The Fine Line between Life and Death

16 Sep 2013

Below is the full version of the article I wrote about the tragedies on K2 this season, mountaineering and the whole matter of risk, which the Huffington Post serialized in an edited three parts last week. It is quite personal, somewhat controversial even but I hope thought provoking:

It was a tragic season in the Karakorum Mountains of Pakistan, home to five of the world's 14 giant 8,000m peaks. The shocking execution by the Taliban of 10 foreign climbers and a Pakistani cook at Nanga Parbat base camp on June 22nd was followed by the deaths of 10 climbers over the following two months on Broad Peak, Gasherbrum 1 and Gasherbrum 2.

While the Nanga Parbat murders were widely reported, none of the other deaths received significant news coverage, a realization that tragedies on high mountains are far from unusual. The tragic loss of a father and son, Marty and Denali Schmidt on K2 at the end of July, however, grabbed headlines across the world.

In part this was because, unlike most of the other fatalities, Schmidt senior was a well-known and highly respected mountaineer who had led expeditions for over 30 years; summited Everest twice; and reached the top of five other 8,000m peaks without oxygen in addition to a host of other achievements.

In part it was also because it was K2. The remote and mysterious mountain holds such a notorious and deadly history that, nearly 60 years since its first ascent, less than 330 people have summited its steep, technical and exposed ridges. One in four, or 79 in total, have died trying – the second highest fatality rate per summit of any 8,000m mountain after Nepal's Annapurna 1. For those who do reach the top, statistically K2 has the highest risk of dying on descent of any mountain on Earth. No-one has summited K2 from the Pakistan side since 2008 - when 11 climbers died on a single day, mostly on the descent - and from the even more remote Chinese side, a single ascent of four climbers in 2011 is the only success in an even longer period. 

The contrast with its big sister Everest, which I summited in 2006 and which is now successfully climbed by a few hundred individuals every season and some 5,000 in total, is vast. K2 is, according to American climbing legend Ed Viesturs, 'the holy grail of mountaineering; and for many symbolizes the greatest test of will and ability a mountain can pose.

But above all it was the fact that the deaths were of a father and son that stirred the emotions and headlines. How could such a highly experienced mountaineer continue leading his own son up the mountain in such dangerous snow conditions that every other team on the mountain that day - 19 foreign climbers and six Nepalese Sherpas - aborted their summit attempt and turned around? That number included the Schmidt's own third team member, Australian Chris Warner, who fortuitously also decided to return to base camp with the remaining teams.

The decision to descend had been unanimously made on Thursday, July 25th by the other six teams after our Sherpas failed to reach camp 3 at 7,300m, struggling to climb through waist deep snow lying on blue-iced slopes and regularly being swept down by slides during the long day's climb. So worried were they by the conditions, caused largely by two days of unexpectedly heavier snowfall than forecasted, that opinion was already being formed that summiting K2 was again impossible this year.

Along with Warner, my Canadian team mate Al Hancock and I were the last people to speak to the Schmidt's on the morning of Friday 26th July in their tent at camp 2 (6,700m) prior to our descent to base camp. When we spoke of the aborted summit bids Marty Schmidt was somewhat dismissive of the retreat. "Hell, this is an 8,000 metre peak, not a vacation," he bellowed. "If you get snow for two days, you're gonna be climbing through snow." "So you're going up?" I asked. "You bet we are; we've got great weather for the next five days, we're gonna head up this morning, check it out and take it from there," he concluded.

The 'take it from there' comment insinuated that if conditions were good they would make an attempt for the summit on their own  - a huge undertaking in the known challenges high up on the peak. If they were bad, they would return to base camp. 

That night, having taken nine hours instead of an expected five or six hours to reach camp 3, a tired Marty Schmidt briefly radioed Warner, then back at base camp, saying it had been a hard day, was very windy and they were cold. He said they would check conditions in the morning and make a decision on their plans then - a somewhat indecisive message from the usually clear cut Schmidt.

The next morning at the pre-designated 8am call time I walked over to their base camp tent, in fine weather with the mountain soaring 3,600m above us in all its majestic glory, to hear the call and their plans. It never came. Nor did the calls at the fixed daily times of 12 midday or 6pm, again highly unusual for the meticulous Schmidt senior, though there could be a number of reasons for the non-communication. 

On Sunday 28th, with no calls being received, two of our Sherpas spent the day bravely climbed up to camp 3 in an attempt to clarify the Schmidt's whereabouts. Their discovery, in the fading light of evening, confirmed our worst fears - camp 3 had been totally wiped out by what they described as a huge avalanche, with tents being buried and equipment scattered over a large area. Asleep in their tents on that first night, the Schmidt''s would have had no chance of survival. It was not lost on anyone that, had all the teams been at camp 3 that night as planned, it would have been the greatest loss of life on a single mountain in Himalayan history.

So what drove their decision in the face of such apparent huge risks? What possessed the Schmidt's to ignore everyone else's retreat? Or, put simply but starkly, why? 

Prior to the expedition I hadn't met either of them, although I had heard a fair amount of Marty and we had exchanged some messages prior to arriving in Pakistan. However, in the close confines of a base camp with a shared major objective, one gets to know fellow climbers quite intimately in a short space of time.  

Denali, named after North America's highest mountain, was a very mature 25 year old, friendly, and a genuinely nice guy. It was his first time on K2 and only his second time on an 8,000m peak, following a successful team summit of Broad Peak only two weeks earlier. 

For US-born Marty, 53, this was his third attempt on the mountain. "I've climbed a lot of the world's biggest mountains but K2 is the one I love and respect the most." he was quoted before leaving for Pakistan. "I'm just called to it all the time, I want to show the world what it's like". He came across as very assertive, independent minded and somewhat opinionated, but also welcoming, generous and communicable. Both were highly respected and liked in base camp.

We will never fully know their motives, but I believe it was that independent mindedness that was a major reason for Marty Schmidt's decision. He was not going to take someone else's word for it and his comments on 'when it snows you find snow' were typical of his attitude. 

It is my opinion also that they were trying to inject some positivity into the negative discussions prevalent after the retreat with a very action orientated reaction to those who were claiming that K2 was over for 2013. A sentiment that I shared, if not their response.

And finally, if that failed to cajole the other teams into working together, it is likely that, as two of the strongest climbers on the mountain, they felt they were capable enough to launch a serious summit attempt on their own if necessary, something that would have been a superhuman feat had they achieved it. But despite assumptions that Schmidt senior was the sole or main instigator for heading up, Chris Warner stressed that it was an equally discussed and decided move between them both. And yet their apparently brazen attitudes to the risks involved raise more questions than answers. 

Someone's attitude to risk is an inherently personal relationship. Take ten people together and their risk thresholds will be vastly different. Many people go through life confined securely within a small comfort zone, avoiding stepping out to venture into the unknown at all costs. Others fly through life on a roller coaster, reveling in risk taking in all manner of ways.

Is there some hidden factor determining our attitude to risk? Some people mistakenly assume or tell me that I'm an adrenaline junkie but, while some daredevils and their activities fall into that category, I can personally vouch that there is nothing remotely adrenaline producing in pulling a 130kg sled in brutal weather for 50 days and 800 miles over a polar ice cap, always cold, hungry and chronically tired. 

Science may indeed provide some clues, but it is dopamine not adrenaline that is the culprit. Dopamine is a neuro-transmitter; the brain's feel good chemical reward system, responsible for the high we receive when we achieve or experience something good and the level of drive, ambition and risk taking behavior we exhibit. A number of recent studies, most notably from researchers at Vanderbilt University Nashville and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, have shown that risk takers' brains appear to have fewer dopamine inhibiting receptors, the controllers that regulate the amount of dopamine produced. The result is their brains are more saturated with the chemical, prompting them to continue taking risks to seek the next high. According to their findings, those who lack dopamine conversely experience procrastination, lethargy, depression and other mental ailments.

But what happens when these dopamine induced individuals take risks and fail? In business, the penalties may be a dramatic loss in profits, shareholder value or, at its worse, the company itself. In adventure and exploration, the cost may be one's life. 

High altitude mountaineering is probably unique in the world as being the only sport or pastime where death is a constant risk, continually faced and often talked about. An outsider observing a group of mountaineers together would probably be shocked at how frequently death is mentioned - sooner or later the conversation will turn to someone known dying of cerebral edema on a Himalayan giant, followed by someone else being killed by a fall on the south face of another. It all appears very casual, matter of fact and lacking any empathy.

But the insinuation that climbers are flippant about life and death is false. Most climbers will say they climb to feel alive. And I believe my experiences - and the vast majority of climbers I know - lead me to value life and treasure each day far greater than many who go through life failing to appreciate the present and forever wishing their lives away for each Christmas, the next holiday or retirement. 

The shocked reaction and grief of climbers in Pakistan to the Nanga Parbat executions also showed that even supposed hard core, death defying, risk takers have emotions and are human - bringing home the paradox that, while it's an accepted risk of the sport to die from avalanches, falls or altitude, to be killed in a cold blooded mass execution by 16 murderers isn't. However, although approximately 75% of trekkers cancelled their tours following the incident - crippling the struggling Pakistani tourism industry - every climber carried on their planned ascents of Karakorum peaks without hesitation. Climbers face and deal with risk constantly and tend to evaluate it with a far more evolved, logical and less emotional attitude than most people. And the simple fact was that most faced far greater risks on their respective mountains than by the remote possibility of a similar terrorist attack happening again,

The reward for taking these risks is what drives ever more mountaineers, adventurers and explorers to further expand their limits and seek new challenges. A connection with nature and with one's body that is impossible to find in other walks of life; where one escapes our material and information overloaded world for a place where nothing else matters apart from your willpower, your breathing and your next move. And, when reaching the top of a mountain or the end of an ice cap, the most incredible sense of achievement and accomplishment. 

There is, however, a flip side. All this is for personal reward, satisfaction and a high. At the extreme levels it is a very self-focused occupation. It has to be. In the months leading up to a major expedition there is little time for anything or anyone else; such is the intense preparation, focus and training required. It is full on and nothing else matters. For these reasons I sometimes raise an eyebrow when I hear or read that someone is attempting a major challenge 'to raise money for charity'. Or 'to inspire others to also achieve their goals'. For while this may be true of some and can be a secondary objective, the rarely mentioned truth is most extreme adventurers do their sport primarily for their own benefits and gratification. I am passionate about numerous world causes including sustainability, population growth, cancer research and conflict resolution; am a member of a number of charities and pressure groups and have raised money for charity on expeditions when I felt there was a link. I am also passionate about people - my entire work in coaching is focused on on maximizing potential, performance and results for companies, teams and individuals.

But in the world of adventurers - increasingly belittled by gimmicks, false claims or lack of integrity in sometimes desperate attempts to gain sponsorship - to claim I was attempting K2 to raise money for Pakistani flood victims or 'to inspire others to achieve their dreams' is nonsense. I did it and do it because I'm energized being in the wildernesses of our world, I'm driven by challenging goals and, yes, want to see how good I can be. I do it for myself.

Some may believe this to be a selfish attitude, but it is a requirement in order to get to the highest physical and mental state prior to an expedition. However, despite this personal focus, there are others to consider and in the months leading up to K2 one issue caused me to question my plans more than anything - my two young children. My daughter, Charlotte, is still too young to fully understand the risks involved but my son, Alexander, presumably does. How selfish was it of me to ignore my role as a father and risk my life on this most dangerous of mountains? I justified my choices because adventuring is part of my job; that nothing happens in life without moving out of one's comfort zone; and that safety would take precedence above anything else. And, at an ethereal level, a belief that fate and destiny are probably all pre-determined, out of our hands and so it doesn't really matter what we do. But these never fully prevented me lying awake many a night contemplating my selfishness.

When I used to wave them goodbye at Dubai airport to leave for an expedition, it would be all smiles, hugs and laughter. Yet as soon as they were out of sight I would sit down in a quiet corner with tears in my eyes, full of remorse and guilt. Only after a few minutes would I pull myself together, move on and, as harsh as it sounds, put them out of my mind completely to focus on the upcoming challenge. It was the mind and body's mechanism of getting totally in 'the zone' to prepare for what was to come; a complete juxtaposition of my roles as an adoring father versus professional adventurer. Of course I often thought about them in the months away on a trip and spoke on satellite telephones every so often. But denial was easier; it was easier to not have them there and to not think of the responsibility or selfishness of my actions.

Marty Schmidt may never have had the luxury of that denial on K2. To me the presence of his son would have been a reminder, however infrequent, that there are others we are responsible for - while the rest of us could spend the two months in our world of denial. On the one hand I know from rock-climbing with my son that the bond between a father and son when climbing is a truly fulfilling experience. The joy of being in nature, the total trust between you and of achieving a goal together is virtually unmatchable in other walks of life. But you can experience that in Dorset on a summer weekend. My son is only 14 so the comparison with the Schmidt's is superfluous but, if he were 10 years older, would I want him to climb K2? No. Would I climb K2 with him? No. For the risks are too great. While it's ok for me, I don't want my family risking their lives too.

We can only hypothesize whether watching his son break trail up to camp 3, Schmidt senior had any similar doubts on bringing him up such a dangerous mountain in such vulnerable circumstances. Until then, the bond between them had been a joy to witness, a father who was inherently proud of his son and a son who was equally proud of his father; two inseparable buddies who dressed the same, climbed together and laughed together. Tragically, hours later, they would die sleeping together.

In memory of Marty and Denali Schmidt, died 27 July 2013, K2

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