I had just started my travel home. I was returning from a road trip where I was screening a film I wrote, called Skiing Everest. After about a hundred of these public screenings over the past couple years, I was pondering a question that is almost always asked after these screenings: “Why do you choose to climb and ski the greater ranges around the world’s 5,000-8,000 meter peaks?”
The film paints a skier-bleak picture; the air is thin and at these altitudes you are literally surviving while skiing as the altitude slowly deteriorates your body; without eventual descent, you will perish. The snow conditions are generally poor at best, and the effort to climb let alone carry the extra weight of ski gear an almost guaranteed scenario for not reaching the summit, not to mention the time and money involved in that all these peaks are on different continents from my secure and comfortable home in Colorado. I pondered the question on the flight home and came across this bit from a website for a climbing and training guru, Mark Twight, who I have used for years as a source of inspiration and guidance:
“Michael Gilbert and Scott Backes got soaked to the bone climbing The Waterfall Pitch on the North Face of the Eiger. When they stopped for the night at the Brittle Ledges, they discovered their sleeping bags had been drenched as well, Michael asked, “What are we going to do now?” Scott replied, “We’re going to suffer.”
At first I chuckled, but upon recollection, I realized this verse of a situation played out thousands of times in the midst of thousands of adventures since man first set foot on a mountain, and is the basis for why people since the beginning of time have chosen to venture across the globe’s mountains, rivers, deserts, oceans, and even space. Fundamentally, it is not the adventure itself, but rather the ensuing challenges that forces people to take on adventure. Ironically, fear and suffering are the primary magnet that draw people to adventure, and also why people are interested in hearing about it.
My mind began to wonder, and I looked back at my own adventures during my life in an attempt to see myself as I saw these two climbers on the Eiger. Invariably, this started with a comparison to various conditions I found myself in over all my trips spanning three decades and expeditions to some 50 of these major peaks, and trying to look back at situations that allowed me to relate to a simple phrase, “we’re going to suffer.” I was not looking for the stupidity of this situation, but rather scenarios that allowed me to feel what these men were feeling. Adventuring for these guys, as well as anyone who takes on adventure entails self-manifested suffering that is totally expected, and even planned for. At age 52, with a wife and kids, and a profession as a CPA with my own firm, I set out to understand why I would chose to place myself in these absurd situations that on paper appeared not only appealing, but romantic, and to answer the immediate question why my immediate reaction was to try to relate to this line, “we’re going to suffer.”
There is a reality when you stand at the base of Everest, or any peak, and a process that takes you from the joys and excitement of a dream, to the reality of exactly what you are intending to do. This is where the fear and suffering begins. Because suffering is not just physical agony involved with actually hauling heavy packs, the long cold days on the trail, the incredibly unsatisfying food, er, make that the crap you eat on these trips, the lack of a toilet, or even the endless days, weeks, or even months of foregoing something as simple as a hot shower, let alone a change of clean underwear, it takes time to understand. The suffering I am talking about is the mental suffering that forms the initial and unavoidable basis of fear such as these men on the Eiger experienced. One would think that years of experience would diminish this fear, but in fact, if anything, it only enhances it. It enhances it to the point of experiencing it long before the cockiness of pre-trip grab-ass and clowning around, and takes root at the start of the process. Mountaineering comes in the form of something that will not only hit you square in the back, but also has the ability to take your life away. It is through experience alone that this reality takes root, and if you play the game long enough, you begin to realize just how little you really know, or in other words, how many variables God’s Green Earth can throw at you. A mountaineer learns over time that the conquest of the mountain is really the conquest of himself, and if you try to compete against the natural environment, you are doomed to fail. Failure takes on a wide variety of forms from not obtaining your goal to losing your fingers or worse, your life. It’s serious business no matter how blue the sky is.
So let’s go climbing; it all sounds like so much fun. But trust me, it gets worse. For the “hardcore” climbers, they have to take it to another level. The mountain has to be climbed in “pure style” whatever that means, but amounts to in my mind as climbing the mountain without the perks that writing a five-figure check to any number of commercial guide companies will afford you. For this rare breed, using any “crutches” such as supplemental oxygen, fixed lines, and porters, a medical bag of altitude drugs, among many other varying available scenarios and tools to aid in the objective of reaching a peaks summit are shunned. But again, this mentality only adds to this concept of fear. To climb without the infrastructure available from the many certified guide companies for any mountain on the face of the earth exposes a climber to thin air, steep slopes, and exhaustion entailed in experiencing the peak on as close to its terms as mother earth created it. But this is also where the controversy begins. By looking at the culture of modern climbers and how they relate their experiences climbing mountains, you can see that despite the reality that peaks are significantly easier to climb today compared to climbing it by, as Messner coined, “fair means” or in other words without the infrastructure available, it becomes obvious how important the fear and suffering aspect really is.
One also has to understand what the infrastructure amounts to. Fixed lines are lines that are permanently attached to the mountain for an expedition. Generally as is the case on say Everest, the guiding companies will meet at the beginning of a season, agree to terms, price, and logistics of where the lines will be placed, and then they send an army of high altitude Sherpa up the mountain with spools of rope to set the lines. The clients then can use a device which slides up the rope but not back, and is tied to them as a means to follow up a rope which prevents them from falling off the mountain. But it also allows them to draw on the rope to hoist them to the top of the mountain.
Porters are another crutch. The porters carry all tents, stoves, food, fuel, sleeping bags, mats, and bottles of oxygen, you name it, up the mountain. All the climbers have to do is carry their personal gear, clothing, and a bit of food and water for the day climb to the next camp. To put this in context, when you climb one of these peaks without porters, instead of carrying 60 or 70 pound packs, you carry 20 or 30 pound packs. It typically takes two to three separate days to set up each camp, a day or two to acclimate and return to the previous camp, and then another to climb to the camp to sleep. On an 8000 meter peak you generally have 3-4 camps. So by doing the math, you can see that there is a ton of running up and down to be done. The difference of climbing with porters compared to without has exponentially drastic effects on a climber’s body by the end of the weeks that this process entails. For ski mountaineers, you can add a day to each camp to the process in that you also have to get the ski gear up the peak. Porters are a huge perk . If you run out of gas on the mountain, getting off becomes a major ordeal and is a huge source of fear.
The whole concept of oxygen is another topic which is probably the most controversial issue. Dr. Charles Houston did studies in the 40’s and again in the 80’s to study the obvious effects of supplemental oxygen for use in mountaineering. I have heard that he actually coined the phrase “the death zone”, a technical term where the body actually starts to deteriorate, and without descent will perish. Contrary to what most climbers believe that the death zone is 8000 meters (26300 feet), this starts at 7000 meter (about 23,000 feet) according to Dr. Houston. The oxygen at these altitudes is approximately 1/3 of what it is at sea level, and the combination of lack of air pressure, and obvious impact of the gas for the human body to survive goes without saying; we are breathing, eating beasts. Supplemental oxygen allows the body to breathe decreasing the amount of effort needed to climb, which in turn allows it to eat and utilize the nutrients the body then processes to thrive. Using the analogy of a burning candle, Dr. Houston describes how without oxygen, the flame can’t consume the wax which is the food that it burns. But oxygen as it relates to climbing has another impact, to help the body stay warm. At altitude, the body goes into survival mode, and it forces the blood to flow to the vital organs, forgoing the areas of the body that it can survive without. Toes and fingers, noses, ears, all suffer from this process. It is amazing how cold 20 degrees is above 7000 meters. By supplementing the expedition with oxygen, this process, per Dr. Houston, brings the altitude down significantly: “In the 1996 tragedy on Everest, most of those who went for the summit on Everest were using supplementary oxygen during the final climb; for many, their oxygen supplies ran out at various times during the ascent. For them, the altitude had a greater impact than on those who had not used oxygen. With oxygen they had been at an altitude equivalent to about 22,000 feet, but when the supply suddenly ran out, they were breathing the much thinner air near Everest’s top at 29,000 feet
Along the same lines as using supplemental oxygen, many climbers make practice of using altitude drugs. The most widely used drug is diamox, a pill that in effect helps the body to artificially acclimate. I have witnessed the drug in use, and it generates amazing results for those that choose to use it. It allows a person to get to altitude and to acclimate without having to endure the long, tiring, and uncomfortable process of acclimating, allowing for recovery at rates that are simply not natural. It is a wonder drug that eliminates a lot of fear.
That said, as a climber once put it to me, mountaineering would be a pretty good game if not for the boots and the people doing it (myself included). Take that for what it is; mountaineering, let alone ski mountaineering, is a made up recreation that at best has been made out to be a sport. As I see it, you can’t compete against anyone but yourself, so I don’t see much sport in that. But to the point; it’s a by and large made up activity that it’s players often use to generate extreme accolades when they return to home to hang prayer flags and schedule public slide shows (or films) where they can and do embellish the realities of what they were up to on their vacation to people and friends that soak it in not knowing or wanting to know why or how, just what; the door for greatness and accolades can be engineered to be as large as the ego that is sure to walk through it. But in the process of how people relay their stories, it becomes extremely clear that the concept of fear is an important factor in the process.
I recently came across an article penned by an Everest guide who tells a story that is a good example of how mountaineers tell their stories and how often things are embellished in order to manufacture as much out of a situation as is possible in the name of this fear and suffering I am talking about. It is in the wording and context that this becomes clear. A major point in the story is for the guide to put to rest his feelings that guiding Everest without supplemental oxygen is wrong. His article goes on to explain how on one of his Everest expeditions his oxygen mask failed, and how he climbed for the morning to the summit with “none of the oxygen reaching my lungs”. He says “to truly experience another’s dilemma, we must wear the same boots, or in this case, breathe the same thin air” and also “Until you experience your brain with no supplemental oxygen-oxygen up there-you can’t fully comprehend what the real limitations are on your faculties and physical abilities and the hallucinatory effects it causes. It was one of those serendipitous experiences where an unexpected bad had become the gift of understanding.” The text is woven to clearly lead the reader to now understand that this man has just accomplished something that places him in the “same boots” as someone facing the “dilemma” of actually climbing (and guiding) Everest without oxygen, a rarely accomplished feat. His description of climbing to the summit sans oxygen is harrowing and extreme which I don’t doubt. What he failed to explain are the facts and circumstances that would greatly influence the reader’s conclusions. Namely, because he was using oxygen to begin with, his description of hypoxic hallucinations and limitations cannot be compared to what many of those that have climbed without oxygen would attest to. In my own experience at being at over 28,000 feet on Everest without supplemental oxygen it was not even remotely like his description. Climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen is definitely more difficult than climbing with oxygen which is what leads this guide to embellish towards it, but when you slowly acclimate and adjust to extreme altitude, you won’t experience what his story portrays, a severe case of hypoxia. As I have already mentioned, per Dr. Houston, there is a drastic difference between a climber not using supplemental oxygen, compared to a climber using it and it fails, and when the facts behind the story are pointed out, it is clear that this guide is not really in position to use his experience as an example to compare. One could argue that without even realizing it, he proves the exact opposite.
This particular guide, however, is not alone in his desires. In my own experience, of all the people I know that have summited Everest with supplemental oxygen, no less than 8 have similar stories of alleged oxygen failures on summit bids, actually claiming they climbed Everest without oxygen, but fail to explain that while their oxygen may have failed for a few hours, they did have it on many other days, and more importantly slept on oxygen. The true dilemma of climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen is the cumulative effect it has on your body, not just from a summit day, but for an entire expedition. Ironically, I never heard of any climber’s oxygen failing on any day other than a summit day, and of those 8, only 2 actually understood the real severity of their situation when it failed enhanced by the fact that both of them nearly died. I am not going to pretend that climbing Everest with supplemental oxygen is not a difficult endeavor, but it is ironic that despite this, there are so many people that are not satisfied with standing on top without manufacturing even more suffering and fear than their actual experience. There is a need to make our experiences as harrowing as it was for the guy that actually climbed without oxygen, or didn’t use any porters, or fixed lines, or whatever, because these benchmark situations represent the ultimate level of fear and suffering.
My point is, climbers and ski mountaineers have a need to make adventures more difficult, more significant, and the basis of this insistence is that danger and a fear factor all relate back to this concept that fear and suffering are an extremely important aspect to why mountaineers and skiers head to the mountains, or why people go to slide shows or movies on the subject. The phrase, “we’re going to suffer” made me instantly search for the suffering I had endured in my own experiences over the years, and the tug of this simple story became clear. It is obvious that mountaineering is a manifestation of suffering and endurance, but it is the suffering of fear that is what mountaineers thrive on to the extent that beyond reality, almost always after the fact, it is often manufactured to be, even if only slightly, more than what it actually was. But the irony of this manufacturing that happens is where the topic gets interesting, and only proves my point, that fear is not only a desirable suffering, but almost necessary.
The reality is that mountaineers are involved in an activity that fully supports their ability to come back and allow people not involved in the activity to live vicariously, not having to actually take on the hardships and suffering. There are simply not that many people stupid enough to take on the world’s greatest mountains, and the very nature of limited people doing it creates an environment where a mountaineer can get away with saying anything that if he tells himself enough times, he actually believes. As I mentioned, I have toured my film Skiing Everest around the country, and have been the focal point of endless q&a sessions, and I have come to the realization that I could say just about anything I want and people would believe me. I have to respect that and use honesty as my guide. In the thousands of people that have come to my screenings, I have yet to come across a single person that has skied from above 7000 or 8000 meters, thus providing me with virtually no one to doubt anything I could say, and to the contrary, leave them in awe. And even on the occasion that I have come across someone that has been climbing these high peaks, I get the feeling that there is almost an unwritten rule or slap on the back that my harrowing accounts only serve to make that guy look more impressive to his friends. With this environment, however, and also the fact that I am in the golden years of my ski mountaineering career, with age comes wisdom, and witnessing as well as creating the picture I have portrayed, what I have learned is that the reality is always enough to paint the picture that this stuff is extreme regardless of your chosen style, or more to the point, beyond what most people would like to do outside of living it vicariously. Anything beyond this only serves to feed one’s ego by manufacturing fear and suffering.
I was at the gym recently and a buddy was pitching me shit about how hard I train, and how much I sacrifice for these trips. “I can’t imagine what it is like to have an ego so big that it would drive you to do this……” What is difficult to explain and even admit, is that it’s not the obvious goals of the summits and ski descents or getting major plug in a major magazine that drives me. Not even remotely. Experience drives me to understand better the reality of what I am doing, and this forms the basis of why I behave the way I do. At this stage, I am experienced enough to understand by and large that summits and skiing are either going to happen or not despite my intentions. The mountain, the conditions, the weather, all the environmental factors come in to play that will dictate success of a goal. So this success is relegated to a large amount of luck. It goes without saying that being prepared enables a climber to take advantage of this luck, but the reality is that none of that drives me as much as fear. I train and prepare to give myself every possible advantage to handle the fear factors for when I am facing them. I train harder than I think I need to; I train in conditions at home that no one would think of training in to simulate as best as possible what the big mountains will throw at me. I eat the right foods and limit my vices in the months before a trip. I run around town in as little clothing as possible during the winter to acclimate to colder temperatures. I research the peak, the route, as much as I can to understand what I am taking on. I go through worst case scenarios based on my research. In short, I do all I can to prepare physically and mentally. Not because I have to ski from a summit; that’s a byproduct. I do all this because success in my mind is dictated by being able to go to a major mountain and to survive what I fear. I have enough experience to literally fear what I am setting out to do. I choose to suffer fear and therefore do all I can to not only handle that fear, but to thrive. I eliminate all the crutches because crutches eliminate fear and that is not desirable for me. I train hard to handle altitude without supplemental oxygen to the best of my ability. I carry my gear to see what it is like to be a Sherpa, to know what I am capable of carrying and for how long, and how high. I don’t mask my fear with drugs. I want to know if my body is hurting so I can make good decisions based on my ability. My fear is so strong that I don’t want to let anything mask what I am doing; I want to be able to handle it, or know that I can’t. So no, my ego doesn’t drive me. The driving force that keeps me coming back to ski the 5,000 to 8,000 meter peaks, is the reward I get from willing myself to suffer fear, and the process I go through from planning an expedition, to when I am safely off the mountain, emphasis on safely.
In that same article by Mark Twight, he put it in simple terms:
“The mind and body adapt to both comfort and deprivation. The difficult experiences of mountaineering may appear irrational and risky from the comfort of the armchair, but learning to deal with them is essential. Relish the challenge of overcoming difficulties that would crush ordinary men. A strong will grows from suffering successfully and being rewarded for it.”