K2 Expedition 2018
Those were the final words I said as I departed K2 basecamp on the 1st August 2016, captured in the video above. My voice is tinged with a sense of sadness and frustration, whilst trying to keep my stiff upper lip, and at the time, I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever return. Before I left on that trip, I do seem to remember saying (to my wife amongst others), “I hope it’ll happen this time, as I certainly don’t want to go back for a third time”.
Well, I take that back.
As Sean Connery once said, “Never say never again”. Of course my preference on any mountaineering expedition is to get to the top, and not to have to keep returning to complete unfinished business. It’s expensive, tears you away from family, friends and normal life, and inevitably is risky every time you step into the mountains. As any risk aware person would agree, if you want to minimise risk, minimise your vulnerability.
Of course the simple (and frankly sensible and logical) answer is just not to go into the mountains and put yourself in harms way in pursuit of (let’s face it) illogical achievements. Nearly every mountaineering video or article online, especially ones that reference Everest or K2, will have their comments sections full of remarks about “stupid thing to do in the first place”, “what’s the point, it’s just a massive ego trip for people with too much money” and the like. As much as I often want to jump in and defend the dreams, pastimes and often sacrifices of my mountaineering brothers and sisters, like most online debates it becomes a fruitless exercise. If you can’t appreciate that others might have different desires in life, then you’ll never understand why we do what we do. Mallory might have famously (and flippantly) explained his determination to climb Everest as “because it’s there”, but in reality everyone’s reasons for why they head into the mountains is different.
For me, K2 represents much more than just a mountain. It transcends a mere lump of rock and ice, thrust to its heady heights by the nature of its location and the forces and pressures of geological history. It’s often described as ‘the Savage Mountain’, a moniker which creates a sense of conscious and malevolent anthropomorphism and personification. Believing that, it would be easy and understandable to become increasingly daunted, and attributing mountain events such as avalanches as behavioural actions, but as Di Gilbert, my climbing partner on my last K2 expedition (as well as Everest) countered – “It’s just a mountain”.
Treat it as a connected system of rock, ice, snow, weather and climatic interference, and you can thus treat it as a system that you can overcome. Perhaps it’s the name, K2. The simplicity and objectivity of a single letter and single number. No fancy description of its shape or what it represents. No religious deification. As a name, it is cold, hard and neutral.
Now don’t for a minute think that my simplification belies a lack of respect. I respect the mountain in the same way that I respect a hot pan or a rifle – treated properly they are useful tools, but disrespected or misused they become dangerous. I know that I fall into the trap of referring to the mountain as ‘she’, but that it is more force of habit rather than anything more meaningful.
For me the reason for my return is more existential. Twice I’ve tried. Twice I’ve been beaten back due to various reasons. I believe that I have the skills, determination and ability to get to the top – I want the opportunity to see if my self-efficacy is warranted. K2 has also become part of my brand and story – it is part of my journey and who I am, and I am not ready to set it aside and put it down as a ‘once upon a time’ footnote.
I am given heart by the saying “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts” – Churchill may never have actually said those words, but I can imagine him (or at least Gary Oldman in prosthetics!) doing so. In 10 days’ time I will embark on my third attempt to summit K2 (and return safely), the culmination of a 10 year journey, and a 13 year dream. I believe that using my experience and lessons from previous attempts, as well as being part of a high performing team, that I/we stand a good chance of realising our dream. If luck is preparedness meeting opportunity, then bring it on.
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