Brett Merrell is a well-respected fire fighter from Los Angeles, after 9/11 he dearly wanted to pay tribute to those comrades who had died by placing a flag at the summit of Mount Everest. What Brett did not know is just how events on the mountain would spiral out of his control, leaving him alone to a stark choice and a remarkable decision.
Brett would be making his second attempt to climb the most formidable mountain in the world. The first time he had mortgaged his house and sold his Harley Davidson. He had arrived at Everest only to spend 8 days without sleep at an early camp, forcing him to quit. Brett had been defeated by every climber’s nightmare - altitude sickness. This time around a benefactor had put up the $40,000 fee. For all these reasons Brett faced immense personal pressure to reach the summit; this would be his last chance to prove himself and to honour his fallen friends.
Beyond The Limit
Brett had agreed to take a part in a compelling documentary Everest: Beyond the Limit for the Discovery Channel. The documentary followed a unique collection of people as they attempted to reach the summit. There was a biker whose spine was encased in metal from previous biking accidents, an asthmatic who wanted to reach the summit without using bottled oxygen, and a doctor who specialised in altitude sickness. All headed up the mountain, all fixed on the prize.
It is normal for climbers like Brett to have spent all their savings, mortgaged their houses, given up work, left behind everyone they love to do this one thing. Climbers have to spend 40 days on the mountain just to get their oxygen-deprived lungs used to working harder. Every part of their being becomes entwined with the mountain. Brett explains,
"It's expensive to go there, you really put your life on hold, and you make a tremendous amount of sacrifices."
With all this effort, money, ambition and personal pride at stake there was the highest incentive to make the summit. This is what they were up against:
Mount Everest is the highest point on earth, standing 29,028 feet (8,848 metres) high — five and a half miles above sea level.
The temperature at the summit averages about – 33 °F (- 36 °C) and can drop as low as – 76°F (- 60 °C).
Climbers of Everest face many dangers including crevasses, falling rocks and ice, ferocious winds up to 125 mph, weight loss/dehydration and oxygen deprivation.
When subject to heights above 17,000 feet, the body struggles to process food, preferring to literally consume itself for energy.
Sheer, Icy and Bewildering
As Brett and his fellow climbers started their ascent, their oxygen starved brains and frozen limbs began to flounder. Brett’s face slowly turned purple and blue as mountain sickness took hold. Another climber found himself unable move as he became utterly disorientated while the sheer, icy mountain spun and flipped in his head like a child on a rollercoaster.
When a climber is at this stage, he faces three critical choices. Do I climb on? Do I stay here? Or do I use all the will power left to me and make my perilous way down? Brett Merrell describes what happened next,
"I saw myself at the top, but until you get up there, I can’t put it into words, you don’t know how TOUGH it is, when you are up that high and your body gives out."
At this stage, experience shows that climbers who refuse to give up their personal ambition and pride to stubbornly climb on, die. They will make a mistake, slip and fall or just sit down and never get up again.
A study conducted by the British Medical Journal discovered that over 200 experienced climbers have died on the mountain since 1921.
Brett Merrell now faced a stark choice. Everything was telling him that he must reach Everest’s summit; there was too much at stake for him to turn back now. The hardest decision for Brett was not to climb on; the hardest decision was to admit that he had failed, to live to fight another day. Despite all that he had invested, Brett somehow found the courage to turn back. After making it back down to safety, he explained the real reasons behind his decision,
"To me, mountain climbing should be a real team effort and you should be looking after your buddy. I could have jacked my oxygen up above four litres and basically what I would have done is cut into somebody else's oxygen supply and also burned up the emergency stores.
There's a lot of ways I could have got up. I could have had my Sherpa carry my stuff like a lot of other people. But in the team effort, that's where I'm proud of myself. I hung in there for the team and it cost me the summit. I reached my personal summit; that was the top of my Everest."
Brett Merrell reached the summit of his personal Everest. More than that he learned that we are not always as strong as we think we are and that, sometimes we will face situations that we cannot control. Sometimes we start to turn failure around by first accepting that our choices affect other people.
We are not as strong as we think we are and sometimes, we will face situations that we cannot control. What we can control are our choices; these choices can affect other people. Sometimes we have to learn to accept our failures before life can come from them.
Brett Merrell chose to fail on Everest, but he failed forward. He chose defeat rather than victory at the expense of someone else. He put others before himself and in doing so honoured the spirit of all those who gave their lives on 9/11 doing that very same thing.
There is no failure in that.