“Because it’s there.” This was the answer of George Mallory for the question why climb the Everest. These words became the motto of generations of mountaineers. But there are some words I find just as important as those motivating ones, words that saved and will save many lives, words that everybody should keep in mind when facing a difficult decision on the mountain: “it will be there”.
There are glorious mountaineering stories about heroes making great efforts to reach a great summit and their struggles are awarded with the successful conquer of the mountain and a safe return to the civilization, and I admire these heroes very much. But my real exemplars are the mountaineers who are capable of giving up something that they worked for a very long time with great struggles when the risk becomes too high, even if it is at their fingertips. In my eyes that kind of willpower makes difference between courage and madness, between love and obsession. One of these exemplars is Göran Kropp, whose most famous story is a “failed” solo ascent to the Mount Everest. In 1995 after participating six Mount Everest expeditions, and climbing the Broad Peak, Cho Oyu and K2 in solo he decided to travel from Sweden to Nepal with a bicycle, carrying all his equipment and climb the Everest without oxygen or Sherpa support. His 13 000 km (8 125 mi) travel starting in October 1995 over the Balkan, Iran and Pakistan was adventurous, but he safely arrived in April and after a month of acclimatization he commenced his climb to the top on the 1st of May. The next day in the afternoon he reached his high altitude camp on the Southern saddle and shortly after midnight he started the summit attack. The weather was favourable but the walking in the deep snow was very tiring in the high altitude, yet he proceeded stably and in the early afternoon he was only 100 m (330 Ft) below the summit. It would have taken him only one single hour to finish his unthinkable 200 days-long journey from Stockholm to the Everest summit, but he decided to turn back, because he considered that finishing the accent would exhaust him so much that he couldn’t safely return to the base camp. Despite the unfinished summit attach his deed was an example for all mountaineers.
So I was thinking what is it at the summit that has to be reached that worth working for. In fact, all the summits in the World has been already conquered. You might still be the first who climbed the Everest while balancing a broomstick on your nose, which might look good in the Guinness records book, but wouldn’t add much to the history of mountaineering. So why would those many people want to climb these fierce mountains if not for the challenge, if not to learn about yourself and show what you are capable of to others? So let’s assume that a summit is the goal of a personal achievement and in this way it can be unique to everybody no matter how long the row ahead is to the peak. It is good to have a goal, but it doesn’t solely define the achievement itself, especially not on a mountain, where the conditions are the most significant factor. More important than all your training, strength, willpower and courage together. They are the lord of success and failure, life and death up there. Therefore the word “conquer”, which is commonly used and I used it also several times intentionally above, is very contradictory when it applies to mountaineering. It’s like an ant climbing up on your arm that you could blow off with a single breath any time; it might succeed if you are unaware or in a good mood, but it would be a bit of an overstatement to say that the ant conquered you.
I am terrified of mountains. The uncontrollable danger of its cold, height and mass frightens me. The ancient forces working there make me feel myself unthinkably and disproportionately tiny. If not for the unstoppable curiosity that nature gave me (the human), which competes even with the primary instinct of survival, I would never think of approaching one. But I do and I enjoy every moment of it, even the painful ones. In general, I really like challenges. I enjoy finding my limits, creating ambitious goals for myself and achieving them without even thinking about giving up. I like to fail too, it proves that I pushed until the limit, which is a kind of success. Triathlon is a very good way of challenging yourself, it combines multiple endurance sports, there is a wide range of speed and range to choose from, there are always people who are faster or slower than you, so you can always find your league where you can compete, and you can always win. A successful finish, a personal record, overtaking the person ahead of you are all giving you the feeling of win. And most importantly it teaches you to never give up. Occasionally you might have to crawl into the finish, but then you will crawl in. I never gave up a single race, not even when I had to walk a half-marathon with cramps in my legs after I overtired myself on the cycling section of a half-distance race. There is no real danger on a triathlon race, a lot of things have to go wrong to get in real trouble. I never felt myself in danger not even when I was close to crash with my bike or when I got a cramp in my leg in the middle of the swimming section. If you fail on a triathlon race that means you arrive later to the finish. But mountains are very different. Failing there can mean you never return. And the small window of opportunity, which otherwise would mean the coincidence of several events causing an unlikely accident, becomes the opposite: a rare opportunity to safely climb the summit and return from there, while the change of any of the factors can endanger it. That is why I define only tentative goals on mountains and prepare mentally and practically for the cancelling of the attempt. This way giving up a summit attack never really feels like a failure.
Let’s see some examples, so you can see, what I am talking about. You might consider some conclusions of the stories or you can tell me how differently you would have done it and why. It was in July 2015. I was an assistant guide of a team of 20 climbing the Slavkovský štít (2452 m, 8044 ft) in the High Tatra, Slovakia. It is a one day hiking tour up and down, nothing difficult about it apart from walking on unstable rocks. It was a very hot summer day with clear sky, no wind and a temperature over 35°C (95°F). We started at 9 am from 1275 m (4180 ft) and at noon we left the 1900 m (6233 ft) altitude. This was the moment, when dark clouds appeared from behind the mountain. They came slowly but steadily, literally out of the blue and in a few minutes it started to rain. Some people took on their rain coat, but most of us were happy to get cooled down by it, and we continued our climb. Soon the rain became heavy and the sky started to thunder. That was the moment the we (the guides) discussed the situation and decided to turn the team back. Maybe even a bit late, but we started to go back on the way we came. The heavy rain turned into a hail and the lightnings struck closer and closer, the temperature dropped below 15°C (59°F) and the wind started to blow making it feel even colder. Some people soak cover, others continued the descent faster or slower to the valley, so the team got scattered along the road. It took us hours to collect everyone in the hut at the bottom. Fortunately nobody injured on the slippery rocks and an hour in the hut with some warm drink was enough to recover everybody. It was not a glorious climb, but it was a good example how quickly and drastically the weather can change in the mountains.
Same year in August I participated a successful climb to the Grand Paradiso (4061 m, 13323 ft) and decided with two girls from the team to visit the Weissmies (4017 m, 13179 ft) in Switzerland. We arrived to Saas-Grund (1550 m, 5085 ft) in the afternoon, after the last cable car left to the Hohsaas, but since it was a nice day, we decided to walk up to the Weissmieshütte (2700 m, 8858 ft) and attempt the summit attack from there. We arrived just after sunset and had a short rest until early morning, when we started to climb up to Hohsaas in the dark. On the way up it turned out that one of the girls had a pain in her upper leg, but she continued to climb. It was in the morning when we arrived to the Hohsaashütte (3100 m, 10170 ft) and we asked for information about the conditions on the mountain. It turned out that every day around noon the ice heated up by the sun started to fall on a steep section, which gave us a quite tight timeframe unless we wanted to stuck on the peak until night, when it becomes safe again to pass that section. There were two teams climbing up on the glacier that moment, but both had about an hour advantage – they must have started from the Hohsaashütte – and one of our team members had a hurting leg, which would have caused troubles during the descent. So finally we unanimously decided to cancel the summit attack and return to the valley. It was not the best outcome, but better than getting in trouble up there. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to make another attempt that year, so we walked down and spent some time in the ancient city of Sion before going back home.
The last example is from this year and it happened in Berchtesgaden, Germany. I guided a team of 20 to the Watzmann ridge via-ferrata. It was a warm summer day and we gathered on Friday around noon in Wimbachbrücke (600m, 1968 ft) after an 8 hour drive. In the afternoon we walked up to the Watzmannhaus (1900m, 6233 ft) in bright sunlight under the clear sky. We woke up with the sun next day. Despite the forecast the weather was already cloudy and windy, but it was not unpleasant yet and according to the locals, no storm was expected. We gathered the team and prepared for the via-ferrata on the ridge. First we had to climb the Hocheck (2651 m, 8697 ft). The team walked in a good pace on the rocky slope, but some people left behind that made us stop and wait several times. Meanwhile the wind became stronger and it started to rain, so the waiting part of the team was cold during the stops. By the time we arrived to the Hocheck at least half of the team was too cold to continue so we stopped at an already crowded shelter to warm ourselves up. The weather was quite special. All around the mountain there were only light clouds travelling with the strong wind, but on the Watzmann the wet air that was blown against the mountain’s rock wall immediately precipitated and covered the ridge in a raining fog. A few minutes of sunshine could have recovered everybody but there seemed no hope for a clear sky for hours, so as most of the team didn’t seem to be in the condition to climb, we finally decided to split the team and let the stronger few to go on the via-ferrata, while the rest returned to the valley on the same way we came up. I lead the returning part and it was not an easy job either, so when we arrived to the valley everybody was tired enough to call it a day. The other, small team proceeded well on the ridge, they were well dressed and while they could not have the view that Watzmann would provided on a clear day, they had quite a good time. But descending on the other, steep side of the mountain was a hard job, so they arrived to the car park exhausted just about sunset. Considering their experiences we assumed that it would have been risky to go on that tiring climb on the cold, slippery, rocky ridge with the whole team including some people with numb hands and tired legs, resulting a slow crossing and risking that we stuck up there in the dark in case of a smaller injury, so we were satisfied how it turned out. The next day the team was compensated with a beautiful weather and a climb on the Grünstein via-ferrata, so everybody was content and intended to return another time, because the mountain will be there next year.
This article might seem a but negative. I also felt it while I wrote it. I want to reach summits too, and I want to go to the leg of a mountain with the feeling that I will succeed, but my mind always circles around the risks to prevent anything bad to happen. These stories all had happy ends and I never heard a complain from any participant about a failed summit attack yet. In August we will attempt a climb on the Finsteraarhorn summit in Switzerland (4274 m, 14022 ft) with a team of 4, and it would be fantastic to get up there before I go to the Antarctica, so I hope for good conditions, but I am also prepared for the bad ones, and I rather write another story of a failed attempt than something much worse.
Be safe and never hesitate to come off the mountain.