At times on the mountain, things can overwhelm you – both mentally and physically. At times like these, a mantra is a useful thing to have. Traditionally, this might be a repeated word or sound to aid concentration in meditation. In times of trouble, I recite a poem, sometimes over and over again – as long as it takes – to get through the tougher stretches of a climb. For me, that poem is “Invictus”, meaning unconquerable, written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. His message of perseverance in the face of adversity resonates with me for many reasons.
In 1875 one of Henley’s legs required amputation due to complications arising from tuberculosis. Immediately after the amputation he was told that his other leg would require a similar procedure. He chose instead to enlist the services of the distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley’s remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot. While recovering in the infirmary, he was moved to write the verses that became “Invictus”.
It was a favorite poem of Nelson Mandela and one he often recited for inspiration during his long period of incarceration on Robben Island. He passed on a copy to the captain of the South African rugby team to urge them on to victory in the rugby world cup the next day (rugby being Dad’s absolute favorite sport). Upon his death, president Obama recited the last verse as part of his eulogy.
For all of these reasons, it reminds me so much of Dad – and both the dignity and strength he displayed in the face of a sudden and tragic illness. I, in turn borrowed this poem to eulogize him – and I take strength from reciting it during the difficult times on each mountain. I leave you with these words to remember him by, as I will every time I recite it in the coming months.
Climbers departing camp 4 for the summit