You may have seen the photo by now. Taken by Nirmal Purja, and now circulating all over the world, it shows this week a whole string of climbers waiting to summit the tallest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest. For some reason, this photo stopped me in my tracks. Here was one of the most difficult climbs in the world, a pilgrimage of sorts to many, looking like a line at an amusement park ride.
But much more deadly. Waiting in those temperatures and altitudes is not like waiting at Disneyland. Just this past week 10 climbers have died on Everest, with some attributing that to the long waiting times to reach the summit. The deaths this week brings the season total to over 20 at present count. A queue at Everest? Who would have ever thought it would be crowded at the top? Just this season, the Nepal government has issued over 320 climbing permits. This while a cleaning campaign is also going on to collect all the refuse left on the mountain in the last several decades, as well as thawed bodies from those that have died before.
I’m reading a book right now titled The Art of the Pilgrimage, showing how important the practice of pilgrimage is to our lives. For me, I love going to historical sites, religious sites, and cemeteries which can be a combination at times of both. With the privilege I’ve had of traveling to around 100 nations in my life, I’ve been on some very interesting journeys. I’ve never desired to climb a mountain like Everest, or any other. But I love to read about those who do, as well as other extreme physical travel. Just not my thing!
But perhaps the most strenuous journeys and pilgrimages can be those that are inward. Going to places inside of us, or to our own historical experiences, that can be every bit as daunting as waiting in a line on the top of Mt. Everest. I know they have been for me. To take the journey within can provoke at times more fear than wondering if we will survive the queue to get to the top of Everest. It is a scary place inside us, especially if we have never been willing to face the darkness within. Our places of need, of anger, of covetousness. Of jealousy, of lust, of not feeling like we are ever enough.
Yet taking the pilgrimage of the journey within will do much more to change our world than climbing Everest ever could. And one thing very true: it’s not usually crowded on the inward journey. There are still relatively few comparatively that are willing to take this journey.
One last bit of wisdom. On the outward pilgrimage, whether to Mt. Everest or to the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, it is sometimes wise to travel together with someone else. At least having them relatively nearby. On the inward journey, that is also true. If you journey alone, have someone nearby you can talk to: a friend, a spiritual director, a counselor. To paraphrase writer Anne Lamott, there are monsters down there. And they are best not faced alone.