These are Gavin’s answers to a series questions I sent him. Gavin is on an expedition to climb Mount Everest in April/May. He is a man with a profound love and knowledge of climbing, mountains and the culture and peoples who live in their shadow and overwhelming presence. Wish him well, follow him on Facebook.
Q & A with Mountaineer
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What first compelled you to become a climber?
I’ve always loved to climb, so it’s hard to know what first compelled me. Some of my earliest memories are of climbing up the narrow walls of the hallway inside my grandparent’s home. It was fun, challenging and the view was different from up there! As a teenager I would climb this huge pine tree in my backyard and scramble up coastal cliffs near where I grew up in South Australia. There was a sense of freedom in that. Even back then I was already enthralled by the spirit of climbing.
You enjoy solo climbing. What is it that gives you such pleasure?
There is a purity of experience that comes with solo climbing. Everything is magnified. It’s just me and the mountain. It’s a rare experience. While I’m climbing I’m totally engaged and focused on the mountain and what’s going on around me. While the external environment demands attention, the inner experience is of equal value to me. The mountains are great teachers. Cultures all around the world have understood that and the same is true today as it was thousands of years back. A lot of striving, determination and struggle takes place in the mountains. That is what is most evident from the outside. People setting big goals and all the focus and commitment it takes to get there, pushing on despite the challenges. But there is also a lot of letting go and acceptance required. Climbing does take determination and perseverance, but it also requires balanced decision making and sound judgment and knowing when to say “not today”. There is a gracefulness in saying “not today” amidst the energy that pushing for a summit brings. I’ve enjoyed and learned as much from those times as when I’ve made it to the summit.
Race car drivers have specific behaviours to deal with fear and danger. What are yours?
Mountain climbing, in general, takes place very slowly. Up high on Everest, just a few steps every minute, so it is quite different from car racing! It’s not an adrenaline fuelled sport. Staying in the present, which climbing demands, is the best way to mange the fear and uncertainty that big mountains can create. It’s always about the next step, staying in the moment, one breath at a time. It’s easy to lose perspective, get overwhelmed and then succumb to the desire to be safe and warm somewhere else. I continuously assess my own body and how I’m feeling in terms of the altitude. Is my thinking still okay? I’ll perform some basic cognitive tests on myself to make sure I’m still doing okay. But coming back to the next step I’m taking and staying calm and balanced is the key for me.
On one climb of Rainier I was at about 13,000ft on a lesser climbed route, we had climbed through the crux (the most technical section of the route) and the sky was blue and conditions ideal. We were already celebrating the summit, even though we were about 2 hours away. With little notice, and in a period of no more than 15 minutes, the conditions changed and we were in a total whiteout, with visibility less than 50 feet. Snow and ice was blowing sideways as the wind picked up on the upper mountain. In these conditions, it is difficult to focus on the ground and it is hard to know if you are moving uphill or downhill. It’s a challenging place to be. My climbing partner and I stopped and assessed our situation. We were close to the summit and would be able to descend the standard route from the summit. Turning back now would mean a difficult down climb, something we had agreed we wanted to avoid if possible. But continuing higher on a mountain, into a storm, its asking for trouble. So we turned around. About 7 hours later we were back at the car, thankful for the decision we had made.
What is your single most cherished climbing achievement to date and why?
My solo climbs on Rainier have all been very satisfying. As was my recent climb of Aconcagua, in December 2013. I didn’t climb a technical route, the expedition was more of a warm-up for Everest. I reached the summit of Aconcagua just 9 days after entering the Park and climbed from Camp 1 at 16,000ft to the summit at 23,000ft in 9 hours and returned to Camp 1 later the same night. I was by myself, too, so to spend those long hours up high by myself, with no one else on the upper mountain, and to have the summit to myself, it was very satisfying!
Who are the climbers you most admire, past or present?
For Himalayan climbers, Reinhold Messner stands out. What he did on the 8000ers was remarkable. First ascents, solos, without oxygen. Chris Bonnington too. These days, Ueli Stick is doing some pretty wild stuff! There are many great climbers out there. I don’t read climbing magazines, so I’m not up to date with the whose who in the climbing world.
How important is it that you will be following in the footsteps of the great mountaineers?
I think the history and stories will become more inspirational once I am on Everest. Right now, I’m focused on my training and staying healthy. When I’m training, my mind often goes to what summit night will be like on the SE Ridge of Everest. I’ll know the answer to that soon.
Everest is the highest point on the surface of the earth. Apart from that what are the key reasons for wanting to summit? Why do it?
I knew that was coming! It’s a hard question to answer. It’s Everest. It’s such a powerful place. I would say for every mountaineer, Everest represents a pinnacle experience.
Everest is symbolic, a metaphor, for the human experience. Great highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies, dreams realised and shattered. It all takes place there. I have always believed in following my dreams and pushing the boundaries of my own potential. I guess this climb is about both of those.
Is the climbing history of Everest important to you? I’m not an Everest history buff, but I’ve read about some of the more famous climbs…it’s inspiring stuff! Venables’ climb of the Kangshung Face, Bonnington’s on the SW Ridge, Messner in ’78 and ’80, Hornbein and Unsoeld on the West Ridge…there’s more. These guys were pioneers. Legends.
Do you think Mallory made it to the summit?
Mallory was an incredible explorer. Tibet and Everest must have been so rugged and wild 90 years ago. While Conrad Anker was able to solo the Second Step, I am not sure if Mallory had the skill and strength to do so. What seems clear (by the location of his body) is that Mallory was descending when he fell. So perhaps he got to the Second Step and after giving it his all, decided he couldn’t climb it, and turned around. Or maybe he was able to climb the Step, summit and died on the way down. I think he probably turned around at the Second Step.
How important is physical fitness as you prepare for April?
It’s very important. A high level of physical fitness, which includes not just cardiovascular stamina but strength and power too, will enable me to effectively respond to the demands of Everest.
I have developed a good base of endurance over many years of hiking and climbing, and this is essential for Everest. But stamina alone is not sufficient for optimal performance. Traditional endurance training typically favoured a high volume and low to moderate intensity method of training. This leads to imbalances and weaknesses in areas that have been ignored. Many endurance athletes and coaches have discovered this to be true. Extensive research has now shown that intensity is the most important factor in an athletes training program. More than any other training variable, it is intensity that brings the results. Considering this, developing a broad base of functional fitness and cultivating a sharper, more powerful edge to my endurance has been my focus in training for Everest. For this reason, I have chosen to use CrossFit to train for Everest.
I have been averaging about 10 sessions of CrossFit per week. The variety of a CrossFit workout keeps me on my toes and helps to keep me interested and focused whilst training. The emphasis on functional movements is important because the body gets used to moving as it was designed to move – as a whole, integrated system. CrossFit fosters a balanced athleticism and a confidence to tackle diverse challenges. The high intensity, which CrossFit is well known for, conditions my cardiovascular system for the challenges of climbing at extreme altitudes – as it will need to function high on Everest. I’ve done a lot of work with sleds, developing leg strength through the front squat and back squat, high intensity rowing and running intervals to supercharge my lungs and a lot of classic CrossFit stuff like box jumps, kettle bell swings and burpees! CrossFit keeps me engaged, it’s fun, challenging and I get to push myself and, ultimately, I’ve developed an all-round fitness and strength in ways I would have never imagined.
Mental preparation is also vital. What techniques are you using to prepare for this particular climb?
Mountaineering is largely mental. On summit day, really on any mountain, when the body is exhausted and lungs are burning, it’s all about the mental game. Physically it’s a lot of suffering. I’ve only been above 26,000ft once (on Cho Oyu, which I climbed in 2008). It’s a stressful environment. Decision making and judgment are impacted by the lack of oxygen, as well as the extreme exhaustion that generally accompanies high altitude mountaineering. Going back to the basics…focusing on the next step, the next breath, one step at a time. There is no rushing the summit of Everest. It’s a long game and I relish that aspect of the climb. It’s similar to completing any large goal…it has to be broken down into smaller parts, otherwise it feels overwhelming. Everest is a big mountain, but a series of steps will get me to the top. My goal is to enjoy each day and get up to high camp feeling positive and strong. One step at a time.
Many people are attempting Everest for reasons other than practicing the art of climbing. Do you think there should be restrictions on who can climb?
I think the Nepali Government should cap the number of expeditions that are allowed to climb each year. But I doubt that will happen. Recently I watched again the IMAX Everest movie that captures the events of 1996. The narrator says that Ed Veisturs is concerned about the large number of teams on the mountain and their inexperience. That year, I think it was about 6-8 teams. This year, there will probably be 25-30 teams on Everest. The crowds are a concern and have become one of the biggest sources of danger for a climber on Everest.
Do you find being part of an expedition conflicts with your love of solo climbing?
No. The great majority of climbers join an expedition when attempting Everest. And its virtually impossible to undertake a true solo climb of Everest these days, as there will always be people on the mountain, most likely right next to you. There are so many mountains in the world that offer a wilderness experience. Unless you’re tacking one of the lesser climbed routes, Everest isn’t one of those. I’m looking forward to being part of a team and yet having the flexibility to climb independently with a Sherpa. That is one of the reasons I chose to go with International Mountain Guides. They are professionals, run a high level outfit and they enable climbers to climb 1-1 with a Sherpa. I know I will benefit enormously from climbing with a Sherpa and I’m looking forward to that part of the trip.
What do you see as the challenges in climbing as part of an expedition?
60 days is a long time and there are different personalities to deal with. Lots of people wanting to climb Everest, so I’m sure it’ll be quite a scene up there. My plan is stay relaxed, patient and enjoy the experience. I’ll be on Everest!
Once you are down from Everest what is the next climbing challenge you are going to focus on?
Not sure, just now. This one first.
What is your favourite piece of equipment?
For Everest, it will be my Mountain Hardwear down suit. That will keep me warm as I climb through the night to the summit!
If it’s not too personal a question, what will you be taking with you to the summit?
Many years of dreaming and inspiration. And some photos of those closest to me to remind me what I’m doing up there, to take photos with them on the summit and as a reminder to get back home safely. That is most important.
I was just up on the roof. Another crystal blue sky day, sun hot, cool breeze, pollution banished to the outer edges of the hills around the valley. Just above the remaining smog in the sky above the hills hung a smudge of rock, a round mountain where the Himalayas could be.
Met with fellow Hashers, this was the view from the car park where we met.
Our walk took us to the top of the hill well behind the house and back again.
On the way up this is what we saw. The air is clear at the moment, a cool breeze blowing in the afternoons blows all the dust and pollution out of the valley affording the most splendid views.
This blog was inspired by a visit to an exhibition at the Nepal Art Council, Kathmandu, called Climate+Change (www.climatepluschange.org) which runs until the 13th April.
From the western side of the Rongbuk Glacier. © Greenpeace / John Novis
We are afraid to look at what these pictures are a symptom of: we lack a frame of reference to judge. A picture doesn’t do justice to the scale. We are worried by the implications of these images. Maybe not. We know that we have released trillions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which scientists tell us trap heat near the Earth’s surface. But we turn away from the evidence of warming as seen in these photographs and what climate scientists are telling us.
So what? Ice is melting. Natural cycle. Nothing to be worried about. What do scientists really know? Right? Who cares. Not affecting me any way. I will carry on living as I wish, maybe altering my lifestyle a smidgen – switching lights off, using solar power, shopping locally, using rechargeable batteries in my headphones. I will try and be aware. But I buy technology – not giving that up. I have a car. I am not giving up my independence and the convenience. We, I, turn away from the consequences, too bewildered and fearful to address them. What’s the big deal?
1921 Was the year my father was born.
Downloaded from: http://www.dailygalaxy.com
Heaven forbid I developed symptoms of a serious illness. Were that to happen I would seek out a medical specialist and get a diagnosis. I would crave all the technology, scientific expertise and drugs I could access and put my trust in science. I would pay less than serious attention to some fringe remedy involving groundnuts and beetle juice to magically melt a tumor away. Yet when we confront the symptoms of man-made climate change it is beetle juice we swallow, it is the Quack we trust with our diagnosis. Why do we believe scientists and scientific methodology when it comes to illness and other aspects of our technological lifestyle, but not when it comes to climate change?
Are we victims of scientific mass delusion? Somehow have the the world’s best scientific minds fallen prey to hysterical blindness? Given that scientists are hardwired to disagree, and take enormous pride in their skeptical methodology, it seems at the very least improbable. Yet we give succor to the Koch Brothers by believing there is a grain of truth in the positions they finance. There are trillions of gallons of oil still in the ground. No corporation is going to willingly walk away from that. Power and might plays straight to denial. It overwhelms our fledgling understanding and gives us answers that mean we don’t have to think, react or change. There is enough to worry about in life without all this alarmist climate change guff.
Photo: James Oglethorpe
We, I, have the power to adapt our lifestyles in significant ways in response to climate change and reduce our carbon footprint. But we, I, don’t. Most people don’t have the economic heft to change, even if they wanted to. The glaciers melt, climate change impacts the woman (pictures above and below) in small and accelerating ways, affecting parts of their lives, aspects of survival, that we have long ago forgotten.
To paraphrase the novelist, Ian McEwan, self-interest is more powerful than confronting the very thing we have unleashed, more powerful than the threat to self survival.
The problem is so large, the change it implies so fundamental we turn away because we are all addicted to the way we live and don’t want anything to disturb us. Quite natural and understandable.
We need to heed the broad consensus expressed by climate scientists and take action before it is too late. The time for doubt is long past. The problem with tipping points is that we don’t know for sure they are happening until they are upon us. Maybe, only when we wake up in the ICU and the doctor says: “change or die”, will you, I, acknowledge our addiction.
Picture: James Oglethorpe