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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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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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Travel

Sep 25, 2019

Hiking in the Tetons: When a Teenager Discovered the Power of Nature

On a family camping trip in Wyoming, a future environmental journalist writer witnessed nature’s raw power.

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WRITTEN BY

Millie Kerr

As soon as we began ascending Wyoming’s Hoback Peak, black clouds appeared on the horizon. My family had only been camping for several days, but I’d come to expect the sky’s mid-afternoon mutation. The problem was, our guide had us climbing the region’s highest ridge, not traversing lower ground as we had on prior days when thunderstorms were a near-certainty. Every step up the mountain amplified our distance from clusters of trees, whose towering crowns and fallen trunks offered protection from direct and ground lightning.

“Should we turn back?” I asked my father. My lone ally on this treacherous vacation (our first and last llama trek) shrugged, “Not unless Loren pipes up.”

From the moment I met him, our guide Loren reminded me of a juvenile golden retriever refusing to be trained. His boundless energy betrayed naïveté, or was it something else?

We continued hiking upward. The higher we climbed, the closer we came to those ominous clouds, now enveloping the sky.

I was only fourteen—and a wispy sliver of a girl—but I never let age nor size get in my way. “Loren,” I shouted, “The storm’s coming. Shouldn’t we go back now?”

He paused for a moment, sniffing the charged air, and responded, “We’ll be fine. It’s not heading our way. Onward and upward!”

Within minutes rain began to fall, morphing into hail as lightning struck the apex of a nearby mountain, an alarming reminder that we trekked vulnerable terrain. Entirely exposed and the tallest objects in sight, we’d become mobile lightning rods.

To find cover, we needed to make our way to higher or lower ground, and I ascended more slowly than the others. In a pinch, they might be able to scramble to safe cover, but what if I couldn’t keep up?

The storm quickly escalated, and I knew that I had to descend even if it meant traveling alone.

“Loren,” I yelled into the wind, “Can we please turn around now?” to which he answered, “We have to get to higher ground to find cover. Follow me, everyone, and hurry!”

My mother and brother rushed after him. I tugged at my father’s shirt, begging him to retreat with me, and he acquiesced.

Without discussing the consequences, he relayed our decision to the rest of the group, urging everyone to join us, but Loren insisted that anyone able to continue to follow him to elevated turf, to more expansive tree cover than what we’d find below.

I’d already lowered myself to the ground, preparing to inch downhill like a crab. My dad rebuked then joined me. Two slithering bodies covered in mud, we ignored the painstaking switchbacks plodded the previous hour, reaching a nest of trees within minutes. We removed our packs and perched atop hefty logs; thunder, lightning, and behemoth hailstones raging all around us.

Then we held hands and prayed and waited for the storm to pass.

When it did, my father and I emerged to altered terrain. Tromping across icy slush, we spent a seeming eternity looking for camp. The llamas, our packhorses for the week, had scattered, and our tents were blown over, their contents dispersed like bits of city garbage.

We located the jittery animals and tied them to nearby trees before setting to work on our tents. These tasks afforded a momentary distraction from nagging questions: Were the others safe? Had we made the right decision? When would they come back, and what if they didn’t?

Suddenly, movement on the horizon. My Dad and I jogged up the banks of a mild ridge, peering into a vast post-storm haze. “Mom! Jeff!” I shrieked.

They shouted back, but with their calls came the distinct sound of laughter.

“It was no big deal,” Loren bragged minutes later as he wrenched off his jacket and mud-soaked boots, “We found cover in no time. You should’ve stuck with us.”

At the time, he seemed to be posturing—saving face—but over the years, my perception shifted: I no longer see doubt on Loren’s face. The man wasn’t merely a risk-taker—he was arrogant. He stared directly into the eye of a storm as though he were its equal match, as though his survival that day made him stronger than nature itself.

You can follow Millie on Twitter and Instagram.

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