Milena Šijan on Mosor Mountain, Split Croatia ©2020, Cyndie Burkhardt.

More Dangerous Than Coronavirus?

More Dangerous Than Coronavirus? 640 480 Cyndie Burkhardt

“Human beings are facing more dangerous situations than coronavirus, bigger threats, and nobody is acting like with corona… there’s no real action to solve them. Why?” asks Milena Šijan. The first Croatian woman to climb Mt. Everest is angry.

The entire world is executing an acute response to covid-19—enforced social distancing, restricted physical movement, mass shutdowns, incessant news coverage, and 24/7 digital feeds to keep people connected. The deadly pandemic and the innumerable contexts surrounding it epitomize a unique moment in our history.

As this too shall pass, Milena is candid. Why not put that level of attention on other life-threatening situations? Think long term, ubiquitous, “silent” killers, things like hunger, no access to clean water, and environmental pollution that cause cancers, disease, and more. “People continue their harmful behavior with no consequence [to them].”

All images ©2020, Cyndie Burkhardt.

Mosor Mountain

Before coronavirus made its full intentions known, Milena led a hike up Mosor Mountain in Split, Croatia. I’d heard its nickname “more sore” and prepared mentally for a vigorous day. The mountain didn’t live up to that reputation but nonetheless delivered varied terrain, scrambling, and a number of steep ascents and descents that required my attention. I watched Milena step spryly as we more than doubled our elevation from 600 meters to 1,325 at the top. She was always ahead, waiting for the group to catch up, and clearly delighted to be out in nature.

Mt. Everest

Over lunch in the pine forest we peppered her with questions about climbing Everest.

The Croatian women’s expedition “Mt. Everest 2009” originated with 11 members, of which Milena and three others were the only ones to make it all the way. Their victory set a record, making them the first Croatian women to summit the mountain—the world’s highest altitude above sea level at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet). Their total time on the mountain was 60 days, factoring in maneuvers to affect altitude adjustment and weather delays.

Mediterranean sports

Training was in the making two years prior but in truth began long before that. Adventure races led Milena into the Croatian countryside and the Adriatic Sea for years. Kayaking, hiking, rafting, running, biking, and climbing were constants. Mediterranean society is more open to the outside than many other societies. It’s a traditional way of living that lends itself nicely to sports and fitness, particularly for hearty Croatian athletes.

With the enthusiasm of her colleagues, Milena moved to form the first female Croatian expedition team. In 2007 the ladies scaled Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. The experience proved to be a good base for Everest but there was another lesson. She wasn’t in good enough shape and quit at 7,400 meters, 800 meters shy of the peak, never reaching the top as her colleagues did.

Life lessons

What did she learn from Everest? Milena first answered, “the power of now.” Of the mountain she said, “You need to be considerate about your steps. Really you do not know, maybe your next step is your last.” Avalanches and glacier crevices are all around and they present real danger. Also, breathing in high altitude is much harder than normal. A climber’s main concentration is on basic physiological needs—getting oxygen, water, and food to survive. “I was in good shape, which means I was very aware of myself,” she says.

Turning reflective she continued, “The experience showed me how small we are and how big we are. I don’t think about ego, we’re big because we belong to beautiful nature and we have possibilities for everything we want… That was the story about the female Croatian team—your potential and what you’ll really do with your life. If you’re waiting for your life nothing will happen.”

The power of now

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, says when we are intensely present in the Now, we respond from deep consciousness and flow with ease and joy in life. In so doing, we can better fulfill our outer purpose (to achieve goals and seek to create a better world), while fulfilling our inner purpose.

Give yourself a chance, don’t wait, do something! That was the real lesson from Everest. A drive to live outdoors and push boundaries segued into a spiritual awakening and connection with something bigger.

Nature protection

Nature protection, and therefore sustainable tourism, are priorities in this country of the eternal outdoors. At least for Milena, preserving nature is preserving our quality of life. She laments that people are unfocused on this and consider just their immediate needs and not the consequences of their actions. And this brings us back to where we started. The problem is two-pronged—human beings are destroying the very land we’re innately and energetically connected to, and we’re upending our health and wellbeing in the process.

Motivated by passion

This is the heart of what’s eating at Milena these days and why she’s angry and sad about coronavirus. She wakes up feeling negative “corona energy” and thinks the response is overblown, especially given the complacency on other critical issues. “People are powerful if they want to be but why we are choosing to stay and wait, for what? I’m angry about why I have to stop… and wait for others to wake up.”

Look within

Maybe right now is the best time for people to look within themselves, stay calm, and try to see a bigger picture. When you go deep inside you become conscious of things other than yourself. You also find yourself caring more about other people and humanity at large. It’s an opportunity to open new worlds and expand your thinking. At baseline, it helps you feel grounded and hopeful.

Proactively tackling problems that cause us unnecessary suffering is not only valid but responsible, especially where solutions are graspable. Our present-day focus on public health and our new knowledge could easily pivot to these other areas. We have a chance right now to broaden our individual and collective thinking and make a tangible difference in our future and longevity.

For more about Milena Šijan, visit her website

Visit the Croatia photo gallery to see more images.

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