Death is a mystery. That death is a mystery brings life into the realm of the unknown because life and death are inextricably linked. The word mystery comes from mystes, ‘one who has been initiated,’ which comes from the form myein, ‘to shut the eyes’ as in, only the initiated are allowed to witness secret rites. Why are our eyes closed to the ultimate end? There are many things we can discover in a lifetime, and over the millennia humans have revealed much about their own existence, but no one can supply a definitive about death, except to say that it’s inevitable.
Most, including myself, have a fear of death. When faced with the possibility of it while climbing I think one must have some kind of personal philosophy about it. I’ve met other climbers that aren’t concerned in the least about dying. They are not careless, but carefree. I wonder if this is denial, or recognition of death.
Any religious person will give to you what they consider the correct answer to the question of death. For Christians, it is a simple matter of accepting Jesus Christ as your savior; after death comes everlasting life in heaven. The problem is, heaven is not a tangible thing, or you can’t go there on holiday and come back with a tan. One can think about heaven, pray about it, talk about it, believe devoutly in it but until you go, there’s just no way to know. Tibetan Buddhists believe that after 59 days of travelling through many levels of reality the soul is safely delivered to the afterlife where the spirit finds another physical form to inhabit. Spiritual adepts will tell you that they are intimately acquainted with these worlds. Once again, we, the living, stand on the other side of the blackened veil that does not allow us to see to the other side.
Examples are many and varied, but ultimately one must have faith in a religion, or another spiritual discipline to say they ‘know’ what awaits them in the other world. Who knows? Annie Dilliard, “trying to know anything is like trying to get a coffee ground out of a cup of water, you just end up pushing it around.” I don’t, and don’t pretend to know. Sometimes just thinking about being hundreds of feet in the air on a rock face with nothing but an inch or less to stand on or hold makes my palms sweaty. Thinking about climbing a rock face is not the actual doing. While climbing, I find my concentration so intense that there can be nothing else to think about except for what I’m doing in the exact moment. I would make the argument that we are all just like a climber on a rock face – though we may feel secure and sure that we know what is over the next peak, we really don’t know.
A famous climber dies in a car crash after being hit by a drunk driver. In Sweden a climber packs his bicycle with all he will need to ride to Nepal, and then carries all of his gear(solo), including his bike, to the Everest base camp, completes two solo summits on Mt. Everest (without oxygen) and rides back to Sweden. A short time later our Swedish climber is climbing in Vantage, Washington while on holiday, on a very easy climb, and falls to his death. No matter how skilled we think we are in living and avoiding our demise, death takes us on what would seem a whim.
The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, ed. Robert K. Barnhart, HarperResource,1995