I was standing atop Middlebury College’s Snow Bowl this past weekend, in several inches of fresh powdery snow, gazing out with appreciation and even a little awe at the tremendous western view that opens up from the summit. In the foreground were the lower hilltops and ridges of Ripton. Further down, patchwork swaths of the Champlain Valley were visible. And beyond, the higher peaks of the Adirondacks silhouetted against a clear blue sky.
I had just bumped into a friend — one who actually reads my columns regularly — and as we stood admiring the panorama, he commented that I hadn’t been offering my usual winter fare of articles about cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and just hiking through the snowy woods. Of course he knew why. There hasn’t been much snow. We’ve never had enough down in the valley for snowshoeing. And if once or twice we have briefly had enough for cross-country skiing, it hasn’t lasted more than a day or two.
Based on the forecast for the next seven days — daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s, and nighttime temperatures well above freezing — this will almost certainly end up as the first winter in the past two decades in which I did not get out cross-country skiing even once. And also the first winter I will ever have finished my boiling of sap before the middle of March.
As a result of the lack of snow (and also in part because I’ve actually been fishing multiple times this winter) I have been writing regularly about fishing. And in a roundabout way, I am again this week.
I read a story this week about another climber on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, who became disabled and was abandoned by his party — actually on the way down, after having reached the peak. Not only was he abandoned by his party, but several other climbers went past him and refused to help. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make much of a story. Because, in fact, ignoring wounded and ill hikers and leaving them to die is the norm on Everest. Climbers will spend months to years training for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime attempt on the world’s highest peak, as well as upwards of $20,000 in expenses. Apparently, the glory of success — or perhaps the view form the top, which I admit must be far more spectacular than the view from atop the Snow Bowl — is more important than another human life. Everest climbers are more interested in saying, “I stood there” and “I let that person die” than in knowing they saved someone’s life.
What actually made this a story is that another team of climbers did stop, abandoned their own attempt at summiting, and rescued the man. He turned out to be suffering from severe frostbite and oxygen deprivation. They waited with him for several hours, gave him food and oxygen, and kept him warm, until they could get help bringing him down. In doing so, and in their willingness to abandon their own expedition, they saved this man’s life. They also said they couldn’t imagine having done anything differently. They knew they had done the right thing.
Reading that story caused me to reflect on the anglers I know. I couldn’t imagine a single one making the choice to let somebody die in order to accomplish some fishing feat. We might get up at four in the morning and stand for an hour in freezing temperatures to claim a good hole on a crowded steelhead river. In fact, I’ve witnessed that several times this winter. But I can’t imagine even the most obnoxious angler wanting to get to that hole so badly that she or he would ignore a wounded person in need of help.
Now Everest climbers might say the two are not comparable. As noted, climbers might spend years’ worth of savings for the privilege of attempting to summit the world’s highest peak, and if they don’t succeed some will never get another chance. So I’ll admit a difference in degree, but not in kind.
I have always dreamed of going Atlantic salmon fishing in Iceland. It would be, for me, the Everest of fishing. And between license fees, guide fees and travel expenses, such a trip could cost close to what an Everest ascent might cost — just for a few days of fishing. A trip for brown trout in New Zealand would be similar. I know lots of anglers who dream about such trips. I know none would walk past another angler and let them die rather than giving up the dream trip.
Maybe that’s why I’m not the sort of person who attempts Everest. Maybe it’s why I can appreciate the view from the Snow Bowl. But I don’t think I could enjoy the memory of landing even a world record salmon if in choosing to land it I had to let somebody die.