Sunday, January 19, 2003


Madeira grad found level life on top of a mountain


David Brill was 44 when his 18-year marriage died.

He built a three-room cabin in the Tennessee woods and holed up, Thoreau-like, to feel quietly and desperately sorry for himself. Then he went on a hike.

More than 20,000 vertical feet later, he was standing on top of Mount McKinley, highest mountain in North America; Denali to the natives: The High One.

Talk about a mid-life crisis. Some of us just buy a convertible and forget about it.

Brill, Madeira High School Class of 1974, wrote a book about the climb that he completed in three weeks in June 2001. Desire & Ice, it's called.

I am talking on the phone to Brill about temperatures of 50-below zero and winds blowing at 100 miles per hour. I am sitting in front of the fireplace, tending a Duraflame log. You don't expect me to go outside to get wood, do you?

The book, which is available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, is 200 pages of pain. Brill trained for Denali by hauling a 70-pound pack first through the Tennessee hills, then up Mount Washington in New Hampshire (second to Denali on the majestic, godforsaken list in North America) and finally, up Mount Rainier.

He spent three weeks attacking Denali, beginning at 7,000 feet. Along the way, he got altitude sickness and woke up every 15 minutes gasping for air; lost feeling in the tips of his fingers and toes; navigated the spine of the mountain on a path no more than 2 feet across; and tended to bathroom issues on thrones carved from snow.

At least he didn't get The Mung. The Mung is what the mountain guides call rampant, roaring intestinal diarrhea. Imagine the unpleasantness of being Mung-ed at 17,000 feet. Imagine the unpleasantness of any of this.

George Carlin once said of exercise, "No pain . . . no pain!''

If God meant for humans to suffer in the cold, He'd have made us Popsicles.

But David Brill found what he was looking for on Denali. "A mid-life resurrection,'' he called it. Nothing at sea level is any worse than climbing a mountain where one bad step can mean death.

When you're in a 6-foot-square tent with two other men at 11,000 feet and you feel like your lungs are being squeezed into the size of a raisin, divorce isn't so hard.

"Raw, visceral struggle tends to dampen some of the concerns back home'' is how Brill puts it.

He applies much of what he learned on Denali to his life now.

He is more patient: He and his group camped nine days at 14,000 feet, waiting for the weather above them to clear.

He works with the realities of his life, instead of cursing them, even if that means being a part-time father to his two pre-teen daughters.

"On Denali, you make the best of what you have, because you can't change it,'' he says.

He understands what's important (very little) and what's not (everything else).

"When you are out in that environment, you reduce your life to some pretty simple things,'' Brill says.

You wonder lots of things when you write a column like this: Could I do this? Would it change my life? How does it feel when being on top of the world stops being a figure of speech? Will I regret not risking my life to enrich it? If I'm ever out somewhere and it's 50-below, what happens if I get The Mung?

"I'm a lot tougher than I thought I was,'' Brill says. He lost 20 pounds. The feeling in his fingers and toes didn't return for a month. "I was frightened often, cold always. I have a lot of reserve I didn't know I had.''

He still lives in the cabin. Brill commutes 90 minutes each way to his job at the University of Tennessee.

He says he'll never attack a mountain like Denali again. It was a one-time shot, a trip he took a long way from home to tell him where he was going.

From the mountain, he took only a half dollar-sized chunk of white granite.

As David Brill approached the summit, he thought, "I cannot recall another moment in my life when my purpose seemed so clear.'' That, too, he took from the mountain.


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