From Average Bloke to “Proper Climber” – My journey & its rewards.
A Letter Written to Ellis – To try and discourage him from paying to “go up” Everest.
Whilst catching up with what my friends have been up to on Facebook the other day, your Everest Dream Facebook page was suggested as something I should “like”. After looking through it, as well as your Everest Dream Website, I would like to share my thoughts with you. I understand & appreciate your cause, but at the same time, I also question it. This comes from someone who until very recently could also not call themselves a proper climber. Please don’t think I’m being rude, I only say this as you do mention on your site that you’re not a proper climber either.
I’d like to tell you the story of how I, as a 36 year old, got into climbing last year and explain what climbing has given back to me. I would also like to reference the thoughts and opinions of some of the characters of the climbing community that have inspired me so far on this continuing journey. At the end of the day, I hope that you will agree with my opinions, but if you don’t then I hope that you will at least find it half decent reading material.
There was a point a while ago when I have to say that the idea of climbing Everest seemed right up my street – An extreme endurance challenge in the ultimate setting (or so I thought at the time). This, along with the idea of needing to learn some cool technical stuff and put it in place along the way, meant that one day, Everest would definitely be for me. I could come back calling myself a climber, a tough bloke, a survivor! (strange idea that last one, I’ll come back to it). I’d have been to the top of the world. That was the stuff of dreams. Or so I thought.
Until September last year I, like you, had only really “extreme walked” – up some dusty snow capped volcanoes in South America, all apart from one of them with a guide. I’d done a lot of extreme trekking in some pretty remote and amazing spots and liked to think that I could look after myself.
Then, back in early 2012, with my stomach in knots from work stress (another story) I dragged myself along one evening to a BMC lecture on Alpine climbing in the middle of London. Tim Neil showed us all some great photos of alpine climbing and he was really informative. The next bloke, Nick Bullock, I instantly dismissed as a massive show off, amongst other things, and I didn’t think I liked him at all. Little did I realise what kind of immediate effect that man had had on my life. Or that my initial opinion of him was formed by jealousy. Even 2 weeks later I still couldn’t stop thinking about Nick’s stories and his attitude; I was infected by it. I wanted to learn to do what he did. The learning, not simply the result, I now realise, is the most important and satisfying part of any experience.
But it wasn’t solely Nick’s inspiration that drove me. I had been working too hard for a good few years and what downtime there was had been spent in random locations around the world, wherever I was working at the time, but never in a place where I could escape to trek or “climb”. I was desperate to change this. I’m also a firm believer that if you want to do something you must simply try – learn, practice, perfect. Nick’s achievements didn’t seem that inaccessible to me in the long term. Call me a dreamer, but I think you understand that feeling.
So, after some research and my lung collapsing from stress (sounds dramatic…it was) I took some time out and booked myself on a month long Rapid Development Climbing Course run by Dave Evans at Plas Y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre in Wales. It was absolutely brilliant and I’d be happy to give you more info if you’d like it.
The newfound skills I gained there simply opened the door for me. The onward journey has continued to be so fulfilling – I have independently climbed in all kinds of conditions in England, Wales, Scotland, plus now the Alps (all on a low budget) and I have met some fantastic new friends, through whom I have learnt even more skills, by using the UK Climbing Website. In general, you could say that even though it’s only been 6 months (8 weeks of which I’ve had a broken leg due to a skiing “incident”) I am now definitely in touch with the climbing community and can call myself a proper climber.
Before I started climbing I imagined that what I would enjoy the most would be that my newfound skills allowed me to have a wee adventure with a mate, possibly to a spot, and in a way, that is not accessible to all. I have definitely found this to be true; the serenity of hanging out on a belay position by yourself (possibly in extreme elements), holding ropes for your partner, is definitely enriching. Your partner striving away way above or below you, but the pair of you in a place, both physically and mentally, that most of the people far away in the valley below can’t reach, and possibly couldn’t imagine to either. You can sit, stand or hang there, completely calm yet focused, whilst enjoying the scenery and a setting that you yourself have engineered yourself into. I have also found that I enjoy many other aspects of climbing, some of them completely unexpected:
- The way that it slows down my thought processes; I make completely sure that I am being rational before committing myself to an action (a rash decision in a stressful situation can lead to a perilous end);
- The way I can find myself operating right on the edge of my comfort zone, and yet in complete control;
- The satisfaction of employing and adapting newly found technical skills, plus the fact that they are absolutely necessary to survival;
- The gear is pretty damn cool, lets face it;
- The fun of meeting so many great new people and continuing to do so;
- The cleansing fact that when climbing the only thing I think about is climbing…. When running you can still allow modern world problems to trouble you, I find;
- The way it asks me to make good judgments, whilst dealing with, and in apprehension of, so many emotions – fear, elation, satisfaction, desire, self-belief;
- The fact that the physiological ideal of an elite climber is exactly what I aspire to – cyclists have big bums and thighs, rugby lads are only attractive to the kind of girls to whom I am not, but being lean with every tiny muscle finely in tune… that’s what I fancy for myself. Don’t pick a fight with a climber or a boxer, that’s what they say… trust me.
I could go on talking about physical and mental challenges, motivation for training, problem solving, every time being a new discovery both of myself and the environment, responsibility for myself & others, the rewards of long term development, the lack of boundaries to the progression, the multi facets of climbing (bouldering, alpine, rock, ice, sport, trad, solo, big wall) and the fact that the so called “stress” is certainly not a modern world work stress.
Anyway, I digress slightly, but not unintentionally. The reason that I gave you that wee spiel on what it is about climbing that makes me tick is that pretty much everything that I have mentioned there is so far removed from commercial mountaineering (paying to go up Everest using fixed lines and oxygen), which is a different activity altogether. I take pride in my climbing style. I get immense satisfaction from climbing something independently and using my own resources, knowledge, strength and skills. Personally, I would get so much more (by a magnitude that is difficult to put into words) from spending years learning skills and climbing smaller but progressively harder, more technical, bigger and more remote mountains than I ever would from paying someone £30,000 to get me to the top of the tallest mountain in the world, as a one off. I also find it extremely hard to imagine that you will find at the top of Everest the serenity, magic & feeling of being complete that you anticipate, according to your website. I don’t know that I will ever feel complete as I think it is paramount in life to continue to learn and to never stop asking questions, but I know that I find serenity and magic, and so much more, when I go into the hills. The top of Everest is a circus: you won’t be alone, you will be with many others, some of them properly fighting for survival and some of them who may have already lost that fight.
So that you don’t get bored of my writing and so that we can mix it up a bit here are a few links on the subject of commercial mountaineering, style, and in particular Everest:
These links include the opinions of 2 climbers (Andy & Nick) that I have a great deal of respect for and have provided a constant source of inspiration for me.
1. This is a meaty one on style and commercial mountaineering. (This is the most important link and it would be great if you could read this to the end)
2. From an Everest mountain guide, talking about the kind of people that you can find on these expeditions. The main point from his blog (don’t read it if you don’t want, there are more important ones to come but it does give you a nice feel for what you should think about should you want to walk up Everest) is that one person in the group has got his crampons on the wrong way around. ON EVEREST! Everest is not a classroom.
3. A sharp, funny one on Everest
4. This is a BBC news article from some kid (literally) that seems to have climbed all of the 7 summits (the highest peaks on each continent) in her gap year. Quotes like this need no explanation:
“There were quite a few bodies attached to the fixed lines and we had to walk round them.”
“There were a couple who were still alive.”
At the bottom of the mail I have also put some further links on this subject should I have sparked your interest enough to want more. Perhaps you have already read these links.
It is not my intention now to further question whether you are going on this trip for charity or whether you are going for yourself and are using charity as an excuse/way to raise the cash. This is a separate issue. However, I do question whether your website is really saying ‘My goal is to go on an expensive guided expedition to accomplish something that’s been done many times before – it will be easier to raise funds if I also appear to be making the world a better place.’ It may actually be OK to do this, I’m still not sure, but for me this is another reason to avoid climbing Everest. It doesn’t seem pure.
Ellis, I know it is your dream to climb Everest and my words may very well not convince you not to but I do feel that if you change your tack slightly you could lead a constantly enriched life full of endless stories and adventures, not just a one-off. What will happen to you after Everest? What will have changed apart from a tick in your mind? You could become a proper climber and even get your kids involved. You also wouldn’t have to enter the death zone above 8000m, where, guide or no guide, you’re on your own.
In the last 6 months I have gained so much and have many stories to tell, some of them hilarious pub chat yarns and some only interesting to me. But each of those experiences enriches my life and my skill set.
- The first lead climb that I did without the supervision of instructors. My mate & I chose a classic at Tremadog – we didn’t take enough quickdraws for protection (only 4) so I was climbing past them and then leaning down to take them back. I then read the guide book wrong and on the final crux pitch now 10 metres above the last bit of protective gear I went the wrong way and climbed onto the front of a massive shiny slab of rock. People in the car park 10s of metres below must have had a right laugh as I teetered there for 15 minutes finding the guts to emotionally down-climb back onto the tiniest hold whilst thinking “helicopter, helicopter”.
- Abseiling off Swanage cliffs straight into the sea, in my underpants, in October, to reclaim a camming device that my mate Tomos Packer, a decent sports climber, who I was teaching to trad climb (after a month in the game myself), had accidentally thrown it into the sea.
- Taking on Striding Edge by myself in winter with no crampons and only axes. I had left my crampons in the van as I had needed them at 5 am that morning to walk across the ice on the pass that I’d got my van stuck on. I then waded into the freezing river to collect gravel to help get my van off the ice…. The road had been closed but I’d ignored that and was too embarrassed to call anyone. Later that day I navigated off the top of Helvelyn in a complete whiteout, having only re-learnt those navigation skills the day before from a lovely chap called Rich Pyne who had agreed to take me out for a day’s winter skills learning for free.
- When Rik Armitage from Needle Sports agreed to take me winter climbing for my first time ever, he had one look at me on the first few pitches and then said “do you fancy a bit of soloing about?”. It was like music to my ears. This was the proper stuff I’d read about in the books of my heroes. We “soloed about” on another fairly easy route that day. The next week I went and soloed a bunch of grade II and III routes by myself on Ben Nevis. I now felt like a hero.
- Bashing through my first overhanging snow cornice 25 metres above my last bit of protective gear, on what I consider a pretty steep snow slope. I had only read about this in books. My partner Doug was 50 metres below me: I couldn’t ask him what to do, I had to slow myself down, judge the avalanche risk using skills I had recently learnt, take my time, do things right. It was scary but I’m all the stronger for getting it right.
- Leading a chap called Ted Rudd with many years of experience up my first W.I. 4+ waterfall climb in -28 degrees in Alpe d’Huez. I traversed right for 3/4 metres at one point to clip a bolt on the rock at the side as I was sure that none of my ice screws were any good, plus my arms were so pumped. I then, after a good wee rest and some tears from hot aches (you don’t want to learn about them on Everest), traversed back and up and round to the belay. This had made the climb a fair amount harder. When Ted, a dry man of very few compliments, got to the belay he said, “Well done, you absolute lunatic”. He had made my day.
- Planning and taking my first trad climb fall.
- Working out what to do on a 60 metre ice face with only 50 metres of rope.
- Practicing ascending a rope inside my flat, climbing onto the mezzanine to impress my girlfriend.
My point is that these experiences are only some of the ones from a short period of 6 months, 8 weeks of which I have had a broken leg. Becoming a proper climber will continue to enrich me and may make me feel complete one day. But who cares about feeling complete?
Don’t climb Everest, climb something else in the region, just you and a mate (or guide) finding your own peace and serenity. You can look over at the circus on Everest in the knowledge that it wasn’t money, performance enhancing oxygen and reliance on others that got you there, it was you.
For now I will leave you with this picture – it is a very un-magical, un-serene, queue.
© Ralf Dujmovits
Think about it
All the best
Here are the other links that I referenced earlier:
Mount Everest – the cheat’s climb
Mount Everest – the dangers of overcrowding
Mount Everest – a marathon not a sprint