11 Oct The lure of high altitude mountaineering
The perception in the public arena is that high altitude mountaineering is egocentric on many levels. To conquer a mountain is to conquer Mother Nature. Maybe it is for the few but this is not actually the case on the whole. Climbing is an extremely personal and internal journey. The determination to climb a challenging peak becomes a sublimed cleansing of personal endeavour. I will try to explain some deeper notations on this topic and dispel some mythes that spurs great debate that I learnt during my quest for the 7 Summits.
Please click on the link to view some of the exhilarating moments on the mountains.
The Dangers of High Altitude Climbing
Risks on the mountain, especially on their high flanks are real, tangible and unmeasurable. They can range from rock fall, avalanches, crevasses, pulmonary and cerebral oedemas, hyperthermia, exposure, wind and falling to name a few. No climber ever ventures into the high mountains expecting fatality. The subjective mindset convincingly argues that if an accident does occur, it will happen to someone else. On my very first climb (a live volcano) in the South American Andes, a German climbing partner was tragically and fatally hit by a free-falling boulder directly in front of me. The reality is that the mountain does not discriminate. You can mitigate a portfolio of risks that can potentially be managed, but Mother Nature is overruling on all matters high on the mountain.
Addictive Adrenalin or Passive Persistence
Mountaineering is not a sport of adrenalin. It is the complete opposite. It is a challenge of patience, perseverance and resilience. Climbing is incrementally slow, and the passage of time can be greatest challenge. There will be moments of overcoming fear during a technical pitch or crux with high exposure and minimum room for error, but otherwise time’s fourth dimension is as real as the third.
Primal environmental and physiological intuition is re-ignited. This is one of the greatest unspoken rewards of high altitude mountaineering. Our default behaviours are founded on Western lifestyles which provide small comfort and guidance in relative awareness relating to basic survival in a wilderness environment. Aligning all decisions and activities around the physiological state of your body and landscape becomes acutely attuned to your long term well-being. This is our primal state of subconsciousness. Snow and ice conditions, weather patterns, wind directions, cloud formations, time of day are all information absorption points digested on a continual basis. Health, nutrition, injury assessment, physiological adaption and aptitude are parallel assessment metrics computed against the physical environment. Nothing else penetrates the cerebral boundaries which by default becomes an enlightenment in itself.
True character. At 3.10pm on 22nd January 2001 at 21,000 feet high above camp 2 after summiting on Aconcagua in the Chilean Andes I slumped on a rock and cried. I cried a lot! Earlier that morning my only climbing partner retreated back to high camp with pulmonary oedema (coughing blood) and I witnessed a British climber being swept down the mountain in a land slide. In the comforts of our board rooms or construction sites, we imagine ourselves to be of certain character which upholds the highest accolades in modern society: hard working, sacrificial, champions of industry. When you are removed from the sphere of comfort for a length of time, these veneer thin characteristics are ripped away. What lies beneath is most revealing, and more often least reflective of your true imagined self. Retreating from the summit of Denali (Alaska), our team was caught in a rising arctic storm. The temperature was -40 degrees on the summit before the storm hit. One team member became badly frost bitten and another collapsed. Removing ourselves from the security of fixed lines and anchors we, as a team, thought nothing of increasing our exposure to risk to ensure our two team members were extracted from the mountain. Fast forward to Cho Oyu (8,201m) and once again retracting myself from the summit’s sphere, I was caught part way down an ice cliff with a rope that had been severed. There was no retreat, nor could I continue without dropping off the mountain. How was it that I witnessed two team members abseil past me, with pleas of assistance, continue on down the mountain without avail? Yet two European climbers noticing the situation re-climbed their route in their exhausted state to throw me another rope. The mountains certainly reveals your true character.
To conquer a summit or to be humbled
Reaching a summit creates an end point (to climbing upwards anyway), but it is never the personal reward you reflect on in hindsight. More often it is the unclimbed peaks that pave way to the most memorable emotional recall. Digging deep in attempting to overcome the adversities that are befalling you, and making the correct decisions to savour the challenge for another day seem to bubble with authority within your recall. The journey is not about conquering the mountain, nor is it conquering your fears (which are many). It falls back to re-educating your sense of limitation with regards to how much you can control your fears and function with rationality and extend your resilience in an attempt to reach a goal. Climbing is not about conquering. It is in fact very humbling in its revelations of your fears. It is also humbling in the presence of the power of Mother Nature co-existing with its beauty. Full down suite, crampons on and harnessed up in a tent at night with jet stream winds slapping the veneer thin fabric at 140km/hr was humbling. Viewing the curvature of the earth at 27,000 feet with the hue of a soft sun setting on the Himalayan range casting sawtooth shadows across the Tibetan Plain below was humbling. Climbers conquer nothing but learn everything (about themselves).
Left for Dead
A heavily debatable and sensitive issue is the notion of comradery and the unwritten code of ethics in climbing. Nothing more so than Joe Simpson’s account of “Touching the Void” when his climbing partner cut the rope on a climb in the Andes to save himself. This debate will never be satisfied as long as there are participants in the debate that were not participating in the events being debated. Climbers left for dead on Everest will always be contentious given the publicity the mountain attracts for itself, and there is no shortage of heroics in tales of bygone climbs (read Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. It is a classic). The reality is that there are moments, physical locations and physiological impossibilities where rescues can actually take place. I ran out of oxygen at 8,168m (close to 27,000 feet) on Cho Oyu, just 48m shy of the summit (photo of myself in my blue down suit. Note the WWII fighter pilot oxygen system totally deflated, and so is my expression if you could see it). There was no more oxygen to be had. The summit was not the target anymore, it was getting off the mountain. This elevation has landed me in the death zone, and without supplementary oxygen my effective lifespan was measured in hours. I also had no support with me, nor could I expect other climbers providing any form of practical assistance at this altitude if I could not stand up myself. These are the risks climbers have to be personally accountable for. Given my physical state at this point, extracting myself off the mountain was a marginal venture at best, not alone trying to assist anyone else if that was the case.