We usually talk of dead ends metaphorically. What we mean is that something didn’t work out. We feel we cannot continue along a certain path. But sometimes dead ends are real endpoints – there is nothing beyond them and we cannot turn back either. And while there may be warnings along the way, there’s no gradual build-up to this moment, no preparation and no obvious red flag.
A few years ago, during a visit to my home country, I took a day trip in the mountains. It was a sunny and cold January morning. I caught a very early train, then the first cable car going up. Around 9:30 I was already on the high plateau, enjoying the view all around me. Snowy valleys to the left and the right. Silence. Hardly anybody else around, for as far as I could see.
I wandered around for a while with no plan, freezing but happy. When I realized that it’s getting late and I have a train to catch, I chose one trail that was supposed to take me to the train station in about 4 hours.
As I discovered soon enough, this trail was closed during the winter. I passed by several warning signs, thinking whether to go up all the way back and take another path. Each time, I decided to go on. It was less a matter of careful reasoning as much as a combination of overconfidence, unwillingness to go all the way back up, and sheer inertia.
At first, the hike was pleasant. The snow was frozen, which helped me advance faster. On the steeper areas, I could follow the trail created by previous climbers and step on the shoe marks dug in the snow. I took out my camera. I was at ease. From time to time, the trail opened up to reveal the whole valley and the huge drop separating me from the villages below.
But then the shoe marks disappeared. I could only follow the trail by the trail signs and posts, and they were few and far in between. I was descending in zigzag on a steep slope that was almost never exposed to the sun, and thus the snow was frozen solid.
For a while, I could still advance slowly, making sure each foot is firmly in place before I move the other. Then it all grinded to a halt. I could not go forward because the slope was too steep, and I couldn’t go back because the simple gesture of turning around could have broken my unstable balance.
Ahead of me lied a portion of 30 meters or so with no trees, no bushes, no rocks, nothing to hold on to. All of a sudden, I looked around me and I felt like walking on a tight rope above the abyss. Clinging to a slope that got steeper without me realizing it. The slope was opening, to my right, into a straight drop into the valley.
Seen from the outside, there are several possible exits from such a situation. I could have walked backwards, retracing my steps in the snow. I could have searched in my backpack for something I could use to dig in the snow. But our brain works differently under stress. It’s not that I could not envisage all these possibilities. It’s that they seemed irrelevant to me. There was only one thing I felt I needed to do: to cross the 30 meters of ice in front of me and reach the tree on the other side.
And so I did – otherwise I won’t be here writing this. But they were the most labour-intensive 30 meters that I ever walked. I dug and clawed my way forward, not knowing if I’ll be able to keep my balance on the next step. Before placing each step, I had to hit a dozen times in the frozen snow in order to dig a small indentation that could support my weight. It wasn’t the digging that took most of my energy; it was trying to control the trembling of my legs, so I don’t lose my grip.
Although I was fully immersed in digging my way forward, somewhere at the back of my mind I kept on watching myself as if from the outside. I thought about the stupidity of dying on the mountain, after having bypassed so many warnings. One more metal cross on these lonely slopes. I was not sad. There was something slightly amused and ironic in how I regarded myself: “So that’s how it happens.”
The whole thing did not take more than 20-25 minutes, but it felt like forever. I got to the tree on the other side and I held on to it as you would with somebody who pulled you out of the water when you were about to drown. The rest of the descent was uneventful. I got to the train station in time. In a few hours, I was back in my hotel room, seemingly far away from the cold and the drama.
Up there, I was close to facing a real dead end. And this made me think, later on, about how the world would have looked like without me. The simple answer is that it would have looked exactly the same. The sun would have risen just the same, the people would have gone on about their lives just the same. Everything I was doing or planning to do – the earth would have kept on spinning without it.
Back then, this realization used to fill me with sadness and discouragement, as if it showed my own insignificance. I saw what happened as being about me, my life, my impact on the world. We all have a hungry and demanding ego.
Now I tend to see it as a liberation. Like lifting a burden from my shoulders. What a relief that the world does not depend on any of us. We can simply continue doing what we are doing for the sake of it, for the pleasure of it. The change it may bring is for us to try but, ultimately, not for us to decide.