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Story Last modified at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Indomitable will defines human beings
Mountain Echos

By Frank E. Baker

I think if we sent a capsule deep into space with a short message describing our strongest and most admirable quality as a species, we could best sum it up in four words: "We don't give up."

Throughout history there are countless examples of human beings' indomitable will in the face of adversity. British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 expedition to Antarctica is perhaps the quintessential chronicle of the unflagging human spirit.

But an account by Austrian mountain climber Reinhold Messner has always captured my imagination. On the afternoon of August 20, 1980, he reached the summit of Mount Everest alone, without supplementary oxygen—the mountain's first solo ascent. In his memoir, The Crystal Horizon, he recounts those final steps to the top of the world via a traverse across the North Face:

"Once more I must pull myself together. I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings. There are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will. After each few metres this too fizzles out in an unending tiredness. Then I think nothing, feel nothing. I let myself fall, just lie there. For an indefinite time I remain completely irresolute. Then I make a few steps again."

Minutes later, in his account, he stepped on to the 29,035-foot summit, where the blackness of space outside our atmosphere is clearly visible and the amount of oxygen is one-third that of sea level.

Much closer to home, I derive the same uplifting feeling as I watch hundreds of people clamber up and down Mount Marathon in Seward on the Fourth of July; see competitors dash 26 miles on the Crow Pass Crossing; or follow progress on the 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race.

But beyond explorers, mountaineers and other athletes, we are privileged to live among many extraordinary people who every day confront their own "Mount Everest" through the seemingly ordinary things that they do—tasks that are far from ordinary. There are too many people to mention, but I know single moms and dads, home caregivers, nurses, teachers, police officers, volunteers, business people, personal friends and many others—who tirelessly get up every day and bravely face unforeseen and sometimes daunting challenges.

I think it was after losing a baseball game when my dad once told me that getting knocked down wasn't that big of a deal. It was getting back up that was important. During his life he had his share of hard knocks, and so have I. Neither one of us liked the view from ground level.

Natural disasters certainly demonstrate people's mettle, from Hurricane Katrina to the recent earthquake disasters of Haiti, New Zealand and Japan. In some cases it takes a long time, but people do get back up and rebuild. It is written into our DNA.

Finally, in my mind the people who best exemplify the irrepressible human spirit are those who fight courageously against the ravages of disease, as well as those who steadfastly support them. We all know or have known people in our community who are in this situation. For them it's akin to a personal war, with every day a brand new battle. We know some who have lost, but they didn't give up without a fight.

People like these who never give up continuously renew and bolster my faith in the human race. They instill confidence that we might someday conquer disease, hunger, and perhaps across the world, learn to live in peace. I believe we will journey to Mars and eventually, beyond our solar system. We were meant to explore.

And, despite inevitable setbacks along the way, I know we won't give up. We don't know how to quit.

Frank E. Baker is an Eagle River writer.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, April 28, 2011.