What’s your Everest?

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  04.23.2023

Mount Everest. It’s the world’s highest mountain. The Himalayas’ ultimate jewel stands at close to 9,000 meters which equates to over 29,000 feet. I’ve been on flights where the airplane didn’t ascend to that altitude. Everest has attracted climbers and mountaineers for decades willing to put their lives, and others, on the line to spend a few minutes on the highest place on Earth. Simply reaching base camp is an expedition that most people cannot accomplish and requires Sherpas and Yaks to carry supplies for those not born in such thin air.

I’ve long been fascinated by the mountain and by the people who climb – or attempt to climb her. I’ve also long been underwhelmed by the responses of climbers, who when asked the proverbial question, “Why? Why do they put their lives at risk just to say they climbed the highest mountain?” Time and again I’ve read their responses, “Because it’s there.” And time and again I’ve been somewhat annoyed at the seemingly superficial, surface response. Perhaps it’s no one’s business but when they pay all the money, tell all their friends, garner all the endorsements, and train for months and years to climb a mountain who probably doesn’t want them to climb her, “because it’s there,” has always seemed like a lame, almost disrespectful, reason.

And then recently I heard myself uttering similar responses to similar questions. No, I did not attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain but as I came to realize, I had in fact climbed my Everest. And, as I have begun to process my accomplishment, it has occurred to me that we all have our Everest. The actual Mt. Everest may indeed be Everest for some, but it also may be different things for different people. For me, my Everest was traveling to Eastern Europe by myself in the dead of winter to visit and pay homage to Nazi concentration camps, synagogues, memorials, and museums – on my birthday.

Just like the climbers who prepare well in advance for their journey to scale a mountain, last fall I had begun to prepare for my journey. With the help of a friend, we put the rather complicated schedule together. We juggled how to visit three countries, on a range of flights, and modes of transportation, to ensure I visit multiple sites with specific operating hours. I made lists and reminders. I reserved the dates with my pet sitter and lined up another friend she could rely on if needed.

I asked our local used bookseller to be on the lookout for books on this particular part of our world’s history. Every time they called, I bought the book and read every word. I read classic books by well-known authors and I read books that are popular in other countries. I read personal accounts. I read legal arguments. I read books that broke down the psychology of mind manipulation and what it took to perform acts of evil and then go home to your family every night.

As the February trip drew closer and I was beginning to organize my packing list and prepare the house for my pet sitter’s extended stay, I started to tell a few friends. And just like the, “because it’s there” response that had annoyed me in the past, I heard myself answering with my own annoying version of the question, “Why are you going?” Every time someone posed the question (and some people asked more than once), I would respond with, “I don’t know.” It was the truth. I didn’t know. I didn’t fully understand why I was going. I only knew that I felt called to go. It felt cliché to say it then and it feels cliché to write it now but I was compelled, drawn, called to go. Truth be told, it felt more like a need than a want. I needed to experience it in the winter because I didn’t want to hear birds singing or see leaves on the trees. I wanted to experience and feel the raw, harsh weather. I wasn’t interested in comfort – for me, it almost seemed wrong to visit these places when the sun was shining and vendors were selling ice cream around the next corner. I wanted to feel the cold, I wanted the skies to be overcast and the daylight to end early. I wanted to do it on my own, my way – no group tours, only a guide when required and I did not know why. I was not dreading the trip but I cannot truthfully say I was looking forward to it. It was something I had to do. When my flights were canceled, I was undeterred. It would have been easy to postpone or reschedule for another time but instead, I dove right back into the chaos of rebooking and rescheduling.

With the trip a fortnight away, questions and comments from friends and colleagues began to bother me. I’m not sure anyone could relate to my quest, how could they? I couldn’t really understand it myself. Having read about so much evil, I was routinely waking up in the middle of the night shaking and covered in sweat. I had begun lying out a spare set of pajamas, as the night sweats worsened. More than once a week for at least a month I screamed myself awake. I sat through a two-hour online tour preparing myself for something I could not fathom. A Shaman healer who saw me before I left warned me to be careful, “You are very porous,” she said. I put the books away and chose to withdraw from friends and social opportunities – shielding myself from the questions I couldn’t answer, from their concerns about my safety, and from their unwillingness to withhold their discomfort about my choice.

I landed in Poland and immediately felt as though I were on a two-week mission. Yes, I was on vacation but it felt different. I did all the things I had set out to do. On the day I visited Auschwitz, the weather was miserable – just what I had asked for. My driver (whose birth name was Magic) told me it was the coldest day they’d had all winter. We watched the skies spit icy rain and snow with winds that whipped signs and billboards into a frenzy. I walked where people died, and sat where people were tortured. I took my time and allowed my body to feel the feelings. I physically shook from the cold and my nose ran continuously. My back tightened as the wind howled through the barracks where people suffered, starved, and died. I walked stiffly through a gas chamber noticing the fingernail marks on the walls – the last messages from people dying long, painful deaths. I allowed the cold and the darkness to envelop me. I allowed myself to feel.

I visited Schlinder’s Factory and did not rush – I took in every picture, every face. I walked through a Jewish Ghetto and stopped to touch the ground. I walked through a two-story synagogue with the names of millions of murdered people stamped onto every square inch of its walls. I walked where people were forced to march barefoot without proper clothing. I visited memorials and stopped and read the captions under photographs of families, mothers, and their babies, I read their names – often out loud. I saw photographs that the Nazis had taken and some from courageous and stealthy individuals. I looked at horrifying photographs of piles of dead babies – they looked like dolls, piles of dead children that I’ll never unsee dumped against a building, easily one story high. I saw mounds and mounds and mounds of hair, shoes, eyeglasses, crutches, canes, and suitcases. I saw a room filled with empty canisters of the gas used to snuff the lives of innocent people in underground gas chambers because being underground helped mask the sounds of the screams.

Throughout the two-week, three-country trip, I was never able to answer the question as to why I was there and I never forced a response. I simply accepted that I was there with a purpose – I needn’t know more than that. The gift I gave myself was that I would be okay if I never understood. I had made the assumption that I would be filling my waking moments writing. My assumption was wrong. There I was, a writer, with a brand new Moleskine journal who had prepared for months with plans to write about every experience and did not write one word. I returned home with an empty journal – it is the longest amount of time I’ve ever gone without writing at least something.

Upon returning home I was careful with my re-entry phase. I processed the experience by sharing photos and explanations on social media. Unconcerned that I didn’t know why I had gone, I also did not come home with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. For something I had spent months planning and preparing, I was aware I had achieved the goals I had set but I did not feel particularly fulfilled. Thrilled to be back at home with my pets, and book publishing opportunities at my disposal, I felt mired in a fog I couldn’t see nor explain.

And then a few weeks after I returned it happened. It was one of those gradual moments as if life was happening in slow motion. Soaking in a bubble bath and lost in one of those light and breezy summer beach reads, I thought my mind was a million miles away trying to determine if the woman in the book was or wasn’t the long-lost mother of the adopted boy in the story. The story took place off the coast of England and the descriptions of the seafood made me think of my years spent in Maine. Yet, slowly my brain couldn’t follow the simple story – it wanted to focus on the present. Aware that I was rereading the same sentences, I closed the book and put it down. Overcome with a sense of something I couldn’t quite describe I sat in bubbly stillness trying to understand what I was feeling. There was lightness and a sense of having won yet all I was doing was relaxing in a bubble bath sipping sparkling water. I felt a little like laughing, almost giddy, but couldn’t quite pinpoint it.

Over the course of a week or so, the subtle slow-motion thoughts kept surfacing. I would be overcome with a feeling of such pure lightness I would laugh out loud. I’d get up and dance to a random song. The feelings felt happy and pure and I didn’t recognize them. They would wash over me and feel really, really good. I would say to my dog, “Gracie, I feel so light!” and she would jump around with me enjoying whatever was happening. And then one afternoon walking Gracie, watching her scamper and sniff coyote poop, I gazed up at the snow-capped mountains and it all made sense. I finally understood.

I had experienced a great deal of loss in my life which I had come to accept. The loss had defined me for a long time but no longer did. But, the grief that resulted from the loss had held on. I didn’t realize it had been part of me yet there I stood on the dusty, gravel road staring up at the cerulean blue sky juxtaposed with the snowy mountain peaks I finally understood why I went on that trip. I had climbed my Everest. Standing in the road I wept tears of joy. I felt light and love, and release. The grief that had grabbed me and stayed with me for a long, long time was gone. Did I drop off my grief at one of those memorials to pay forever respect to those who died there? Perhaps. Or did I need to see and feel the depths of hell on Earth to finally release it? Perhaps. That question, I’ll never be able to answer. But today if someone asks me why I went on the trip, they will not hear me say, “I don’t know.”

My Everest was not the Everest. My Everest was going to a place where evil, born from fear and hatred, had gripped the world. Millions of people died and a world was forever scarred but ultimately love prevailed. I climbed my Everest not knowing why. It wasn’t until I returned home that I understood.

I’ve often wondered if those climbers who summit Everest – and even the ones who don’t make it to the top – ever have a different response than, “because it’s there.” My guess is they, just like me, experience people who question their motives and can’t relate to their choices. Maybe those climbers, just like me, have to climb their Everest before they really know why.

I’ve read that climbing Everest changes a person. Climbing mine changed me. I find that my inner circle – already purposefully small – is becoming smaller. My tolerance for pettiness seems to be gone and honesty, something that has always been important to me, is more important than ever. Most of all my Everest showed me my strength. I trusted that I needed to do something without knowing why despite the judgment of people who couldn’t relate. The loss I’ve experienced in my life will never change but the grief that had latched on to me, that I was not aware I was carrying, has dissipated. I had to see and feel and walk through manmade hell to release my own burdens.

We all have an Everest. Your Everest might be running a marathon or adopting a healthy diet. It may be telling someone you love them – or telling them you don’t. It may be stepping away from an unhealthy relationship or going back to school. Climbing our Everest isn’t easy and we may not understand why but the mountain is there, calling you with a challenge that is yours, and yours alone. No one can climb your Everest for you but it is there waiting for you when you’re ready.

What’s your Everest?


Photo of the infamous gate into Auschwitz taken by the author on a cold, February morning.