Musings on Death, Mortality & Purgatory

Hello mountaineers and other readers. In 16 days I’ll be again on the trails of Mt. Whitney and as always I can’t wait. At work, I’m doing a better job of not talking incessantly about my upcoming trip. In past years, I wouldn’t have blamed my friends, family and co-workers had they tied me down and duct-taped my mouth shut to keep me from blathering on about Mt. Whitney, my upcoming attempt, the Sierras, what I was going to pack, the kind of coffee I was going to brew….. ok, you get the idea. From what I’ve heard from others, there is still a historic amount of snow at the highest elevations of the Sierras, but I’m hoping the trail will be clear enough to hike safely. 

Mt. Tallac Trail

Today’s excerpt is from the beginning of Book III (2005). After a three year break from Mt. Whitney, I’m ready once again to embark on my next adventure: 


For better or worse, I tend to err on the side of caution. This serves me well by keeping me safe from danger and making sure that I’m as prepared as I can be. That’s the positive aspect of the tendency. The negative, not only with respect to my Whitney trips, but also to life in general, is it can lead to timidity and a lack of tenacity. It’s been 3 years since my last trip to Whitney and I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether turning back at 14,000 feet in 2002, with a thunderstorm coming at me from the west like a freight train, was the right thing to do. My brain tells me that it was at the time. But I’m still filled with doubt. I worked so hard to get that close to the summit and I was going to get rained on whether I went forward or backwards.

It’s not an earth-shattering observation to say that, like everyone else, I’m a product of upbringing as well as my own life experiences. It’s this indecipherable amalgam of traits and experiences that make up my character, personality and invisibly guides me in the way I respond to events, new and old. This upbringing has led me to believe that death is one of those events that is to be avoided at almost all costs. I use the word, ‘almost’, because I don’t rule out that there might arise a dramatic ‘movie-of-the-week’ situation that will make me say, ‘Yeah, I’ll risk death for that’. I haven’t come across that situation yet in my life, but I pray that if it does, it will be for something heroic, worthwhile and for the greater good. I’m not a big believer in heaven and hell, but IF, after my lengthy stay in purgatory, I meet St. Peter at the gate, or if I meet the guy with hooves and a pitchfork holding the leash of a 3-headed dog at the lower gate, I’d like to be able to say that I got electrocuted on the 3rd rail of the BART tracks trying to save a child who had fallen off the platform, not because I dropped my bag of doughnuts.

And while I’m on my death soapbox, I confess that I’m not sold on the concept of ‘he died doing something he loved’ when somebody dies suddenly. My gut tells me that it’s simply a coping mechanism for family members. For the beloved survivors of the deceased, it surely gives great comfort and helps with the grieving process, but for the person who just died, I can’t imagine that it makes a significant difference. Personally, if I meet a sudden demise, my Catholic-influenced, guilt-based thought processes causes me to only hope that my corpse isn’t terribly inconvenient to retrieve and that nobody gets injured in the attempt to do so. I value this even higher than having on clean underwear.

About victorvolta

I am a freelance photographer/writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in the very suburban city of Santa Clara. Education: San Jose State University (class of '84) BA degree in Journalism with concentrations in Photojournalism and English. Favorite Foods: Ribeye steaks and Stan's Doughnuts (separate plates, usually). Favorite Drinks: Strong gourmet coffee and Trader Joe's Blood Orange Italian Soda (separate cups).
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