Sometimes in life, you find yourself admist experiences that hit you like a smack in the face! Experiences that wake you up to life and check your sense of self… I have always found my climbing trips to be humbling, life-affirming experiences. And, as some of you already know, I have just returned from a wonderful trip of sightseeing and relaxation in France, but also an expedition to climb Mt. Blanc - the second highest peak in Europe next to Mt. Elbrus in Russia, which I summited last year.
“Climbing is the lazy man's way to enlightenment. It forces you to pay attention, because if you don't, you won't succeed, which is minor — or you may get hurt, which is major. Instead of years of meditation, you have this activity that forces you to relax and monitor your breathing and tread that line between living and dying. When you climb, you always are confronted with the edge” - Duncan Ferguson
This experience, however, was wholly different - in short and cutting to the chase, it was a failure. My climbing career has thus far been charmed by great weather, fantastic climbing partners and guides, and though at times excruciating, I have always been able to find the mental courage and physical fortitude to make it to the summit and back down again.
And, though I have learned much about life and myself in these experiences, they seem small now in comparison to the lessons of this climb that in retrospect, seems foolhardy from concept to completion.
I have read book after book about climbing, mountaineering, and alpinism; many with cautionary tales of what not to do or how expeditions have turned to disaster. And, in reflection of my own most recent journey, I realize that I made many of the same mistakes up until the point at which I stopped, realized my own limit, and called for an emergency helicopter rescue.
My first mistake was to think that I could climb a mountain of this significance without taking the proper time to acclimatize.
At 15,777’, Mt. Blanc is more than 3,500’ less than the highest submit I have completed. However, any expedition above 8,000’ requires acclimatization even if following “light and fast” or speed climbing techniques. My guide hoped that we could limit any possible affects of altitude sickness to a tolerable amount if our summit push lasted 10 hours or less, which brings me to my next mistake.
I selected the Trois Monts (Three Summits) Route because it offered more technical climbing experiences than the normal route - exposure to which I will most definitely need on future climbs. In several places the pitch was over 50-degrees, the switchbacks were rarely longer than 15 feet before hitting crest or crevasse, we encountered several sections of vertical ice-climbing and mixed ice/bouldering, and we crossed a massive serac that required us to un-robe from one another due to the risk of its collapse. My exposure to these elements for the first time proved to be in direct conflict with our need for speed, which brings me to my third mistake.
What was originally intended to be a climbing-only trip, quickly turned into a pleasure trip around France after re-connecting last year with a long-time friend and falling in love. Emily had never been to France before, but always hoped to one day. This was our perfect opportunity. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties of the juxtaposition between being on a beach in Cannes one day to schlepping a 30lb pack up a mountain the next; shorting my expedition from 3-5 days to 1-2 days was a clear overestimation of my abilities.
To help me meet my shortened timeframe, I had to hire a private guide. I have read and been told that French climbers are some of the best in the world and often total assholes. My guide did not disappoint on either account. His English was only slightly better than my French, and that’s not saying much for his English. Though we could communicate the basics, when frustrations reached there max - his with my need for a slower pace, and mine with his desire not to take a single break over the 10 hours of climbing on summit day - we both reverted to cursing each other in our native languages. The constant on this climb besides my headache and shortness of breath was the opening of every conversation with “Quoi/What?” respectively.
Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have no fear of or discomfort with being alone… in fact, it is actually something I need in regular doses to avoid short-temperedness. But, nothing can prepare you for how alone you can feel when you are starting to physically fail on a high mountain climb. This was the first trip were I had no-one to share the experience with, to joke with when things got hard, and whose spirits I could lift when they were faltering or who would return the favor. My only companion was an unrelenting guide whose best and constant advice was, “allé, allé" (go, go)!
The pace we set from 3am to 11am, when I fell to my knees from exhaustion and the early signs of a pulmonary edema, actually made me miss another refrain I learned while climbing Kilimanjaro - “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly). As it became harder and harder to breath, a gurgling cough developed and dizziness and delirium set in; and each step felt like lifting a house.
I had made it across two of the three summits on the route, completed all of the hardest technical portions, and was within a relatively easy two hour hike of the true summit. But in that moment I recalled a story about a well-respected, female (French, wouldn't you know) climber who never left anything for the return trip. She always pushed past her physical limits to reach the top. It made her a fantastically successful climber, but twice it required her to be carried off the mountain - once by a team of her fellow climbers who did so at great personal risk, and the second to be buried.
In that moment I thought about all those that I love and who make my life so great, the home, family and friends that awaited my return, and how much I love the career I have built and the team of friends and colleagues it is my pleasure to work with almost everyday of the year.
I thought about how everything that I learned in my life, all the up and all the downs, all the successes and all the failures have taught me that though the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the surest path to success is never a straight line. Literally and metaphorically, the path up a mountain contains many zigs and zags. Sometimes you must come down in order to go up, and with every set back comes an opportunity to ascend.
I leave this expedition having been humbled, astounded by the magnitude of beauty and power of nature, and grateful for those who helped me return to safety when I literally could not take another step. I leave with a renewed sense of what is important in life, and a greater motivation than ever to grow in my pursuit of the World’s highest places. As climbers often say, the point is not reaching the summit, but having completed your journey and returned safely home!
I can think of hundreds of quotes to close this recap of my most recent climb, but I will limit myself to two, the first by respected climber Duncan Ferguson and the second by T.S. Elliot: “Climbing is the lazy man's way to enlightenment. It forces you to pay attention, because if you don't, you won't succeed, which is minor — or you may get hurt, which is major. Instead of years of meditation, you have this activity that forces you to relax and monitor your breathing and tread that line between living and dying. When you climb, you always are confronted with the edge,” and “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”