The climb is worth the top

13 Sep 2000 | By Cpl. Rick T. O'Connor 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

My ability to tie two figure-eight knots in the quarter-thick nylon rope was the only safety measure keeping me from death via the ground 4,000 feet below. As I reached up to climb that section of the mountain, I noticed my bootlace had come untied.

This was not comforting.

As a combat cameraman for the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), I jumped at the chance to photograph our Force Reconnaissance detachment as they went through the Slovenian Armed Forces Mountain School. The school was called "Gorska Sola Slovenski Vojske," which I believe translates into "high, deadly mountains with lots of falling rocks."

Like the other Marines there, I had been through the schools. But it had been almost a year since I last climbed a mountain of any magnitude. I had also been told on more than one occasion that people pay lots of money to climb mountains like these. By the time I was half way up the first rock face, I was willing to offer my slot up for the simple price of an elevator ride back down.

We began the school by climbing a smaller, 3,500-foot mountain. Though more physically challenging, this slab of rock was half as short as the 7,000-foot monolith I was scaling when my bootlace came untied. It was this mountain, which I had affectionately named "I hate you," that posed the greater risk. I first realized that when we were climbing along a ledge.

I noticed a plaque that had been embedded in the mountain. We asked our instructor why it was there. He replied simply, "Fallen climber," and continued to walk.

Despite the rocks that fell about my head and the mountain goats we were told would knock us off the rock, I kept going. We slept alongside the mountain that night in our sleeping bags. In spite of the cold and fear of a rouge mountain goat wandering into our camp, I slept very well.

Though we had only a few thousand feet left to go, they were the hardest. With my camera strung around my neck I balanced the delicate tasks of climbing, photographing and praying.

As quickly as my climb on the death mountain had begun, we found ourselves crossing the last ledge. Just ahead of was a narrow ridge that marked a path to the zenith of the mountain we had spent more than two days climbing.

It hit me.

As I stood higher than some birds fly I remembered why I jumped at the chance to do this. Every step of the mountain, every dull ache in my body, every time I thought the figure eight knot might go the way of my boot lace, was worth it. I threw my hands above my head in victory; I jumped up and down; I had beaten the mountain. As the wind swayed me, I glanced down to see my own feet standing on a narrow strip of Earth, surrounded by a 7,000-foot drop on either side. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled to the large, flat top of the mountain.

I think I'm a different man because of my journey. My climb taught me that in climbing, as in life, the road to the top is worth the agony. I learned the pride in winning is worth the risk of failure. Mostly, I learned to never, ever, jump up and down when you're at the top of a mountain. That's just stupid.

26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)