Mountain Climbing Epilogue
By Robert Wheeler
Not all mountain climbing adventures are started for personal reasons. My experience in climbing Mount Naze in Taiwan (formerly Formosa) did not start with the goal of reaching a summit or for adventure. It was to retrieve the body of a pilot that had crashed on an isolated mountain top. I was on a military tour of duty with the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) Army as an advisor for aircraft maintenance. An additional duty was maintenance officer for the small flight detachment we had at the Taipei Airport. We had several airplanes and helicopters to transport MAAG staff around the island of Taiwan and to places such as Hong Kong and Okinawa.
At that time Taiwan was a paragon of economic success. In 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) was advancing on the mainland, the Nationalist Chinese led by Chiang Kai-shek withdrew to the island of Formosa. With help from the United States, they transformed the sleepy island into a vibrant capitalistic enterprise. The leaders were proud of their home places on the mainland and vowed to defeat the communists and return. The US had several interests in the ROC because of involvement in Korea and Communist expansion in the Far East. One China or two Chinas was a major issue, but invasion of the mainland was impractical and one of our tasks as US advisors was to prevent the ROC leaders from trying to return to the mainland. Since then, the US has fluctuated on the two-Chinas issues and withdrawn commitment. Meanwhile, Taiwan has become a successful industrial nation with major economic influence. The PRC has vowed to absorb the ROC creating world tension.
It was Sunday morning and I was sleeping late when the phone call came saying that an airplane crash had been reported and the plane was determined to be one of ours. One of our pilots had left on an early flight from Taipei to Tai Chung in a U6 Beaver airplane, and an air traffic controller traced the flight path to that mountain site. A local village rescue team was at the crash site on a mountain twenty-five miles southwest of Taipei and there were no survivors. Our emergency procedures called for the maintenance officer to organize rescue actions, so I was off. Flying a light helicopter, I picked up a medical officer but the weather was so bad that after about ten miles we had to turn back. He arranged for a medical crash truck and again we started out. On arriving at a village at the base of the mountain we were led on foot for a climb to the crash site at 6000 feet elevation. It was a tough climb from an elevation of 1000 feet through a cold light rain. The local rescue team was at the crash site and had extracted the charred remains of the only occupant. Yes, I could recognize that it was John alright despite the extensive burns. All that was left of the airplane was the tail section. Now the task was to get John’s remains back to Taipei where his wife and two children would be waiting.
The accident investigation failed to determine the cause. John had filed a flight plan to proceed from the Taipei Airport west to the PO radio beacon and then south to his destination. It is possible that he took a short-cut by departing from the path to PO and flying visually to Tai Chung, an acceptable but risky action because of the high probability for clouds to limit visibility. He could have lost sight of the close-by mountains and got too close to one of them. Less likely was malfunction of navigation instruments, and then there is the possibility that the accident was intentional because of the spat he had with his wife the day before.
This was not the first time I had been confronted with death, but it was stirring because of our close working relationship. He was the advisor for aircraft procurement, parts, and supplies so we not only worked closely together, we backed each other up frequently, and shared activities with our children and wives. Death is an event we all will experience and what happens to our physical body is well known, but what happens to our consciousness can only be theorized. Many answers have been proposed. For religion it is based on revelation. For science it is inconclusive because no reliable results are available for the “ultimate experiment” that takes place at the time of death. For psychology, philosophy, and literature it is based on experience, speculation, and the development of a person’s life. If that life had developed with meaning and purpose, death likewise could have meaning and purpose.
Human nature is built on overcoming obstacles, reducing uncertainty, and developing resolutions for issues of life that vary from meeting immediate needs to searching for ultimate reality and truth. One of the most useful explanations of this process is the psychosocial theory of development originated by the notable psychologist Erik Erikson (1964). This is based on research showing a pattern in the way people change their actions and reactions as they advance over their years. Their years can be divided into stages characterized by different typical major concerns that become critical issues, and how they resolve these concerns create psychological turning points.
An infant is concerned largely with meeting physiological needs and because of dependence on caregivers, the critical issue is development of trust that these needs will be met rather than a mistrust that can come from experience of unmet needs. In early childhood (about 1-3 years of age) self-control is a major concern and successful resolution results in a feeling of autonomy rather than a feeling of shame and doubt. From about 3-6 years the issue is usually development of initiative instead of passivity with feelings of guilt. From about 6-12 the issue is a feeling of industry versus that of inferiority. For adolescents, identity is critical, then in young adulthood (20-30) resolution of social intimacy is critical to prevent a feeling of isolation. Adulthood from about 30-65 is concerned with being productive and generative versus stagnating without accomplishment. The final stage comes when people slow down and retire from previous activities. That is when their life is up for review and a feeling develops either of despair or integrity, where life is seen with failure and meaninglessness or as productive with a feeling of meaningfulness and satisfaction about accomplishments.
For people fortunate enough to reach that final stage, the feeling of integrity is determined by their view of having meaning, purpose, development, and contribution. It is too late then to go back and change what was done, but it is not too late to avoid despair by finding meaning and purpose in previous and continuing activities. This is also important for people that reach the end of life prematurely, that are faced with the prospect of dying before a full life span is completed. How can despair be avoided?
As a starting point, we must recognize that our knowledge is limited and that there is an unknown realm beyond our current grasp. In that unknown realm there must be something bigger, better, and beyond our personal physical existence. This something could be anything. It may have gotten things started and may even continue to influence things. We do not really know, and furthermore, we do not know what the relationship is between that unknown realm and our personal selves. Is there something in each of us (such as consciousness or soul) that joins that realm when we have completed our physical life? We do not know, but it is possible enough that we can look forward to getting the answer one way or another at the time of our physical demise. In the meantime we can build experiences supporting a sense of well-being by pursuing our personal growth and contributing to that of others, by respecting the diverse beliefs of other people without compromising our own beliefs, and by trusting that the unknown benevolent realm does exist.
Knowing whether God or any other esoteric power really exists becomes unimportant if we are living effectively. We can try to draw conclusions from experiences and accumulated knowledge with a sense of respect and wonder about the unknown that creates a feeling of awe and reverence. So, what does all this mean? What is its impact? We can be content with the realization that even though we don’t know, we can enjoy the quest, with a feeling of emerging, advancing, and flourishing…
“And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And silently steal away.”
(When Day is Done, Longfellow)
This may not be the best recipe for happiness, but it provides a sense of contentment, accomplishment, knowledge, and respect for the unknown…
“He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.”
(Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge)
In the meantime happiness comes from enjoying the mysteries of life and realizing that we can…
“…live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Nor hurl the cynic’s ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.”
(The House by the Side of the Road, Foss)
The main thing we can hope for is to leave…
“Footprints in the sands of time,
Footprints that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing shall take heart again.”
(A Psalm of Life, Wadsworth)
And when it is all over…
“… When my work is done,
My course on earth is run,
May it be said, well done,
Be thou at peace.”
(West Point Alma mater, Reinecke)