The Last Mountain – Seeking inspiration from Courage

I believe that there is an exquisite beauty to be derived from living life dangerously in pursuit of either excellence or perfection. That might seem like an extraordinary assertion for a Headteacher to make within the context of a weekly newsletter but please bear with me. Whilst the IBO’s  Learner Profile promotes the value of risk-taking, I am not referring to the sort of intellectual risks that one might experience in a classroom or an examination hall. Rather, I am thinking of those extraordinary individuals, especially extreme adventurers,  who renounce all material luxuries, in the pursuit of a physical goal,  ideal or an aesthetic. Often, such individuals perceive the value of their lives to be measured in the quality and intensity of their achievements rather than simply in the number of years lived. This is just as well for it is a world where existence all too often hangs by a mere fingertip. 

Losing my father suddenly at the age of six meant that I grew up with a heightened sense of purpose and urgency that I do not believe is entirely normal. The visceral knowledge that life is finite and that tomorrow comes with no guarantees is a motivating force in my life. It is a relentless call to arms that requires industry and action. Of course, the desire to make every day count and to ensure that life has meaning and purpose is essential for many of us. It is not necessarily a virtue and sometimes it may constitute a real hindrance or a source of frustration for those around individuals such as me. However, the desire to create and ‘do’ is intrinsic to my being and the only way that I know how to function and, in any case, I believe the challenges and complexities of life really are worth embracing and almost always worth living with both conviction and truth. The modern desire to emotionally insulate ourselves or others from that which is challenging or unsettling often comes at the expense of fundamental truths. Indeed, the vitality and dynamism of a community is enriched by the courage to reflect critically and honestly. Communities built upon emotional honesty and an awareness that life is complex and messy are authentic and brave.  

Last night, we watched the extraordinary BBC film, ‘The Last Mountain’ which explores the lives and deaths of mountaineers  Alison Hargreaves and her son, Tom Ballard. We chanced upon it but rapidly became transfixed. You may remember that Alison disappeared whilst climbing high in the Himalayas in Pakistan in 1995. The mother of two young children, Alison spent much of her time overseas mountaineering.  Social commentators of the time did not hold back in voicing their opinion that she should have remained in the UK  to care for her son and daughter. Consequently, her death was often interpreted as the selfish act of an uncaring mother and yet the draw of the mountains was so compelling that had she rejected this aspect of her life then she would have lost an essential part of her being. She chose to live life high in the mountains, in that danger zone where snowstorms and avalanches occur frequently and oxygen levels are perilously low. Twenty-four years later, her son Tom also lost his life in northern Pakistan whilst tackling the northern face of a mountain during the unremittingly harsh winter season. In some respects, it was a tragic waste of a young life that echoed his own mother’s death a generation before.  In the film, Katie, Tom’s devastated sister, returned to the mountains and made a trek up to the base camp of Nanga Parbat in the company of the now elderly local man who had carried her upon his shoulders at the time of her mother’s death all those years before. As they wept and embraced, bound together by tragedy and the passing of the years, it was almost unbearable to watch. However, there was a purpose to both Tim and Alison’s lives and it is to be found in the uncompromising commitment to extending the boundaries of what is possible. We all have mountains to climb in our own lives and sometimes we need people like Alison and Tom to demonstrate to us just what courage and dedication look like in the sharp relief of some of the most dangerous places in the world. 

Talking of courage, this afternoon I have had the privilege of listening to LGBTQ+ advocate Peter Tatchell reflect upon his extraordinary life of campaigning. The battle that he has fought on behalf of gay rights stands as one of the great moral achievements of the late twentieth century. Here is a man who tried to perform a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe no less than twice and was so savagely beaten by neo-Nazis that his health has been permanently damaged. The ending of Section 28, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the ending of the ban on gay people serving in the armed forces and the introduction of civil partnerships would not have been possible without the conviction of change-makers like Peter Tatchell who believe that there is no justifiable reason to accept an iniquitous status quo. The courage and conviction that has driven Peter Tatchell for the last fifty-four years is utterly inspiring. Society needs and we all need individuals who are prepared to take risks. For some that might mean risking life and limb on an inhospitable peak but for others, like Peter, it means remaining true to one’s conviction. The fact that our children are able to live safely in a modern progressive society is due to the courage of those who have dedicated their lives to achieving a better world. It is worth watching the Netflix documentary, ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’. What emerges is a man who is boundlessly optimistic about human nature and believes that individually and collectively we have the capacity to change and improve. 

Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, I slipped out of the HMC conference and travelled down the M4 to Swansea to pay a flying visit to an uncle and aunt whom I have seen far too infrequently of late. Sitting drinking tea in their front room whilst looking out over the damp Welsh hills, I felt the immeasurable pleasure and comfort of reconnecting with family after a period of enforced separation. Appreciation of those simple moments in life has been heightened by Covid. If like me, you too have missed your loved ones, then I hope you will find time to reconnect and enjoy just being together once again. 

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School