The Bell-like Ping of Freezing Sweat

Tough Parables

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Most of the difficulties I've experienced on expeditions have been the result of my own failures. For instance, when I once passed a couple of weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole in midwinter, I suffered frostbite in my fingers and toes, got haunted by a hallucination of the Angel of Death (who had long brown hair and who cried when I didn't want to go with her), and kept feeling colder and colder and colder, all because the custom sleeping bag I'd ordered, rated (said the manufacturer) to 70 degrees below zero, was no good at 40 below. I had worried about this beforehand when I first laid eyes on the skimpiness of the goose down, but because it had been very expensive and because there was nowhere nearby that was cold enough to really test it, I chose to trust the liars who'd sewn it for me. Most of the responsibility for my discomfort therefore remains mine, and indeed, since my purpose at the Pole was to write about some 19th-century explorers who'd died in those parts, and since, like them, I got a good measure of strangeness and of fright (the sweat freezing nightly under my clothes with an audible, bell-like ping), it all worked out for the best. My sentences at least rang true.

Difficult trips? I never went on one voluntarily—the trip from here on out to my cemetery plot will be difficult enough. But years ago, during the Soviet-Afghan War, I crossed into Afghanistan illegally, and for me that walk remains memorable for a number of reasons: The high green hills near Parachinar, the boulder-choked rivercourses at dawn with the full moon overhead, the snow, the spaciousness, the endlessness—and ahead, the sinisterness—almost overruled my own exhaustion. I was young, and until then had only trespassed upon the premises of nuclear power plants, so breaching the sovereignty of an entire country made me feel awfully excited. I had the notion of helping people (in this case, the Afghan resistance), and so I was prepared to do any number of stupid, thrilling-sounding things that I couldn't have justified in my own name alone. It was a Great Project, you see.

Prepared, did I say? Oh, I might have been in decent shape a month earlier when I arrived in Pakistan, before amoebic dysentery turned me into a walking skeleton, but just as with my sleeping bag, I figured I'd come out all right because somebody promised me I would. That somebody, a well-meaning insurgent, told me that our walk would take us over a little hill. It was supposed to last about three or four hours. It took two days and a night, and involved the ascent of two mountains and an evening descent upon (and through) a rotten glacier. We did not fall far. Trickling snow roofed us as we walked down another stony river. Then the roof became an ice canyon, then melted away altogether as we came into Afghanistan. I had to stop every couple of hours due to diarrhea. Shaking their heads, the mujahideen wondered why Washington hadn't sent a strong American.

I was ashamed then, and still feel embarrassed whenever I think about that walk. I wore good hiking boots; they wore sandals. I got blisters; their feet literally left blood on the rocks. I'd come to take photographs to sell so that I could maybe send them money. They'd come to fight, possibly to die. But they were very happy. They believed that if they were killed by the Soviets, they'd go instantly to heaven. And if they survived, they'd run the Soviets out of their country—which is exactly what happened.

What was I on that trip but an irrelevance? Any notion of challenging oneself in such conditions for purposes of "self-fulfillment" or for any other reason would be laughable. And what did I ever do for the Afghans in the end? Oh, I raised some money—it wasn't enough to buy a Stinger missile, so they endowed an elementary school library.

Challenges make me tired; thrills are evidence of my own incompetence. It's all very interesting to read about, like a true-crime story, but who wants to be a victim of a true crime? Long and exotic trips, on the other hand—why not? If I could, I'd love to go to the moon, and to the bottom of the ocean. In both places Icould kiss the unknown. The danger itself wouldn't interest me; for danger I could play Russian roulette. But to be a human in an inhuman environment would be as glorious as taking one's first step onto the high-school dance floor.

These journeys would be subject to unknown chances, but I'd try to keep them as smooth and steady as I could. I've become a tranquil robot of checklists and routines. If you pack your own parachute instead of letting somebody else do it, then you can aspire to an idyllic free fall. And if matters work out otherwise, it's better to blame only yourself.

William T. Vollmann's fifth novel, The Royal Family, will be published next month by Viking Penguin.

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