The Joy of Suffering

Like fun… only difference. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.
Like fun… only different. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.

My friend Rick and his climbing partner Adam had just finished some mixed ice and rock climbs in Alaska. While on the route Shaken Not Stirred, on the Moose’s Tooth, Rick’s arm had been buzz-sawed by a falling dinner plate of ice, leaving it bruised and numb, and Adam tore his lips open while trying to blow snow out of a frozen ice screw. They climbed another route, Ham and Eggs, and then settled in at basecamp, ready to head home. Unfortunately, some bad weather kept the air taxi from its scheduled pick-up and, after a few days socked in, the pair found themselves nearly out of food, swapping gel packets with another party stuck on the glacier in an effort to keep a modicum of variety in their calorie-poor diets.

During their unplanned stay, Rick and Adam were mostly confined to a small bivvy tent. The snow was falling so fast and heavy that they could hear it cascading over the waterproof shell. So they sat and sipped melted snow, read, listened to music, watched Chappelle’s Show on Rick’s tablet — whatever they could do to ward off terminal boredom and hunger pangs. Every so often, the sound of the wind and snowfall would stop.

“That’s when we played a little game,” explains Rick. “We called it ‘Stopped Snowing, or Buried?'” At some point the storm would pass and their ride would buzz in from Talkeetna — that would be the “stopped snowing” option. But mostly when it went quiet it was because the snow had accumulated enough to cover the tent, burying them. When this happened, it was time to get out and dig.

Eventually the skies cleared, the plane landed, and everyone got home safely. But on the way back, Rick, already a tall and skinny dude, had to walk around Anchorage with one hand dedicated to keeping his pants up, now several sizes too big thanks to the alpine weight loss program.

Of course, none of this stopped Rick from going back into the mountains. He just returned from a trip to the Bugaboos with his wife, and he’s probably already plotting something big for next year — a trip to Patagonia or the like — with his sufferbuddy, Chris.

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Your worst nightmare is my dream vacation.” Typically attributed to alpine pursuits, it could just as well apply for folks who run ultra marathons, wriggle through shoulder-width, lightless caves deep underground, or plummet down rock-strewn, high-angle chutes on skis. Writing a book or a PhD dissertation could be seen as similarly nightmarish scenarios for the average person.

The truth is, while undertaking any grand quest, you will find yourself at varying points exhausted, frustrated, scared, in physical pain, or just praying for it all to be over. But when it is over, there is almost always a magical moment when the suffering that seemed so present and oppressive in the moment evaporates and you find yourself suffused with a profound joy. Soon, you’ll seek out the same kind of challenge again. Why? Alpinist and writer Kelly Cordes offers the old adage that an alpinist’s finest asset is a short memory. But maybe there’s something more to it…

Both Rick and Kelly admit that, on some level, suffering isn’t just something we put out of our minds to make room for a sense of fulfillment; it’s also an active part of that fulfillment.

“We place a higher value on things we have to work for,” Rick said. “And fear, pain, and exhaustion are very poignant, universally recognizable forms of work.”

Likewise, Kelly lists suffering as an ingredient in a powerful emotional stew: “Only the laziest slob would argue that putting forth effort in something is never rewarding, and so you magnify that effort, require something huge of yourself that includes some suffering, put yourself in the most beautiful places on the planet, rely completely on yourself and your partner and nobody else, no societal bullshit, no people drama, no petty daily toils, and no excuses, and it creates the most lasting memories of your life.”

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Pleasure is not different from difficulty.” I think this is exactly the strange contradiction that people like Kelly or Rick, or Rick’s wife who is a diehard cross fit practitioner, or my friend who runs 100 mile races through the mountains, understand intuitively, almost compulsively. Seeking to strain out the difficulties of life and leave only the pleasurable and agreeable will leave nothing but a meagre broth behind.

The challenges in life, like the successes, are just a part of an endlessly swirling tableaux of ends and beginnings, discovering and forgetting, creating and destroying. Along the way, hopefully, we use them to learn who we are and what we believe. Without failure and struggle, what joy could we take from any endeavor? What would inspire us? These experiences — the ones my friend Roody calls, “Like fun, only different” — offer a kind of freedom that’s hard to get at in any other way. As Kelly puts it, “Nothing makes me feel so alive as climbing in the mountains.”

Photo Friday: Night Running Video Shoot, Behind the Scenes

This week, I spent two evenings out shooting video with Salt Lake City-based ultra runners Jared and Mindy Campbell and members of the local production company Camp 4 Collective. The footage was for a Petzl video project highlighting night running with headlamps. Below are some “behind the scenes” images and general scenics I snapped while the Camp 4 masterminds, headed up by Tim Kemple, captured stunning footage of Jared and Mindy doing their thing. (I dig my job.) Plus, down below, three important things I learned while out on these shoots.

Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.
Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.
A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.
A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.

Day 1:

I brushed at the tiny black carcasses of dead gnats peppering the hairs of my forearms. Other gnats, still lively, vibrated against my cheeks and into my ear canals. One of the Camp 4 camera guys, Hennie, blasted my face and head with Backwoods OFF, but it seemed to have limited effect. We hiked the short trail up to Antelope Island’s Buffalo Point trying not to swat and paw at the gnat clouds that surrounded our heads like dark halos.

Tim Kemple of Camp 4 Collective, waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so we could shoot some night running.
Tim Kemple waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so he can shoot some night running.

Once up at Buffalo Point, the wind kept the bugs at bay and we were treated to an epic sunset. Golden light poured across the island, moving the vibrance and saturation sliders up a notch. Soon after the sun went down, Jared and Mindy started running and the Camp 4 crew started shooting. Lightning flashes popped far to the west, somewhere over the edge of the Great Salt Lake. We shot until it was much later and darker than we’d anticipated. On the way home, I just barely resisted the Camp 4 crew’s tempting offer to hit the In-N-Out Burger for a midnight snack.

Day 2:

The wind was cranking up on top of the hill. The trails of the Bonneville Shoreline system traced the spring-green ridges and valleys all around us. Below, Salt Lake City was a sprawl of tiny houses and buildings, dwarfed by the snow-laced Wasatch Mountains in the distance.

The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch
The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch.

I had to make a  phone call to help guide my boss up to our location, but the reception was crap, so I walked up to the top of the hill. There, the wind was its worst, scouring every surface. It rippled mercilessly through my thin, short-sleeved shirt. I looked around, and saw that everyone else wore some sort of jacket. It occurred to me then that I have always been the type of guy who brings the stuff he doesn’t need (on this day: a laptop, a copy of Emerson’s collected works, an empty Tupperware container) and fails to bring the stuff he does need (something to block the chilled, howling wind!). I made the call, but the wind made everything sound like amplified static. I gave up.

Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop
Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop. In this picture, the guy with jean shorts and a moustache is telling everyone about the hipster race he started in which competitors are required to run in jean shorts and moustaches.

The runners, camera crew, and I were waiting for the sun to go down so we could start capturing night running footage. Already shivering in the daylight, I wondered how far the mercury might drop after sundown. But really, my suffering was trivial compared to what Jared had endured just weeks ago, when he ran the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race with nearly 60,000 feet of vertical gain and loss through the Blair Witch woods of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. I can’t even fathom the mindset required to endure such a journey.

Jared Campbell on camera
Jared Campbell, pain cave explorer, mugging for the camera.
Salt Lake City from above
Sprawlingly awesome: Salt Lake City from above.

Despite the wind and a nagging chance of rain, the shoot went well and the skies had a nice look to them. Jared and Mindy were consummate professionals and never once abandoned their good humor while we made them run back and forth on the same stretch of trail repeatedly or sit shivering in the dark answering interview questions while staring into a huge ring light. I can only imagine that after you’ve run 100 miles, all day and all night, your idea of what constitutes a hardship must change. Meanwhile, I was excited that Camp 4 brought out a RED camera to do some of the shooting. Truly the wet dream of the video gear head set.

Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.
Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.

Three things I learned…

The final footage should be coming soon. Already, the Camp 4 guys have left on a jet plane for some big deal video shoot or other. Before we parted ways, Tim told me it was nice to shoot something locally for a change. I realized then that I’d learned three valuable lessons working with Camp 4 and the Campbells:

  1. Shooting quality video is not all fun and games. In fact, it is hard goddamned work, and should not be taken lightly. These guys work long hours shooting and longer hours editing, have to know a ton of technical stuff, have to be creative one the fly, and have to know how to make magic even when things go pear-shaped, which they inevitably do.
  2. Ultra runners are batshit crazy. I have no clue what drives a person to explore their own mental and physical limits like Jared and Mindy do, but I respect it. I respect it from the comfort of my couch.
  3. The Salt Lake Valley, despite being a strange place culturally, and despite have ruefully bad air pollution issues, is one of the prettiest places a person can live. I also realized for the first time that autumn, my favoritest season on the East Coast, is not my favoritest season out West. Here, spring is king, with the green hills and still-white mountain tops. Spring out East is muggy and damp. Here it is refreshing like an Irish Spring commercial. Spring, I lift my glass to ye. Sláinte!

Links to stuff mentioned in this post: