symbolize the indomitable will, an unbending resolution, a loyalty
that is eternal, and character that is unimpeachable. When man pits
himself against the mountain, he taps inner springs of his strength.
He comes to know himself. For he realizes how small a part of the
universe he actually is, how great are the forces that oppose him.”
Of Men and Mountains
climbed my first mountain, somewhat reluctantly, in the summer of
1956. I was a shy, underachieving youth, who aspired for success but
lacked the confidence to achieve it. I vividly recall a family holiday
in southern England when I was about eight years old. While
sightseeing we had become lost. It was starting to get dark. As we
came to a row of houses in a picturesque village, my father told me to
ask someone for directions back to our hotel. Stricken with panic, I
refused to leave the car. The idea of speaking to a stranger was
something that I simply could not face.
bleak Scottish day a few years later, we were hiking up the Old Pony
Track on Ben Nevis, at 1,344 meters the highest mountain in the
British Isles. Now 11 years of age, I was soon to start a new life at
a British public school and was proudly wearing my crisp uniform,
replete with school cap, necktie, kneesocks, and short pants. For
protection against adverse weather, I was wearing a gabardine
we gained height, the rain increased in intensity, the wind driving
sheets of mist horizontally across the trail. I was cold, wet, and
dispirited. What’s the point of this? I thought. It would
be so much warmer back in the car parked at the trailhead. I began
to grumble about going back down.
will never forget my father looming over me with a stern face, rain
streaking his cheeks. “If you turn around now,” he said,
“you’ll regret it for the rest of your life!”
words hit home and I felt the heat of defiant anger rising inside me. I’ll
show him. I thought as I shot off up the trail with my sister,
Susan. Doggedly pushing ahead, my coat pulled tight against the
freezing rain, we soon left our parents behind anxiously asking other
hikers if they had seen two youngsters up ahead. When they finally
reached the top, Susan and I had been there for an hour, shivering in
the icy cold.
I didn’t know it at the time, this experience would launch me on a
lifelong journey of human curiosity, personal exploration, and
self-discovery which continues to this day. Unknowingly, I began to
follow in the footsteps of Alexander Graham Bell, an adventurous soul
whose natural curiosity changed civilization through his invention of
the telephone. In 1914, he had offered the following advice:
“Don’t keep forever on the public road, going only where others
have gone. Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the
woods. You will be certain to find something you have never seen
before. Of course, it will be a little thing, but do not ignore it.
Follow it up, explore all around it; one discovery will lead to
another, and before you know it, you will have something worth
thinking about to occupy your mind. All really big discoveries are the
results of thought.”
succeeded, somewhat reluctantly, on Ben Nevis, I now began to probe my
strengths and my limitations, to question my previous beliefs, and to
explore my potential by seeking challenges on mountains of increasing
difficulty around the world.
is possible my path was destined by a holiday my parents enjoyed in
Grindlewald, Switzerland, during the summer of 1938—when the Eiger
North Face was climbed for the first time. As they were leaving the
railway station to travel home, their guide told them, “There are
four more fools on the Eiger.” In fact, this was the first ascent
party of Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vorg, Fritz Kasparek, and Heinrich
Harrer, and by the time my folks
arrived home the story was front-page news in the British newspapers.
a youngster, I spent many an hour browsing through the yellowing
clippings that my Dad had collected from that time. Seeking further
inspiration, I devoured his well-worn copy of The White Spider,
Heinrich Harrer’s classic history of the Face, and dug into his
collection of narratives on the early British attempts to climb Mount
Everest. As I dreamed of climbing in their footsteps, I poured through
the autobiographies of modern European climbing heroes, such as Walter
Bonatti, Gaston Rebuffat, and Lionel Terray, seeking to understand
their moments of self-discovery during triumphs and tragedies on
mountains around the world. And as my climbing skills grew throughout
my teenage years, I came to know and climb with some of the greatest
British mountaineers of the early 1960s, including Joe Brown, Don
Whillans, Tom Patey, and Chris Bonington. Their words and deeds became
my call to action.
Nine years after Ben Nevis, I found myself at the foot of another
cold, wet mountainside, this time in Norway. With three friends, I was
bivouacked below the soaring Troll Wall, aspiring to make the first
ascent of this “Wall of the Giants,” which is considered to be the
highest vertical rock wall in Europe. It was said that a stone dropped
from the summit would touch nothing until it landed in the valley
1,500 meters below. At this point in 1965, nobody had climbed, or even
tried to climb, the Troll Wall. More
experienced climbers had come to look, but had turned their backs and
walked away. So, with the audacity of youth, we decided to try. And it
was here that I learned the meaning of courage, which Mark Twain
defined as “resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not the absence of
As I sought sleep that night, my mind was a turmoil of fear and
anxiety; I worried about all the things that could go wrong up on that
unknown wall. But as I struggled with these doubts, I knew that unless
we started the climb the next morning, we would never discover if we
were up to the challenge.
climbing companion, Tony Howard, caught the mood in an article for the
British magazine Mountain Craft:
Once admitted, fear gnaws away at your
subconscious; it prods and probes at every chink in your mental armor.
It can mushroom into a nightmare of emotion from which there is no
release until dawn; the slow dawn that lights the sky with a golden
glow, yet refuses to burst over the black horizon. You wish to hell
the sun would hurry. The dark, gloomy rock leers down from above you,
hostile, overwhelming, unknown.
you can stand it no longer, the silence, the relentless night-long
shuffle of your comrades, the dark unfriendly
rock, above all, the inactivity; just waiting, eternally waiting and
thinking, second after second ticking slowly into minutes, into long,
long hours. The thoughts multiply, obsess you and devour you. You wish
you had never set foot on rock; you decide the whole venture is too
big for you, and you can only sit and wait, a victim of your own
High on the Troll Wall, I was forced to control my own fear. For eight
days, we faced sleet, falling rocks, and gusts of icy wind, while
inching our way up the precipice. At night, we tied ourselves onto
ledges no more than half a meter wide and tried to sleep.
Occasionally, we dozed while standing upright on tiny footholds,
before our knees collapsed, jerking us awake.
the penultimate day, I was climbing last while Tony and Bill Tweedale
tackled the final band of overhangs. As they disappeared from view
overhead, I was left alone, dangling over a sheer drop of more than
one thousand meters. Only the jerking of the rope from above signified
all movement stopped. Anxiously, I waited for the ropes to pull tight,
a signal that I could continue. Minutes drifted into hours with no
sound from above. Hanging there alone, my mind began to race with
worst-case scenarios. Had they reached an impasse? Was someone hurt?
Would we be forced to retreat from so high on the wall? Could we, in
fact, get down? The ropes were swinging free below my feet, not even
touching the rock. Unable to communicate with my companions, it was
all I could do to control the growing panic.
noise from above woke me from my reverie. The rope started to snake
upward and became tight. With immense relief, adrenalin surging
through my body, I started to climb. Pulling through the final
overhangs, I rejoined my companions, relieved to discover that they
had been slowed by a particularly difficult section of rock and that
the route now lay open to the summit.
drives us into such situations? Why do people voluntarily seek out
such discomfort and uncertainty in the mountains? And what do we learn
from such exposure to the unknown that makes us better people in our
everyday lives? Perhaps the late Anatoli Boukreev had the answer. When
taking part in a seminar on Alpine Voyeurism at the Banff
Mountain Film Festival in 1997, he concluded: “What becomes of the
effort is that we can know ourselves better”.
is only when forced to confront adversity, often by external events
beyond our control, or when we choose to struggle by seeking out a
challenging new route to a mountain’s summit, for example, that we
find out what we are capable of achieving.
it is not during the struggle that the learning takes place, or even
when standing on the summit having achieved the goal. The learning
takes place afterward, when we can step back and digest the
experience. Having reflected, it is then possible to gaze out toward
many more mountains of opportunity, which are only now possible
because of the new learning that has taken place.
back at our first ascent of Norway’s Troll Wall in 1965, I realize
today that the most significant part of that climb was our willingness
to try, to commit to an effort that others had rejected, and to find
the courage to begin. During that sleepless night at the foot of the
climb, I began to appreciate that when you move toward fear and look
it directly in the face, it recedes in front of you; when you run away
from fear, it only grows in your mind. And I began to think of fear
and anxiety as simply being nature’s way of keeping us focused on
the task at hand. Once I understood that fact and made a commitment to
start the climb, all the other pieces quickly fell into place.
every measure, our Troll Wall experience symbolized the very essence
of adventure. It was a true journey into the unknown; no one had been
up that mountain face before. If we had gotten into trouble, there
were few that could have come to our aid given the extreme nature of
the climbing and the remoteness of the location. But I was exactly
where I wanted to be at the time. And
it was this success on the Troll Wall that opened my personal sense of
possibility, which years later would take me to Nepal as a member of
the first Canadian team ever to try to climb the world’s highest
Canadian Mount Everest Expedition in the fall of 1982 was a
controversial project from the start: a traditional style, large team
effort with major corporate support and extensive media coverage. With
a nationalistic agenda, the objective was to place a Canadian on top
of the mountain for the first time.
Departing Kathmandu, we embarked on
a three-week walk to the foot of the mountain, establishing Base Camp
toward the end of the monsoon rains. Two weeks into the climb, we had
established the route through the tortuous Khumbu Icefall and moved on
into the Western Cwm. Everything was going well when, over a two-day
period, our effort was decimated by two tragic accidents in which four
people died. Seven climbers were buried in an avalanche that fell
hundreds of meters from the West Shoulder of Everest. Three Sherpas
moving together along the fixed ropes were killed. Then, two days
later, cameraman Blair Griffiths perished in a collapse in the
Icefall. In both cases, we had been in the wrong place at the wrong
Looking back today I believe that,
prior to the accidents, we had started to build a bubble of
invincibility around ourselves. Because everything was proceeding as
planned, we were already reflecting on the achievement to come. In
effect, we were looking toward the summit with tunnel vision, when we
should have had peripheral vision, should have been checking around
every day and adapting our approach to the changing conditions on the
mountain. Without realizing it, we had fallen into the trap of
complacency—the greatest danger in extreme situations. We were
implementing a plan that had been developed in the comfort of our
homes in Canada—a plan that was based upon a series of assumptions
as to what it would be like on Everest, half the world away. On
arriving at the mountain, we had not checked to see if these
assumptions were correct.
In the face of these tragic events,
our initial reaction was to place blame. When something goes wrong, we
have to have a reason; something or someone must have been at fault.
We were blaming ourselves, thinking that if we hadn’t been so
selfish as to want to climb this mountain these men would still be
alive. But the Sherpas view such events from a different perspective.
Being Buddhist, they believe in karma and reincarnation. They came to
us and said, “This was meant to be. If these men hadn’t died on
Everest today, they would have died somewhere else today, because this
was their day to journey on into their next life.” Rather than place
blame, they encouraged us to continue with the climb.
accidents on Everest were beyond our control. Nobody could have
predicted the second when an avalanche would fall from hundreds of
meters above our heads. Neither could we know exactly when a collapse
would occur in the Icefall. It could be said at the time of the
tragedies that we had failed. But by reflecting on what had happened
and adapting our plan, we knew we still had a chance to complete the
climb. The tragedies had shaken us out of our complacency, burst our
bubble of invincibility, and brought focus to our effort.
Lucien Devies, President of the
Himalayan Committee of the Federation Francaise de la Montagne, writes
in heroic terms of the struggle for the summit in his preface to
Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna: The First 8,000 metre Peak:
“Man overcomes himself, affirms himself, and realizes himself in the
struggle towards the summit, towards the absolute. In the extreme
tension of the struggle, on the frontier of death, the universe
disappears and drops away beneath us. Space, time, fear, suffering, no
longer exist. Everything then becomes quite simple. As on the crest of
a wave, or in the heart of a cyclone, we are strangely calm—not the
calm of emptiness, but the heart of action itself. Then we know with
absolute certainty that there is something indestructible in us,
against which nothing shall prevail.”
the days that followed, bad weather forced all the climbers down to
Base Camp, allowing for a period of catharsis. As time healed our
wounds, the simplicity of our desire to climb was rekindled. We would
return with a smaller team, moving more quickly through the danger
zones. We would abandon our hopes of climbing a new route via the
South Pillar and opt instead for the easier South Col route. And we
would still aspire to achieve our goal. The summit beckoned.
weeks later, Laurie Skreslet, Sungdare, and Lhakpa Dorje stood on top
of the world. It was so clear they could see to where the horizon
curved, with Kangchenjunga in the far distance and Makalu and Lhotse
closer at hand.
Two days later, Pat Morrow, Pema
Dorje, and Lhakpa Tshering followed. On the summit that day, the
temperature was minus 40˚F, so cold that the batteries could not
charge Pat’s camera, prohibiting him from exposing his film
correctly to the light. Removing his mitts, he was forced to manually
operate the camera, taking multiple shots of the same view, each with
a different exposure. By bracketing several exposures, he knew he would get one,
and only one, perfect image.
a world-renowned adventure photographer, Pat is often asked how he
takes such great photographs. With considerable understatement, he
answers, “f-8 … and be there!” suggesting that he must f-8 the
camera, to ensure the film is correctly exposed to the light, and be
there in the right place to click the shutter.
phrase also represents a metaphor for life! To achieve our own destiny
in these changing times, we too must expose our minds correctly to the
world in which we live and be there to meet new challenges. Only be
controlling our fears of the unknown and by leaving the beaten track
can we discover what we might become in the future.
Eighteen months after returning from
Nepal, I found myself walking across the giant stage of Radio City
Music Hall in New York, the largest indoor theatre in the world. I was
there to relate my story of Everest as the closing speaker of the 57th
Annual Meeting of the Million Dollar Round Table, a global association
of life insurance agents. There were 6,000 strangers in the audience.
As I spoke, I reflected upon how the mountains of my life had inspired
me to change from a shy, underachieving youth that could not face one
stranger, to a man who could now speak to thousands.