Over the years I’ve accumulated numerous Himalayan, Andean and Alaskan trips. One such expedition unfolded something like this:
DAY ONE: It’s that moment of truth. You walk into base camp, and it’s unbelievable – a vision more beautiful than imagined. Your objective – the biggest peak in sight – is etched against a sky that’s such a magnificent shade of blue, Sherwin Williams has nothing that comes close. The meadow, where someone has already so kindly pitched your tents, is a verdant oasis of wildflowers and plush green grass cut by meandering streams. On all sides you’re surrounded by peaks that, by an order of magnitude, dwarf anything you’ve seen before. You’re high from the thin, yet seemingly intoxicating, air coupled with the heady rush of finally arriving at the goal of a lifetime.
It all started with an idea, a dream, a picture in a magazine. And here it is. The past year has led you through aerobic training, gym sessions and outdoor practice routes. You were disciplined, tried as hard as you could, and bumped up those all-important yardsticks of performance with a gritty determination.
DAWN BREAKS ON DAY TWO, and you have a little headache. But hey, there’s tea in the cook tent. The morning is a little gray. What you can see of the mountain is amazing – but a little scary. You set up the tripod and take some pics. Your objective is halfway hidden by some clouds, and it looks like there’s fresh snow up there. Rather than taking a day to acclimatize, you decide to take a little gear and scope out a possible advanced base camp. You feel okay, and you’re worried about losing your edge. Counting the plane flight, layovers, time spent in that polluted city, the drive to the trailhead and all that hiking, it’s been two weeks since you had a real workout!
You return to camp two hours later than expected. You’re a little dehydrated, but your teammates’ altimeter-thingy says you did 2k vert in 73 minutes.
DAY THREE you have a headache, lethargy and you can hear your heart pounding out with each beat in your temples. Weather-wise, it’s a little worse than the day before. You pop two ibu’s and, feeling better, decide to take an active rest day and do some light exercise. You go bouldering and are shocked that simple vertical problems leave you huffing like a chain smoker.
DAY FOUR you wake up to two feet of snow and are so ill you decide to skip breakfast. You lie in your tent and listen to the mountains rumbling behind the curtain of snow hiding them. You remember that in the really big mountains there are few if any thunderstorms. What you are hearing are avalanches.
DAY FIVE you feel the fear. Enthusiasm has degenerated into dread of the inevitable. You put thousands on your Visa. You told your friends you were going to send. You trained hard, so hard you’ve never been fitter since you boarded the plane. But, the stakes far outstrip past experience. For the first time you are confronted by mountain dangers you cannot control.
ON DAY SEVEN the storm breaks. Everyone is grumpy. Nights have been spent with bad dreams interrupted by sleep apnea. During those long hours between 11pm and 4am, your crew have all been fixating on unsolvable problems, troubled relationships, the meaning(lessness) of life and other magnified terrors of sensory deprivation.
You all wolf down breakfast, eagerly load up heavy packs and launch up the moraine towards advanced base camp. It’s a death march on snow-covered talus. You feel wobbly, like your muscles have atrophied in the thin air (guess what smart guy, they have). But strangely enough, you think you feel a little more clarity than in days past. Your headache is gone and the air feels thick when you arrive back in base camp.
But one of your team, the guy with the altimeter-thingy, is disconsolate. Today, nobody made the complete 2K elevation gain to where the gear was cached, and what gains were made took twice as long as last time. Altimeter guy has decided to abandon the expedition, stating that he’s spent almost three weeks doing little beyond sit on a plane, sit on a bus, lie in a tent, two hikes and a handful of boulder problems. You stay.
* * *
IN THE END, the weather grants you reprieve. Only two of your team remain and with three days left in the expedition you summit a magnificent peak. It wasn’t the original objective but a consolation prize. It is one of the most memorable experiences of your life.
Train for success but prepare for failure. Failure is good. Failure means you chose a true challenge. You are also still alive. Being still alive means you probably paid attention to some variable in the environment that was either indeterminate or out of your control. Maybe the weather sucked, maybe that critical snow slope felt funny or you woke up with a headache that made the worst hangover of your life feel like a morphine drip. Push your limits when you train, when you redpoint a hard sport route or desperately shake your way up a difficult boulder problem. But in the mountains, know that pushing your life to its limit is going too far.
Takeda’s Take is a monthly blog by climber and mountaineer Pete Takeda. Pete’s pretty neat.