It was hearing Rob Hall's final words that started me thinking about it. Rob, you may remember, was one of the guides of the ill-fated 1996 Everest expedition that claimed eight lives, including his. Just before he succumbed to hypothermia on the South Summit, Rob phoned his home in New Zealand and spoke to his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold.
Although he was sliding uncontrollably into death on the top of the world's tallest mountain, he sounded as calm as a businessman calling from the airport, ending the call "Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much." I first heard these gloriously simple, yet emotionally freighted words while watching the IMAX film of the catastrophe not a mile from where Rob had died. And they got me wondering how I would act in a similar situation, when faced with imminent death.
A few years later, on a canoe race through the tangled jungles of Belize, I found out.
I was competing in the La Ruta Maya, a grueling four-day, 175-mile race that cuts across the country west to east along the Macal and Belize Rivers. The longest race of its kind in Central America, it's a serious challenge of both canoeing skills and physical endurance. Around 100 boats were competing, each one with a team of three paddlers. In mine: my old friend Bo Parfet and a new acquaintance, Leebs. It was Day Two, the longest leg of the race, covering 65 miles of Class II rapids and strong currents.
When it happened we were somewhere in the middle of the pack. The river had narrowed and was choked with racers, so we hung back to avoid collision. At the head of some particularly gnarly rapids I made the executive decision (not based on long experience as a canoeist) to pull over to a huge tree lying in the river and wait for the knot of boats to clear. But we hadn't counted on the undertow. As soon as we pulled alongside the mammoth trunk our canoe was sucked underneath it and enmeshed in its submerged branches.
Canoeists call this a "strainer" because the bits get stuck and the water pours through. Bo, Leebs and I were the bits, six feet under the surface, wrestling with branches, pushing at a boat weighed down by the force of the oncoming current and desperately struggling to get away from the darkness and into the light.
Here it was, the moment I had always dreaded, when life suddenly flips from something you've always had, and therefore always taken for granted, to a precious gift that is being snatched away. I'm sorry to report there was no calm resignation, no transcendent thoughts. Perhaps it was the surge of adrenaline, but all I felt was furious at myself for getting into this situation. "This," I thought, "is a really, really stupid way to die."
But the anger ebbed, and my next thought was of my father and how he had trained me to surround myself with a bubble of calm. Assessing the situation, I knew I had about a minute-and-a-half of oxygen left before I blacked out and drowned. By spreading out my effort and making each movement part of a slow progress, I was able to quell the panic, gradually shift the boat that pinned me to the tree and climb my way through the branches to the surface. To my intense relief, the first thing I saw after gasping into the light was Bo and Leebs, bedraggled as two cats in a thunderstorm but alive and gripping on to a branch with white knuckles.
Minutes later a rescue boat roared along side and strong arms pulled us aboard. It took an hour to pull our canoe free and recover the loose gear that had wedged in the spreading branches. By then we had recovered, physically at least, and we climbed back into the drained boat, paddled hard and managed to finish in the top half of the racers when the La Ruta Maya ended two days later in Belize City.
But the memory of that capsize stayed with me, and is with me still. I have traveled back to that moment hundreds of times and wondered what would have happened if the branches had been more closely spaced or if I had become lodged deeper in the strainer behind my canoe. As trite as it sounds, standing at the gate of death like that, even though it was only for a brief minute in a life crammed with countless minutes, changed the way I live in an unexpected way.
No, it didn't make me play safe as an adventurer or take fewer risks (fatherhood would do that years later). On the contrary, it made me want to squeeze even more thrills out of the years I have left on this Earth. It made me understand the reason why I continuously put myself in serious situations: only when vividly aware of the fragility of life do I know its true value.
Somehow I think that Rob Hall understood that too. Even when life was flowing out of him in Everest's shadow, even when saying goodbye to his wife and unborn child, he knew that, as dangerous as his job was, there was nothing about it he would have changed. He wouldn't have been able to live any other way.