Kiss Or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber by Mark Twight

I've always dreamed that I would die being eaten by rats. Maybe I've read Orwell's 1984 once too often. Indeed, 1984 was the beginning of my descent into the black depths of extreme alpinism. This obsession destroyed my relationships, drove me into depression, and changed me from a happy, future-hopeful young man into an embittered cynic.

I consolidated my power by not sharing it.

Oh, precious ambition, I just want to die with a smile on my face.

When the going gets tough, the tough turn up the volume.

I'm not disappointed with myself anymore. I used to hide my tears because tomorrow is another day. Now I let them flow for much the same reason.

I was strong. I could have done anything. I seethed with desire. Believing in my self-importance, I stroked and blessed my ego. Ambition was so precious. I worshipped it and stole for it. I rationalized every evil thing I ever did by weighing it against my ambition. I wanted to be a god without enduring the boredom of sainthood.

I ruined relationships to get used to the feeling of failure and sacrifice (it was much easier than holding on). I trained in the gym on an empty diet to learn how far I could push myself without food or water. I imitated and plagiarized the heroes who lived and died before me. I spoke only strong words and ignored weakness at every turn. I subdued my fears. I was opinionated and direct. I became a man either well loved or truly hated. I was ready for anything.

The bed embraces me warmly. I accept the solace it offers.

I went to the edge, I thought it was important. I thought the view would be crystal clear. Now I don't care. I give in. I give up. I just want to be ordinary, to have meager needs and mediocre ambitions. I want each day to be enough on its own, without risk or fear or the pressure to succeed. I wish I was like everybody else.

I graded The Reality Bath 7 because of its length, sustained difficulty, and insane objective hazard. Maybe it'll be repeated, gang-soloed, down-rated, dismissed. So what? I respect action and competence. Words and numbers are meaningless to the artist.

I don't care about what I climb, only how it affects me. Success merely punctuates the experience.

The equation is simple: as technological and psychological advances increase, the danger and difficulty of the routes must be raised as well to maintain an equivalent human experience. We are not satisfied by repeating what others have done. The risks young alpine climbers take today are justifiable in order to make the artistic statements of the age. Don't try to hold us back.

Memories and hope are not so different; one is "having done" the other is "to do." Neither constitutes action. You are what you do; thus, if you do nothing, you are nobody. If you once did great things, you think you are great. You coast along on dead, preserved laurels, lifeless and wasting away.

Eventually, I sickened of people, myself included, who don't think enough of themselves to make something of themselves-people who did only what they had to and never what they could have done. I learned from them the infected loneliness that comes at the end of every misspent day. I knew I could do better.

Some people chase pain harder than others, consciously or subconsciously. Some use it to inflate their sense of self-importance. Others test their will by working through it. Each of us has a threshold someplace short of serious harm.

Kevin's different. His definition of pain is more highly evolved than ours. He's willing to hurt himself permanently to get what he wants. In a conversation about calories, he told me that there is always something left to burn, "even if it's brain matter." Kevin is, without question, the best I've ever seen.

Packing up, Ward asked about the yellow rope, which he'd usually carried. We tasted the horror of understanding. We were 12,000 feet up the biggest wall in the world without any ropes. Death served up on a plain pewter plate. I looked into my friends' knowing eyes and wondered which of us would survive.

In base camp I drank the lukewarm cocktail of despair, watching ambition wane.

I despised the inherent laziness that attends any communist economic structure. I promise that I will never, ever go back.

Just a little more; so easy to say, so hard to turn into action. That "little more" distinguishes the victors from the vanquished.

This is how they die, I thought. They pass out or freeze without caring. They die as spectators, believing it's all happening to someone else. I'd rather be fully alive and awake when I die. I want to be terrified. The last place I want to snuff it is on a slope no steeper than a beginner's ski hill.

My pain used to define me. It convinced me I was alive. However, a year in the crucible turned the black hearses of the past into the bright, white veils of the present.

From there I looked within and cut away what I didn't like; the rotten flesh, the wasting thoughts. Anything that was a liability became painfully clear in life-threatening circumstances. I got rid of everything that held me back. Sometimes the experience was not so calculated.

I learned to deal with the proximity of death, of the 24-hour-a-day threat. Without confronting it, my life was meaningless. Others avoid or trivialize it so they can deal with it. First I learned how not to die. From death I learned to live, to want to live, to be capable of doing so without making a mess or mockery of living. I learned to love.

I explored the darkness carefully, while my peers, the other kids who grew up bound tightly to a straitjacket future or no future at all, simply dabbled in it. They shot heroin or drank themselves into oblivion. Some wore all black clothing to communicate their desperation. I looked into that same pit and asked "Why?"

Meaning and rationale are digestive agents. They make it easier to be a survivor.

Philippe also believed in his dreams, in a mystical voice that spoke and seduced and promised. He was not always a happy man, and his emotional pain was susceptible to a quick cure from the outside, from religion or philosophy. He lived inside of himself. Imagination is deadly without the audit of practical feedback. It's easy to believe yourself to be someone else and to let that someone assume risks you might not otherwise take.

I used to believe that it could never happen to me. This accident taught me that the way to have a hand in what does befall me is to realize that anything can happen-good, bad, and ugly. I learned that freedom of decision, freedom from pressure, is an essential component of going from choice to choice up there.

"Come back alive, come back as friends, get to the top-in that order."

The months of being disingenuously friendly and the resulting self-hatred taught me that self-confidence cannot be based on the approval of others.

Somewhere inside me I found the courage to stand alone, believing in myself without needing an audience.

I'm not pessimistic, but I've been thrashed by mountains so many times that I'm wary of what appears to be a giveaway. Above all, I detest being pressured to perform according to schedules or to please peers. That's how alpine climbers get the chop.

When I'm on my own, and my body and soul agree that "today is the day," the world is mine to take. Tchouky and I would never reach that point because we weren't as strong or wise together as I would have been alone. I didn't love him; I didn't trust him and I never would. My goal was to survive an attempt on the face, to learn something useful for the future.

When intuition says "no," I dare not disobey.

we were not a team. We were four guys in the same place at the same time with a similar goal. No one picked up the slack left by another's weakness. We could not work together, so we couldn't succeed.

I really don't care what anyone thinks. I do what I want. I succeed. I fail. Sometimes I'm so lazy I do neither. I live and breathe along with my problems and my work and my self-inflicted pain. I live in France because the mountains are high and beautiful, and the air is cold; but sometimes it's not enough, and days arrive with an ugliness even I can't support.

He's a pleasant version of me, better adapted to the social niceties required of men in the 1990s. He is considerate of other people, or at least when he's not and he recognizes it, he tries to do something about it. I am not and I don't.

Recall that I'm adept at cutting away anything I perceive to be holding me back. I've used the knife on my country, my family, and finally-with no small amount of hesitation and fear-my wife. It wasn't clean; it wasn't pretty. I killed a part of me when I did us in. I slapped convention and everyone who believed in us in the face. I soiled the proud institution of marriage beneath my selfish feet and think about it every single day.

People take my actions personally, whether they were implicated or not, so I let them resolve their problems their way without my presence cluttering the issue. I sort out my difficulties my way-alone. In short, I run.

I say this is beautiful because the greatest human act is the act of survival.

can not turn off my hunger. I demand more and more from myself.

Some men have high ideals, which they're willing to die for. Others are willing to try living for them. My hunger helps keep me alive. There is always more.

I have a list in my head and every year I add more names to it. My list isn't special, other men have longer ones. But most men don't have a list like mine at all because they live life insulated from living and dying. Their acts of courage consist of getting out of bed in the morning, disagreeing with their boss, or using public transportation in the inner city. Perhaps they tempt the unknown by eating in a Vietnamese restaurant, or they travel outside their native country. They have nothing to do with me except to provide contrast.

I was supposed to mellow out as adulthood gained a foothold, but I am angrier than I was 10 years ago.

"If I cut off my head would it be me and my head or me and my body?"

OK, I'll play. I do it because I can. I climb because it hurts, and the pain gives me perspective. It's difficult, and I can lord my mastery of it over the rest of you. Alpinism is not necessarily about "fun." It won't transform every climber into a better person. I'm just a guy who pays the rent, who checks his shit for Nepali worms, who the tax people want to corral. Except I never watch TV or eat frozen food and I don't own property. I spend my disposable income on compact discs, camera gear, and climbing mountains. I was a "no future" kid, and I hope it comes true because I don't plan ahead for fishing holidays on Social Security. The future will be what it is whether I have insurance or not.

I want to see the truth, not someone else's judgment of what I have accomplished.

Even though he did not finish the climb, Patrick Gabarrou claimed that the line was, in fact, "within the easy reach of mortals," not restricted to Nietzschean supermen as I had brashly stated. He traversed off to easier terrain because "it is more in keeping with the style of the route, and you can do it in a day that way." I wish my own rationalizations could be so convenient, that my image in the mirror was not so clear.

This is the most important spiritual reference point in his life. It signifies the end of one period and the beginning of another. He doesn't recognize it yet.

I weighed the selfishness of their sacrifices against the total self-fulfillment offered in return.

"This cafe is no place to discuss these things." Her body language suggested we find more privacy. I knew if we went to the apartment before resolving this, I'd give in. It had never been my place. I never established a male presence in it, and I wasn't comfortable staying there. Its soft lines and light made me feel vulnerable. She had invited me to live with her, but I felt like a trespasser.

Success breeds the taste for more success.

Her clinical practicality surprised me. I wasn't sure how to handle it. I wanted her hate. I wanted her to despise me so I could walk away with no remorse. If she threw me out and kicked me when I was down I could pity myself. There's climbing motivation to be found in that. Instead, she simply showed me the door.

I invited chaos to join us by applying my pragmatic, black-and-white, high-altitude values to our flat, social world. Up there everything is bright and obvious, choosing right means winning, survival. The wrong decision often ends in suffering, and perhaps death. Down here I won't die, but I wondered at that moment whether living could actually be worse.

My ego depends on an appearance of strength and decisiveness, it insists I do only those things I do very well. I'm good at choosing what's important in my life-as long as it's climbing. I'm especially adept at hurting people who do not deserve to be hurt.

I was too scared to show tenderness, so I responded with all-purpose anger instead.

I need an exercise in competence to do away with self-doubt. What is this doubt shit anyway? Why am I doing it? Why am I holding myself back, afraid of success again? Frightened of my own talent and where it could take me?

Why should your words mean anything? They aren't learned by heart and written in blood. If you can not grasp the consciousness-altering experience that real mastery of these disciplines proposes, of what value is your participation? The truth is pointless when it is shallow. Do you have the courage to live with the integrity that stabs deep?

But there is a way out. Live the lifestyle instead of paying lip service to the lifestyle. Live with commitment. With emotional content. Live whatever life you choose honestly. Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without casuistry, the responsibility of making a choice. When you live honestly, you can not separate your mind from your body, or your thoughts from your actions.

Punish your body to perfect your soul. Kick the habit of being nice to everyone you meet. Do they deserve it? Say "no" more often.

Burn the bridge. Nuke the foundation. Back yourself up against a wall. Have an opinion one way or the other, get off the fence and rip it up. Cut yourself off so there is no going back. Once you're committed the truth will come out.

All you have to be is good at your chosen discipline.

Although I am free to do anything, my actions directly reflect my integrity.

It matters little whatyou do, as long as you say what you do. You didn't go to the summit? You traversed to an easier route after the 10t" pitch? You hooked your tool through the piton when no one was looking? Admit it. Believe in your actions enough that you don't care what others think.

I erupted in the general direction of the toilet just as I crossed the threshold. I white-knuckled the toilet seat and dry heaved to exhaustion. I rinsed Iny mouth. During the next 24 hours I swallowed more than the recommended dose of motion sickness pills and studied my fellow man. Between the sick, all civility disappears. We are animals. The truth comes out when you start puking.

Success can breed contempt and a casual attitude toward danger.

I'm an elitist, but I also care about what happens to things I love.

When I climbed a lot, I had good days when the strength of the gods flowed through me, but I barely remember those. Instead, I see failure and ass-kickings stitched together by occasional success and slowly emerging self-confidence.

Talk - Action = 0. A man must lead by example.

The struggle is glorious in its own way, but beauty is for the ground, for postcards and for glowing prose written long after the fact.

It all goes bad at once, never by degrees.

Success breeds ambition.

There's nothing as sacred as a partnership forged by shared risk and uncertainty, failure and success.

Even though my ego demands I believe my way of doing things is superior, in calm moments I concede that it's all climbing, and people should do whatever they want.

I've proven how far a disciplined mind can take the man that isn't particularly strong, or brave.

Hear and forget. See and remember. Do and understand.