The Locked Door: Krakauer, Seneca, and the Challenge of Coming Home

Deep in the heart of the Swiss Alps, overlooking the Oberland villages of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, there lives a giant. Six-thousand vertical feet of imposing black rock and ice, edged by glaciers, and buffeted by winds that are said to drive people beyond the brink of insanity. This is the Eiger and its north face is the stuff of legend.

It rises straight up for more than a mile; up, up out of the surrounding landscape, reaching out to scoop the clouds from the sky and hold them in its arms like a child’s stuffed toy. Dozens of the world’s greatest climbers have died in those arms, earning the North Face the nickname of “mordwand” — murder wall.

In the side of the mountain, looking quite out of place thousands of feet above the valley floor, there is a small wooden door. This unlikely hatchway, which is never locked, is known as the stollenloch and leads off the menacing face into a train tunnel, offering deliverance to stranded climbers.

In the opening pages of his book, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men And Mountains, Jon Krakauer mentions the door, saying that it reminded him a little too much of:

“…a scene from a recurring dream I’ve been having for years in which I’m fighting for my life in a storm on some endless climb when I come upon a door set into the mountainside. The doorway leads into a warm room with a fireplace and tables of steaming food and a comfortable bed. Usually, in this dream, the door is locked.”

Something about this passage grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go. For who of us has not felt at some time like we were stumbling through the very same stormy climb, with happiness and warmth on the other side of a door we can’t seem to open?

In my life it has often manifested as a restlessness. Behind the door is a place called “home”. A settled life with a loving partner and people who know my name at the local coffee shop. It seems nice. I think to myself that I’d like to go there. And yet, for whatever reason, the door is locked, and I’ve misplaced the key, and somehow continuing to climb seems easier than knocking.

I’ve written before about why people choose to venture. But what about the challenge of going home? What about the challenge of staying home? When that particular door seems locked, journeying can quickly turn into drifting and a darkness gathers — a darkness like that of Krakauer’s unending climb.

In his interview with adventurer and extreme endurance athlete Ross Edgley, Joe Rogan once said:

“There’s something about a lot of these endurance people… I always consider [them] like dark… They’re running from some darkness. You know what I mean?”

This was shortly after Edgley finished The Great British Swim. For one-hundred and fifty-seven days he swam day and night, in six-hour shifts, through thousands of miles of cold, dark, jellyfish-infested waters all the way around Great Britain. He used neither fins nor snorkel, his wetsuit chafed the back of his neck into a deep, raw gash that regularly re-opened in the salt water, and constant exposure led to continual exhaustion and such unpleasantries as “salt tongue”, a condition in which one’s tongue literally begins to disintegrate.

For five months he endured this. He has also endured such harrowing feats as pulling a car the length of a marathon, completing a triathlon whilst carrying a hundred-pound log, climbing up and down a rope for a total of 8488 meters (the height of Everest), running thirty marathons in thirty consecutive days, and many others.

“You seem so normal,” Rogan said. “That’s what’s so confusing to me.”

Indeed, aside from the fact that he’s built like a Greek statue’s idea of what a Greek statue should look like, Edgley does seem exceedingly normal. He is warm, hospitable, cheery, and uplifting with an easy smile and the natural movements of a lifelong athlete. One of the mottos of the Great British Swim was “swim with a smile,” and he commonly sites research about how even forcing a grin can release biochemicals that aid in muscle recovery and boost immune function (both critical under such trying conditions).

And yet when he met with Charlie Pitcher, a fellow adventurer who rowed alone across the Atlantic in 2013 setting a new world record, Edgley didn’t ask about endurance or mental toughness. Instead, he asked Pitcher for advice on how to transition back into the civilized world. Proof that, even for those who swim with a smile, the door back to everyday life can sometimes be difficult to open.

“Do you think it is unusual,” Edgley asked Rogan, “or do you think that we now think it’s unusual because society has got real comfortable?”

It’s a good question. Anyone who’s tossed their life into a backpack and stepped out onto the road has had similar misgivings about society. We take to the road, we think, to get away from here and to find more of what we’re looking for out there.

This is not new though. For as long as there have been societies, there have been men and women who wandered away from them in hope of finding something more. Seneca spoke of this two-thousand years ago, warning about something that sounds uncannily like the darkness that Rogan mentioned.

“All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile,” he wrote in a letter, going on to say:

“And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company.”

Socrates put it similarly nearly five-hundred years earlier when he said:

“How can you wonder your travels do you no good when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.”

If the ancients are right (and let’s face it, they often are) then perhaps the door we face is not locked at all. Perhaps it is us on both sides of the door, at once trying to pry it open, and simultaneously pulling with all our might to try and hold it closed.

It is this struggle against ourselves which makes it seem as though the door is locked, and for as long as it continues, we are trapped, like Krakauer in the stormy endless climb.

The key to opening it, according to Seneca, is not found out in the world, but rather by turning inward. “You have to lay aside the load on your spirit,” he says. “Until you do that nowhere will satisfy you.”

The good news is that, if we can figure out how to do that, the future (both on the road and at home) looks pretty damn bright.

“…every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there… the thing you are looking for, the good life, is available everywhere.”

-Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

I can’t tell you how to lay aside this load. It’s something I’m far from figuring out myself. But maybe it’s enough to remember that way up on the Eiger’s murderous north face, amongst rockslides and avalanches and maddening foehn winds, the most unlikely door in the world, the stollenloch, always swings free.