Mountaineering holds perennial fascination and mystery. For thousands of years mountains were regarded with fear and awe, often imbued with religious significance, and as a result little attempt was made to climb them. Today, the highest peaks have been climbed, yet the challenges remain every bit as great as in the early days of climbing-to find new routes, to climb without oxygen, to push body and spirit to fresh limits.
I get asked this question all the time. Why do you climb mountains Darren? Why do you push your mental and physical boundaries so much? Why are you so intent on reaching the summits of really high mountains like Aconcagua, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Everest,Island Peak, Pumori,Cho Oyu and other Himalayan giants. Answering these questions is not a simple thing that I can just blurt out instantly. And so I have tried to find a few ways to express this burning passion within my soul for mountaineering. A passion so strong that I quit my corporate job 10 years ago to pursue. And what a journey it has been!
Not only have I been broken and humbled by the mountains I so love, but I have also been blessed with priceless lessons that that only mountaineering can give. I have one away with an altered sense of reality and perspective on myself, the world and the people I have climbed with. I have learnt the art of patience, perseverance, comradeship that only mountains can teach you. I had to totally forget about the person I was in the corporate world and reinvent myself and adapt to the life on mountains. Yes I had read many books on mountaineering and had the knowledge. But wisdom is nothing without the experience. And so began the baptism of fire on the mountains of the world. How was I to run successful mountaineering expeditions from South Africa without the wisdom. 10 years down the line and still going strong. We have been involved in multiple expeditions to Kilimanjaro, Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, Island Peak and various other mountains throughout the world.
The past 15 years I have spent many a day in in -30 degree Celsius temperatures with winds blasting up to 130 km/hr, in an environment of avalanches and crevasses, at extreme altitude so high that each of your step requires you to take ten breaths. And trust me, as a seasoned mountaineer, on every mountain I have been in the world, I get haunted with the thought- ‘Why the heck do I do this?’ I could be chilling on the beach or losing my temper on the golf course instead. And you know what? The answer always comes back to me-It may not be there on the mountain of course, but in retrospect a few weeks later it dutifully comes. (usually over a few beers with mates) Mountaineering is rewarding!
Every moment spent on a high altitude mountain grows on you so that you are forced to continuously adapt and press forward, never giving up, faced with the world’s greatest natural challenges of standing on the highest point of your existence. Mountaineering is inspiring, because it is the sport where you are challenged to risk everything, in essence your life, to endure adversity for a goal or a dream which only exist in your mind and is of significance to you only, and your pride.
Mountaineering, especially to the higher alpine peaks used to be exclusively reserved for the crazy or elite. And we are not crazy-just ask my toaster. A lot of people refrained from participating in the sport thinking it irresponsible. We disagree. It is a sport that tests the human spirit like no other.The pain, headaches, the lack of oxygen at altitude, the deprivation of sleep, getting stuck in a snow storm on a precarious ledge, and the bone numbing cold that one is forced to endure is compensated by the goal. Now this is the incredible thing about mountaineering. All of these perceived negative factors are absorbed by the climber’s determination to make it to the summit. A climber escapes any thoughts of his future or past and steps into the moment. The corrosive emotion of fear is substituted with the ignition of your primal instincts of survival. Keep warm. Stay Hydrated. Focus on every step. Every movement.
Climbers walk a delicate line between life and death. High on a mountain you literally have one foot in the living and one foot in the dying. There is no-one coming to fetch you. No sweeping vehicle to help you. If you decide to sit down in the snow, you will die. And strangely enough, being that close to death ignites this incredible and addictive feeling of aliveness. Hard to explain I know….. you will know what I mean the next time you are standing on a high altitude mountain like Aconcagua, Elbrus or Island Peak. Mountaineering expeditions differ to say trekking and other extreme sports. On mountains, climbers are forced to endure great adversity with severe consequences where the balance between how much you are enjoying it with your misery is all dependent on the relative perception of the individual. And that is the challenge in our game of organising mountaineering expeditions from South Africa.
As a guiding company we not only have to keep people alive but also become psychologists and motivators. Surges of discomfort and negativity must be thrust aside so as to keep focus. And we have learnt the many ways of aiding this process. Sometimes it comes in the form of my bad jokes or even a delicate play on a climbers ego or inability to endure. Stirring up emotions is always going to be great motivator in the mountains. Sir Edmund Hillary had a saying-“ Its not the mountain we conquer, it ourselves”. And that is what mountaineering boils down to. Climbers look up at a kick ass mountain with fear and on their terms….not fears terms, make that choice to take the fist step upwards towards conquering themselves.
So as the years rolled by, my hair got whiter, my jokes got worse and the more mountaineering expeditions I organised, the more I realized that mountaineering is all about perseverance and dedication Is mountaineering all about getting to the summit? Or is it all about the journey? Lets face it. Mountains are dangerous and volatile places. And every person who sets foot on them has to accept the “terms and conditions’ of these majestic deities of nature. Even though we know the dangers, there is something inside of our soul that compels us to overcome the fear and achieve our set goal of reaching the summit. Doesn’t make logical sense does it? Or does it? Humans are naturally drawn towards challenges greater than ourselves. This is how we grow. How we get perspective. Though pain and suffering that mountains so freely give. But is that not what life itself is all about? Going through moments of misery and suffering with the thought of never giving up
-to endure and keep our focus the goal, wether it is the well being if your child or a new house. And that is where perseverance comes in. Perseverance is the state of mind mind following that urge to challenge one’s own fears. But of course we also need to realistic. Emotion is stronger than logic. Your urge to actually survive and come back alive is an equally important factor. If you are looking for a 45 our discussion on this topic try bringing it up with your better half. So what does that mean to us ego driven, puffed up mountaineers? We need to take a step backwards and be totally honest with ourselves-a realm that few dare enter for fear of what they may find hey? But a path that indeed needs to trodden. A famous mountaineer called Ed Viesturs had a saying, “Getting the top is mandatory, getting done is compulsory” What are your limits? Swallow your pride and ego on a mountain and make responsible choices. And that is probably the most important part of our job from a guiding companies perspective. We need to be the logic when emotions cloud a climbers judgement. We have been on that learning curve many a time and hindsight is a good thing on a mountain.