don't know. But my hunger for her summit, a growling yearning very different than the pain that consumed me 18 months ago, continues.
A Sort of Homecoming
As long as I can remember I've avoided achievement. I left Penn State - more precisely, I simply stopped going to classes much - midway through my last semester. I was a University Scholar. I think I ended up about nine credits short of my theater degree. About six years later I left my husband, Sean, whose last name I still carry with me (I suppose some might say like penitence), though he loved me more than I'm afraid any man ever will love me again. I loved him just about as much.
I actually left Sean twice. The second time it was for a drug addict.
I walked away from radio, too, just as I was on the cusp of breaking big, after I'd come close to snaring a gig as big-deal shock jock Mancow's sidekick.
I'm not sure what short circuit in my brain accounted for this kind of behavior. Fear of success, fear of failure, a fascination with self-destruction, simply an inability to focus on the long view, or to maybe handle routine, it could be all of these things. Or none of them. But at the very least it's made for an interesting life - sometime I'll have to write the story of the time a crack dealer put a gun to my head - and until recently there wasn't much I regretted about it. Certainly not the degree and not even radio. Sean. I regret Sean. Still, two decades later.
Sometimes I wonder if T is some kind of cosmic payback for the way I treated my husband. He was the best man I ever knew. Brilliant. T was so proud of his intellect but Sean, he was scary smart. Got a perfect score on his SATs. Johns Hopkins tried to recruit him at 14 for med school and throughout our marriage he'd periodically get literature from MENSA. They were trying to recruit him, too. Brilliant and funny and creative and handsome and kind and he loved me exactly as I was.
So, of course I left him.
I don't want to live this way anymore. I'm ready to see exactly what I can do when I put my mind to it and keep it there. I don't want to be that woman, the smart and talented one - oh, no genius, to be sure - who just never really seems to get it together. Which is why I'm so afraid. Terrified that I've fucked up so badly this time there's no putting it right.
I had this amazing thing started, didn't I? I'd announced to the world that to heal my broken heart and take back my life after a lot of terrifically horrible events I was going to climb two of the Seven Summits of the world next year. I was going to detail my training and my emotional as well as physical transformation right here, on this blog, with brutal honesty and hopefully even a bit of poetry. I started training, remaking my body with the help of my supremely talented trainer Steve Jury, at Victory Sports and Fitness. Other people stepped forward to help, like Tamar London, who took such incredible "before" photographs of me.
And in the first month 11,000 people read this blog. 11,000 people. I still can't quite believe it.
And then I started traveling and the assignments, big ones, from national magazines, started coming, so fast I could barely keep up with them, and I even got invited to submit a book proposal. I couldn't do it all, I couldn't. I tried. I worked very hard, but something had to give and that something was this blog. This blog, and training. It's been weeks and weeks since I've been to the gym. I've gained at least five pounds, probably more, even though a lot of that traveling involved arduous physical activity, like when I hiked 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. God, I loved that. Those three days on the AT to me proved that I wasn't crazy, that Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua were calling to me because I belong there. I belong to those mountains.
I loved training, loved how my body was becoming so much stronger than its ever been. And I loved this blog. In a very real way it saved my life, along with the people who followed it, the readers who reached out to tell me that my writing actually meant something to them. That it helped them. What a fine thing. The finest thing, I think, any writer could ask. I loved it all and I left it and I'm ashamed because I'm afriad that this is more of the same kind of behavior I've been doing forever.
But all I can do now is try to do better. I'm going back to Victory this weekend. Training begins afresh. I guess I'll have to ask Tamar to take pictures of my new body - instead of leaner and more muscular, even rounder than it was. Honesty, right? Even when that honesty includes failure.
At least I've got a lot of new stories to tell. I've not only hiked the AT, I've been skydiving and doing something called body rafting in the wilds of primal Puerto Rico. I've actually been to Puerto Rico twice, and to Memphis, and Richmond, also, where I was nearly abducted from a lesbian bar by a former lineman for Penn State. That was a strange night. Along the way I've healed a little bit and had a few epiphanies and continued to cry and, upon occasion, to smile.
I hope you forgive my absence. I hope you'll return to gleesonreboots, the way I have, invigorated and damn curious to see what's next.
Whatever it is, I can promise you it won't be boring.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included