It was on the descent from camp 4 that I first ran into this affable group of 3 Nepalese climbers, on their way up to summit Denali. That seemed a given. They had each climbed Everest multiple times, one of them 11 times, another 7 times. They were climbing pedigree, from the very heart of big mountain climbing, probably the most experienced trio on the mountain.
Jon had known them from prior expeditions. My other teammate, Amy, had just spent the day hanging out with them. They’d offered to take her up with them, one hell of an opportunity. Such lovely people, genuine and warm, as I’ve found to be the norm with Nepalese through my experiences. One of them in particular, Sanjay, had this smile that reflected his delight to be there on the mountain, doing what he loved. It was contagious. It was time for us to part ways though, time for us to get off the mountain after 15 long days. Time for Sanjay to reach the top of his final peak in his 7 summits quest. So we shook hands, parted ways, and watched them slowly but surely make their way up the Denali headwall.
“Geez they’re moving pretty slowly aren’t they?” I was somewhat surprised at the slow plodding pace they maintained, with frequent stopping, even in the first 20 minutes of breaking camp.
“That’s just how they climb I guess,” replied Jon “they’re in no hurry, plus did you see their gear? They’re carrying a fair bit of weight”
Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced. It wasn’t until we were off the mountain, 2 days later, that we heard the news.
They had reached high camp later that day as expected. They’d slept in the following morning and didn’t take off on their summit push until quite late, around 11am. During June it’s light enough to see 24/7, so it is possible to climb practically at any time. The problem was, as soon as the sun drops, it gets cold.
They made it to the summit, albeit likely around 11am. Once they started the descent, temperatures would’ve plummeted to minus 30 at least. Still, the experienced climbers likely would’ve been prepared for that. Around 1am, the park rangers received a call for help. They climbed up to Denali pass, at around 5,500m and found an unresponsive climber. Despite all efforts, the climber was not able to be revived. Sanjay, having just achieved his dream of climbing the 7 summits, had died age 28.
Sometimes you are reminded as to what a small place the world truly is. A couple of months after the Denali climb, I was back home in Perth, Australia and checked myself in for a massage. Still a bit tight… As I walked in, the masseuse (Sam) greeted my with a warm handshake and smile, my eyes drifted to the maps and photos of the Himalaya lining his office walls.
“You’re not from Nepal are you?”
I could see his eyes light up, perhaps finally being recognized, if not understood in this faraway land. The conversation flowed from there. As I was lying face down on the massage table, squirming with pain, he asked me why my upper back was so tight and knotted. I explained it was from carrying a heavy pack on a climbing expedition, it always does that to me for some reason. He asked me where and I answered… Denali. He paused. He said his wife had just lost her cousin a couple of months back on Denali. He’d gone over from Nepal and never returned home, leaving his wife and 2 children with no support.
I think it was at that very moment, the gravity of what high altitude mountaineering meant, hit me. Sanjay had always been a climber in my eyes, a man out on his own, taking on the challenges of the world with freedom from commitment and responsibility. I could relate to that myself. But now I could see that clearly wasn’t true. The draw of the mountains had pulled Sanjay in, away from the family he had to support. This time never letting go.
Despite everything, I’d never viewed mountaineering as particularly risky. I still don’t, writing this nearly a year down the track. What is risky, is the mentality it brings out in people. I think it blinds people to their own state, pushing them too far outside of their own abilities and into risky decisions that an otherwise clear mind would never succumb to.
Now I’m not for a second suggesting Sanjay didn’t have the ability to climb Denali. There’s no question he did. However it’s clear there as something wrong with his body at the time. Either he was suffering from an illness such as HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or something else that zapped his strength. Perhaps it was his own stubbornness, or perhaps it was the ‘show no weakness’ mentality of the Sherpa people that meant he didn’t want to mention any shortcomings to the two mountaineering elite he was climbing with. Whatever the case, I’m certain that if he’d been truly self aware and honest with how he was feeling, he wouldn’t have kept pushing past his limits that day and he’d likely be back with his family in Nepal right now.
There’s no question that the strong desire to summit, to fulfill your goal, comes from how much you put into it. Preparation for a mountain of this scale takes months, not to mention the financial and time cost. Then once you’re on the mountain, you give your all for weeks in order to get into position to reach the top. Of course it will cause you to push yourself harder; you’ve dreamed of the summit for so long. It’s a fine line though and it’s easy to cross over into pushing too hard, beyond what you’re body is capable of. In this game the consequences for doing so are so extreme.
Denali taught me a great deal. About myself and about life. It was the first time I’d really failed to summit a big peak once an expedition was underway. I actually didn’t feel that disappointed from the failure. I’d given it one hell of an effort and only just come up short. Hell, only 30% of climbers actually did summit the mountain that year. Deep down though, I know it changed something. I no longer saw myself as invincible. For a time, I think I saw myself as not good enough, perhaps my mind really wasn’t as strong as I imagined it was, I couldn’t just will myself through everything.
But now, with distance and experience, I know it was because I didn’t give 100% of myself to everything leading up to the expedition. I underestimated it. Yes, I was fit as hell going in. But I don’t think I was fully prepared. My gear wasn’t up to scratch. My sleeping bag was too light, I woke up freezing practically every night, shivering in the tent until the sun eventually provided a little warmth. My jacket wasn’t suitable, despite plenty of layering, it just wasn’t suited to negative 20/30 degreees. It was from an outdoor gear shop in Australia… really not cut out for one of the coldest climates on Earth. I didn’t have suitable face protection and ultimately, these last 2 really contributed to me not making the summit.
Perhaps more than anything though, it was mental state that exacerbated everything else. I was not patient. I was desperate to get my shot at the summit. I was strong, fit, I was rearing to go. We made it to camp 4 early. We were acclimatized. We were all set. Then the weather rolled in. It stayed.
For 5 days we were stuck in tents at camp 4. Watching our food dwindle, our fitness slowly deteriorate and the chance at tackling the summit fade into oblivion. To top it off, I had my girlfriend waiting for me at the bottom, someone who’d never traveled overseas before who had flown literally around the world to wait there for me. Before I left I told her I’d be down early. Not a mistake I plan to replicate…
I don’t think I’ve ever been so mentally tormented as in those few days. Never have I felt so trapped, with such desperation to move. Hell, I was ready to just go anyway, despite the likelihood of ending up another casualty. I was disgusted that the result I was after, that I was capable of, after all the hard work and effort I’d put in, was out of my control. I slipped…
By the time the weather opened up slightly, allowing us a last ditch summit bid, I was mentally defeated. I woke up that morning, not really caring whether I actually made it or not. I just knew that tomorrow we would be heading down. I’d have the chance to give my girl a hug and enjoy the rest of our trip together. I was done with this mountain.
Still, Jon and I took off anyway, out into the cold for one more hoorah. Passing the group that had set out before us and making our way up the Denali headwall one last time. We made it up to high camp pretty quickly, and were just behind the other climbers who had set out from the usual spot to launch a summit bid from. Very few try it from the 14 camp and for good reason… it’s a long day.
Progress was slow, the guys up ahead were breaking trail since the last summits were achieved close to a week earlier. My energy was low and I was struggling but persisted in plodding along regardless. Until we reached Denali Pass..
As we turned a corner, the wind hit me. It had been pretty tame up until then but suddenly it was alive and roaring. I felt the cold air pass straight through my inadequate down jacket, chilling me to the bone. I knew I was in trouble. I stopped. If I had have felt stronger and was moving faster, I would’ve kept going. I could’ve generated enough heat to keep me warm. Needless to say, I wasn’t anywhere near 100%. I chatted with Jon and we decided that I should wait for a while, rest, see how I was feeling and then make the decision to move up or go down. So that’s what I did. I watched Jon turn the corner and make his way to the top, slightly awed with his seemingly endless ability to just keep moving. Decades of experience in the mountains does that to you I guess. It’s all about the steady and relentless consistency of moving one foot in front of another.
I sat down for a while, watched as a few other climbers reached the spot, change into their big heavy jackets and keep moving up. I decided to as well. I kept pushing on for another 150 metres or so, slowly plodding, slowly getting colder and colder and slowly having my bandana freeze into a ball of ice. With my face protection now next to useless, I started to feel a sharp sting on my cheek. The sting got more and more intense until it finally stopped, going quite numb. I knew that wasn’t good.
At that moment I had to make the decision to either keep going, perhaps permanently scarring my face (I’ve grown quite attached) or turning around and dealing with the self-tormenting that would inevitably come from not reaching my goal. I chose the latter.
I hate losing and I hate failure, basically what I’ve always viewed as another form of losing. That’s not true though, as failure generally means the loss of one small battle in the long-running war of life. I think I’ve only just accepted this as I write these words. Looking back, I’ve failed a lot.
This whole physical challenge thing started for me back in 2014, when a buddy of mine and I sat down to start a blog. The premise was ‘if you knew you were going to die at 30, how would you live your life in the interim to ensure you had no regrets’. For me, a large part of that was testing myself physically, seeing what I was capable of.
One of the very first challenges I set for myself was to run 5km a day for 1 week. I’d purely been into lifting weights prior to this, so even that looked like a stretch for me. Turns out, I couldn’t run 5km. So that goal changed to walking 5km for a week. By day 3 I was so sore and my Achilles and calves were so shot, I gave up. That was a monumental failure. But did I stop? No. I kept setting the bar higher, going on to run half marathons, climb big mountains, walk 100km in 24 hours (twice), spend 15 hours on a treadmill walking to the height of Everest, complete multi day treks on 6 continents and eventually, even run 50km.
It was 3 years into that journey that I failed to summit Denali. I took it to heart because I was fit, fitter than most and I’d worked hard for it. But I will continue to grow. Continue to work harder, get fitter, stronger, more mentally resilient. It’s only a failure if I cut my journey short there and give up. If I said “that was all I had to give”, that’s a failure. Although it was at the time, it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. 3 years is nothing. Some people have been doing this their whole lives. I will continue to grow, to improve, to expand my limits. When I look back in 5 years time, I will view this failure just as I view the 5km a day failure through my current eyes.
As simply a blip in the road. A long, cold, crevasse riddled road.