Running on "The Peak of Heaven"
"Watershed moments." Ben Ratliff has had a few. He and Natasha, with Island Peak behind them, are now trekking toward Everest Base Camp. He and Natasha both describe their ascent of the 20,305 foot Island Peak as one of those moments. Other than the summit of Imja-Tse, they are literally trekking in the footsteps of decades of mountaineers headed to Everest. The first climber to attempt Everest, George Mallory was once asked, "Why?" His response? "Because it is there." Those who follow this path today might say, "If you have to ask the question, you will not understand the answer." There is a spirit in mountaineers, and a calling, and Natasha and Ben are following the trail well-worn by souls who seek something deeply challenging and deeply rewarding.
After descending Island Peak, they arrived in Chukung. The following day, they made the trek to Dingboche where their guide, Mingmar, taught them how to do laundry Nepal style...in a bucket by the river. A coveted shower also awaited our travelers there. Dingboche was a day of well-earned rest. The highlight was being able to speak to their children back home. Ben, however, has a marathon on his mind, so spent some of his rest day completing a training run. To say that Ben Ratliff is driven is perhaps an understatement. As with Natasha, he has a compelling story of overcoming and achieving.
Ben was a United States Marine, serving in the Persian Gulf War from August of 1990 to April of 1991. Ben served a second tour as part of a force assembled to help with and protect parties involved in humanitarian aid in Somalia from December of 1992 to April of 1993. President Jimmy Carter once said, "War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children." Those who capture the innocent and use them as weapons of war exude an evil beyond most of our comprehensions. Even today, estimates are that there are as many as 5,000 child soldiers involved in conflict in Somalia, according to the United Nations. Children are stolen from their families, tortured, traumatized, and turned into killing machines. Ben once remarked about the conflict in Somalia, "Children kill and sometimes children have to be killed." This kind of war is worse than hell.
After his experiences in both theaters of battle, Ben came home a very angry man. Raging, and suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Ben did his best to drown his trauma in a bottle of alcohol. Many, many bottles of alcohol. Eventually, Ben sought help, and it was suggested to him that he try running. He describes the journey that running took him on as one of those "watershed moments." Motivated by the love of his daughter and son, Ben kept running, sought treatment, and got sober. He describes a long run during which he began to weep, the tears flowing from a very deep and personal place, and it was from this run and these tears that he began to understand how running can build a body and nurture a broken soul. Once sober, Ben began to look at the sport of triathlon. With military-style swimming skills, he worked his way in the pool to a place of superior technique and efficiency. He is small in stature, so a bike was a very favorable athletic endeavor, as well. Ben is an Ironman triathlete, and exemplifies the traits of tenacity, resiliency, determination and focus that are the hallmark of Ironmen. Discipline, both natural and earned, is a highly prized value, and one that he is finding useful in the mountains of Nepal. Ben now operates a recovery house for men, and as he has been guided in the Himalayas, he is spending his life guiding men out of the darkness of hopelessness and addiction.
As they returned to Dingboche, Ben's impression of his journey to the summit of Island Peak is that he felt mentally unprepared for the poverty of Nepal and the difficulty of the ascent of Island Peak. He is absorbing the many lessons the mountains are offering. Both he and Natasha are learning the mountains' insistence on patience and a willingness to let go of control. Hard lessons, indeed. He is very excited for his marathon, an environment more familiar.
Sometimes when we hear of extraordinary achievement, we assume that those high achievers somehow have qualities superior to our own. The exquisiteness of what Ben and Natasha are teaching us is that it is in ordinary people, people just like us, people who may have even had more difficulties in life than we, that accomplishments seem the most amazing. What they have been through in their life journeysnot only shaped and molded them, it has allowed us an opportunity to marvel at the expansive and indomitable human spirit.
They are on their way to the feet of Chomolungma, Mt. Everest. She will be patiently waiting.