Fingers, Infections, and Why we Climb

by JAKE NORTON

March 2024
Years ago, climber and author Greg Child wrote: Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb. Greg - a prolific climber with an uber-impressive resume - is no stranger to standing on summits, and some of the hardest ones. But, like any true climber, […]

Years ago, climber and author Greg Child wrote: Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.

Massive lenticular clouds swirl around the upper portion of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, from Kikilelwa Camp on the Rongai Route.

Greg - a prolific climber with an uber-impressive resume - is no stranger to standing on summits, and some of the hardest ones. But, like any true climber, he’s had his fair share of “failures” as well, expeditions where all was given and the summit, the tippy-top, remained elusive.

It’s through these experiences, I believe, that Greg came to the understanding that indeed the summit is not the answer; it never was and likely never can be.

We in the west tend to have a perversely linear view of life and our trajectory through it. We celebrate point-instants of heroism or accomplishment; we view success as the paycheck, the promotion, the fastest time or heaviest lift or highest score. Or the summit.

And in so doing, we completely miss the point.

A week ago, I sat in our dining tent at 14,100 feet, scalpel in hand. It was 1:00 AM and my client, Grace, let out a pained smile: Let’s do this, she said. Grasping her sister’s hand tightly, I poked with the scalpel as Robinson, a Chagga friend and guide, held her right wrist tightly. I hoped this procedure would release the intense pressure in Grace’s finger, that this was a simple paronychia infection with a simple solution: lance the abscess and release the build-up of pus. But, it didn’t look that simple; it looked deeper, an infection down in the tissue, not superficial, and not something I could handle well in a dusty camp on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Grace's infected finger at about midnight at 14,000 feet on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

Despite my efforts and Grace’s strength and impressive pain tolerance, we could get no release or relief. My hunch seemed right: this was a deep infection. To be certain, I walked 30 minutes into the night to a point where I could snatch a tiny cell signal snaking up from the Kenyan plains and sent a text to a close friend and ER doctor in Colorado. She thought the same as me, but with more official language: this was likely not paronychia, but a felon, a deeper infection reaching into the joint, likely requiring IV antibiotics and surgical work to release the inflammation.

The gig was up.

Grace was strong, marching up to Mawenzi Tarn Hut without issue, smiling and laughing as she went. She was determined to climb Kilimanjaro, not just to reach the summit, but to honor her late-daughter, Cameron, and raise funds for the foundation bearing her name, the CKG Foundation.

But, Grace is also wise, knowing amidst the deep disappointment that no climb, no summit, no point of purported success is worth one’s finger, one’s health, perhaps one’s life. So, she made the tough but right decision to end her climb of Kili and get down to proper medical care.

Mount Kilimanjaro rises at sunrise above Momela Lake in Arusha National Park, Tanzania.

To my surprise and, strangely, delight, the rest of the team - sister Clair, friend Kim, and children Tyler and Sydney - decided they, too, would end their climb and stay with Grace. I say delight not because I was happy no one would summit on this trip. Far from it. Rather, I was delighted because I knew this group, this team, truly understood the nature of the endeavor, the real goal at hand, and that the summit was (is) but a minor player in a much larger narrative. This team realized that while the summit, Uhuru Peak, was a motivator for all, it in no way held the reins of success; for them, for this team, success was defined - as it should be - by a return home, safe and sound, all together.

Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.

- Greg Child -

In a dozen trips to Kilimanjaro, this was a first: having the entire team turn around and descend.

And I couldn’t be prouder of them.

"God rays" shine down on the lowlands of Mount Kilimanjaro from Horombo Camp, Tanzania.

15 comments on “Fingers, Infections, and Why we Climb”

  1. Life is about connections, helping those in need and being the best you can be in these pursuits. Your team reflected you Jake … it could not have been any other way! Congratulations on you being you and leading others in the ways of the mountain!

  2. excellent capture of what it is to be a sensible always thoughtful climber...........Love DAD/BABU

  3. Impressive journey and extremely well written as always. Hats off to the entire team for making the right decision. Like Grace, I lost a child (my son at age 26) so I understand completely her desire to keep her daughter's name alive and support a worthy cause.

    1. Thank you, Michael, and so sorry about the loss of your son. Hard to imagine that and the pain and loss, but love the desire to keep the name and legacy alive. Thank you again, and be well.

  4. What a wonderful perspective, from a wise guide. Thank you for the care and deep leadership here Jake.

    1. Thank you, David. As you know far better than I, Grace is so strong and dedicated, and it was an honor to be with her and the whole team on Kili. Thanks again, and I hope we can meet in person one day!

  5. It is very metaphorical. Just like our life purpose is not the point. Achieving it is not what gives meaning. It has importance because it give us direction and motivate us to move forward and sometimes push ourselves further than we could imagine. But it is about the Journey, about the process: what we learn, what it has brought us

  6. Wow. Hope she healed up quickly and that the whole group has a chance to have a redo of this special climb

  7. Jake the longer I live/serve here the more I understand that in the end it is relationship with others that matters. Living here has changed me at a deep level. That your story happened so close to me makes it more understandable. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Carol. Indeed, the journey of life is about the relationships and people and experiences, the rest is just...stuff. Please give my best to Sigomere and all friends there!

  8. This story makes me weepy. Such an incredibly difficult decision to make - and such an incredibly wise one. It tells me that they came to the mountain with humility and left with one of the greatest lessons mountains and wilderness teach - it’s the journey, and the people you take it with, not the destination. Surely so many memories were made, and Cameron was honored deeply by their respect for the mountain and for each other. Well done all.

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