The Epiphany of a Climbing Guide
I have just got back from Kazbek (5,047m). My sleeping bag is still wet and stinky, my duffel bag smells and displays traces of horse-shit. In short, I can affirm: my last Caucasian experience is pretty fresh.
My joy comes not only from the fact that ClimbBigMountains could register 14 successful summiters this time, but also because I had another epiphany that I’ve been wanting to share with you, mountain-lovers.
Anyone who has ever attempted to bag a peak will find my revelation eye-opening too.
I am well aware that for many of you climbing is just a hobby, a recreational activity, a vacation – so what I’m going to share with you is not the most important thing in life.
But it is still a very important one. I have noticed how much joy it brings when you not only go out to climb, but you actually get to bag a peak. So I know it matters to you.
I have realized what determines whether you will end up climbing a mountain or not.
Why is it that someone makes it to the peak, and someone does not?
As a mountain guide, it is just natural that I pay attention to our climbers. I don’t only care about where they step but I like to observe how they react in certain situations. I am trying to make sense of what goes on inside their heads in crucial moments. One such moment is summit-morning.
It has been proven so-so many times that it’s all in your mind. Your head will decide how your body will react – whether you make it to the top or not.
Yes, on the morning of the summit we all make a decision.
You’ll make up your mind whether you complete the trip or not. It is true that there are a number of little details that matter and that can go wrong.
But no, it won’t be the comfort of your boots or the weight of your backpack that will matter. It is irrelevant if you have some extra weight around your waist, if you are above 40, or if you neglected your work-out in the last months. No one will care if you smoke a pack of Marlboro every day or if you just had stomach flu.
The only thing that is real important now is to decide, to believe and to persist.
And you know what’s the hardest about it? If you turn back, nobody will judge you. As you descend, every step will feel lighter. You can breathe. You even feel like taking photos finally… There’s this instant gratification right away.
Why do I say all this? Because I have seen this, many times. But we’ll get to the real-life stories very soon.
It is 1AM – my alarm went on. I barely slept 4 hours (at a run-down Post-Soviet meteorological station), but it is time to go. In the next moment we are already gathering in front of the building; the first summit-day photos are being taken.
In a couple of minutes, we quietly start our ascent on the soft volcanic terrain.
Funnily enough, all I can think of now is that it will end soon. At 8AM we are already on the top, at noon we are back at the house sipping beer. Part of me can’t wait for this to be over; part of me is enjoying each moment echoing that finally I can do the best thing in the world.
That right now I am doing exactly what I love the most.
Let’s be honest. 90% of the guide work we do here at ClimbBigMountains is recreational climbing, not serious expeditioning.
Obviously, we are organizing trips which many of your guys desire to climb and very probably you can succeed. Typically (I repeat, typically) our clients don’t want risky north-facing walls or complex climbing itineraries; most of you just want to get to the top. Like Mont Blanc, Elbrus, Matterhorn, or Kazbek (among others).
You set the goal and you head out. When you manage to get up there, you are overwhelmed by joy. Does that ring true to you?
In other words, these peaks are surprisingly accessible for a regular human being. You can make it, you just need to set your mind to it and your body will follow.
Not convinced? Look, among our climbers there are carpenters, bankers, gynecologists, people above 50, people with 4-5 children, and I could list.
It’s just a great variety of people, with huge physical differences. Yet, all I see is that each and every one of them needs to overcome one thing. The same thing.
And we are back to the previous idea: it’s all in your head.
Because it just sucks to get up so early. I mean, it sucks for everyone. And everyone’s feet are cold in the boots. And nobody has a good night sleep in the hut.
On top of all this, it is hard for everyone to perform in tough circumstances. And these are tough circumstances: climbing 8-12 hours above 4,000m. Just think about it: let’s say, you train three times a week generally; well then your Kazbek climb equals your three-week work-out! It takes serious perseverance.
To bear this is just – excuse my language – a big pile of crap. Still, we are out there doing this.
We are slowly ascending in the South-East traverse; we must be somewhere at 4,600m. I always just wish for the sun to come out finally. That really cheers everybody up. 1 and 1, 2 and 2, I am counting the steps silently.
At around number 30, the rope pulls me back: we have to stop. Somebody in the back is begging for a break. Just a couple of seconds and our breathing is a little calmer, a little lighter. Some encouraging words help raise their spirits even more. “There’s not much left”, I tell them.
We need to continue our climb because it must be around -15 Celsius, 7:30 in the morning; with some wind, it is freakishly cold out here on the first saddle. So one last bite, one last sip of water.
It feels like an eternity to reach the second saddle, even if we only gain 50m in elevation. And it was just 15 minutes in objective terms. When we are finally there, one guy just falls into the snow with his face. I can see it is nothing serious because he is laughing.
Deep down I know he is considering not to take one step higher from here. “It’s a critical moment now”, he admits out loud. “How much more?” 180m, I reply, adding that we cannot turn back from here. The weather is beautiful and we still have a plenty of time will noon, our preset turn-back time.
This short break brings all of them back to life, so we start our final push. In the last 15 meters, the sun comes out. We are almost on the top, the groups needs about 10-20 steps.
The rope pulls me back again; I look back. A climber in blue down jacket is catching his breath leaning on his ice axe. Before each step, we stop for 4-5 seconds. This is really the final stretch.
As I look around, everybody’s face is reflecting exhaustion. They are on the edge of their capabilities. At 5,000m you unavoidably feel the lack of oxygen. It is heart-warming to see how they are pulling their legs one after another while struggling and suffering but finally succeeding.
We are on the top!
The sun is shining on us; it’s a beautiful scene. All the people in the group who a couple of days ago were strangers are now hugging. We are overpowered by some sort of celestial bliss that I think I have never felt before standing on a mountain.
I have said it many times but now it is just fitting to repeat: do you know why I love climbing?
Because it pushes my limits.
I am not a very strong-willed person, I must confess. I don’t have enough persistence. You see I always choose the easier way. But on the mountain you don’t really have a choice. If you head out, you need to persist.
When I play football or go out for a run. I give up much sooner. And I must admit it doesn’t give me as much satisfaction either. You know, there’s the thought of the shortcuts: the bench to sit down and the bus to catch for coming back.
But on the mountain there is no bench or bus; you cannot give up.
Climbing is a “life sport.”
I see this on myself and I see it on others. Take some examples from our Kazbek climb:
There was Vince’s case. On the first evening he ate something that made him throw up all night.
If there had been a flight back, he would have taken it right away. But there wasn’t, so I gave him a short motivational speech, and in less than 24 hours later he was standing on the 5,047-meter peak of Kazbek. He barely ate or slept but he wanted it badly. So he made it.
And there was Robbie. He felt he reached his limits at 4,200m.
At the end of our acclimatization (at 4,200m), he told his pals that for him this was all, he had reached his limits. He felt at peace with waiting for us in the hut. But his friends did not and convinced him to come. And so he did. And he made it.
Again, these were not unique cases. We wrote about this earlier.
But now let me tell you about a very memorable and educational case. Not long ago I had a valuable lesson about expectations and first impressions. On one of our Grossglockner climbs, there was Wendy, this girl with about 20-25kg of extra weight around her waist.
I must admit, when I saw here in the parking lot I made a quick judgment telling myself she was not gonna make it. As I saw, all the group fell into the same trap about her.
Surprise: it turned out she was the one that wanted it the most and she was the first to summit! Forget about prejudice, preconditions, and rationalizations.
So why is it that somebody makes it to the top and somebody doesn’t?
What takes you up and what keeps you down? You can reflect and argue a lot about it but for me it seems pretty simple.
So, are you hyped to bag your peak? Did you get a little motivation? Awesome; that was the goal.
What I was trying to make you see is that you can do it. I can guarantee.
If you make up your mind, I promise you’ll make it. But with the rest we can help. We can help you to prepare. You’ll get a training plan, tips about the right equipment, and we’ll take you up and down Kazbek (or any other high mountain).
All you need to do is start. Set yourself to a realistic goal. Something like this:
“In 2017 I want to climb X mountain in Y month.”
For some people it works even better if they share their goal with others because it is harder to turn back. You see, it is about motivation.
It is all in your head.