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Climbing

May 25, 2018

The Psychology of Summiting Everest

Being the first is important for many Everest aspirants, but unless you come from South Sudan, it is very hard to be the first of a nation. So what’s left?

WRITTEN BY

Billi Bierling

For 14 years, Billi Bierling has been working for the Himalayan Database, alongside Elizabeth Hawley, talking to many mountaineers in the process. Billi is a hugely experienced Alpinist herself, and has reached five out of 14 of the highest peaks in the world, including Everest. Billi knows the Himalayas better than anyone, and is considered the authority on mountaineering in this region by The Outdoor Journal.

“A psychologist would have a field day here.”

These were my words when I was at Everest Base Camp, waiting to attempt the summit from the Nepal side in 2009. It was the same year the Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki, who sadly died on Everest this spring, embarked on the first of his eight attempts to reach the top of the world. I had just started getting into the world of high altitude climbing myself, but had already been working for Miss Elizabeth Hawley’s Himalayan Database for four years.

It has now been 14 years that I have been in the Himalayan mountaineering business collecting data about the climbs, and I have spoken to many 8,000m-aspirants, who have different reason to scale the high Himalayan peaks. Even though my time here has been relatively short compared to Miss Elizabeth Hawley’s, who had been interviewing teams for 53 years, I have realized that most of the Everest climbers are certainly no alpinists. Their motivation to reach the top of the world is often no longer the challenge to do a technical route but to reach the highest point in the world – no matter what or how.

Billi Beirling

What drives people to expose their bodies to the cold, extreme altitude or the danger of getting frostbite? What makes them want to hit the crowds, wait for hours in a queue to reach 8,848m, leave their families for the best part of two months and even risk their marriages and careers?

Summiting Everest, and mountain climbing is arduous and does not necessarily cause an adrenaline-infused thrill. In fact, previous research has shown that mountaineers have engaged in extreme risks to help reign in their emotions. Studies have found that mountaineers tend to fall short in the relationship department, have difficulties describing their feelings, and often feel a lack of control in their lives.

The mountains seem to provide them with what they seek and give them something else, namely fame and adoration.

According to the Himalayan Database, 4,830 people had reached the summit of Mount Everest by the end of 2017, and it looks very likely that an additional 550 to 650 people will have topped out this spring.

It’s not only Everest people aspire to climb, though. What was reserved for real climbers up to about 10 years ago has become a pastime for punters, namely scaling all 14 8,000m peaks which are scattered around Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

“A psychologist would have a field day here.”

The urge to achieve a record has increased significantly over the past decade, and simply climbing the highest mountain in the world no longer seems good enough for some of the aspirants. “Even 80-year-olds can make it,” one climber said to me referring to the Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura, who topped out at the proud age of 80 in 2013. Miura, however, was no novice to Everest as he was one of the first people to ski down its slopes in 1969 when he was a relative youngster of 36 years. His arch rival Min Bahadur Sherchan from Nepal tried to regain his former crown – at 76 he had become the oldest Everest summiteer in 2008 – by beating Mr Miura’s record several times. His last attempt to do so was in 2017, but the former British Gurkha died of a cardiac arrest when he arrived at base camp aged 85.

Being the first is important for many Everest aspirants, but unless you come from a country like South Sudan or the Yemen, it is very hard to be the first of a nation. So, what’s left? Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, has already seen the first double amputee, the first blind person, the first handless person and the first diabetic. What about the first certified vet, the first vegan or the youngest person doing it in the fastest time? The list of potential firsts is long and it can be mind-boggling what people come up with.

Most expeditions usually descend on Mount Everest in spring, which is also the prime time for the media to scour the activities on its flanks, like hawks looking for their booty. The pressure on the punters rises to perform well and achieve what they said they would do. No matter whether it is to reach the summit without supplemental oxygen, a feat only 208 people have achieved so far, or to do a double whammy bagging Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain situated right next to Everest, within one or two days of reaching the top of the world.

Climbing an 8,000m peak used to be a huge feat back in the days of Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner or Chris Bonington. With commercial operators charging an average of about 60,000 to 70,000 USD, clients feel that they have bought the summit expecting 100 per cent success.

They forget, however, that it is still a colossal mountain bearing many dangers and challenges despite the incredible infrastructure and hard work the climbing Sherpas put in preparing the route for them. Having said that, the success rate for summiting Everest rose to about 65 per cent in 2017 compared with a mere 24 per cent in 2000, which is mainly due to the better infrastructure, the better equipment and the fact that there are now around 60 fully qualified international mountain guides among the Sherpas and other ethnic groups, which certainly makes climbing Everest safer.

Looking at the recent success rate, the likelihood of reaching the summit is high, but what happens if you don’t make it on your first shot? Austrian climber Wilfried Studer for example thinks that he spent an accumulated full year at Everest base camp since he started attempting the mountain from the North side in Tibet in 1997.

For a whole decade, Wilfried and his wife Sylvia came every single spring to attempt the climb without the use of supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support, and every single spring they had to turn back due to the cold, strong winds, bad cough, exhaustion or the loss of equipment. They took a break in 2008 and 2009 but were back with a vengeance in 2010. Equipped with bottled oxygen, three Sherpas, a few friends and their daughter they reached the summit on 23 May 2010. Finally, they could put their minds to rest.

Only this spring season, Nobukazu Kuriki from Japan, who was on his eighth attempt to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support, lost his life after taking a fall from the West face at around 7,500m. In 2012, he had already lost all but one finger trying to reach the summit via the technically difficult West Ridge. Kuriki was not one looking for the easy way.

He usually chose a different and more interesting route, organised his expeditions in the autumn as opposed to spring, and chose to climb without supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support. Had he joined a commercial expedition and followed the fixed ropes using bottled oxygen, he would have probably summited eight times, still in the possession of his fingers and – in the end – his life. But Kuriki was a loner, he was quiet and he liked doing his own thing. Sadly, this time the aspiration to do something amazing got the better of him.

For further information about Billi, please refer to her website at www.billibierling.com

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Environment

Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.

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WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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