THE WISDOM OF A MOUNTAIN
An Eye- and Mind-Opening Experience
Dreams become reality when you stop seeing them as dreams.
In late January 2000, just a few weeks after my nineteenth birthday, I stood looking up at the summit of Cerro Aconcagua. I was 200 metres from the top of one of the world’s Seven Summits, the highest peak in the world outside of Asia. I was so close to reaching the goal I had set and had spent seven intense months preparing for physically and mentally. I was so close, so close, and yet I decided to turn back!
The decision to turn back and the sequence of events that unravelled afterwards have been some of my biggest life lessons. I apply these lessons to music, business and life on a daily basis. If I didn’t tell this story I would be leaving out a major factor in the driving force behind what I do and how I do it. You see, it is not what we do that makes us successful but rather how we do it.
There and back
On the eve of our Argentine summit bid, as I lay in my tent contemplating the fourteen-hour climb ahead, I heard someone calling out “Mike, Mike, Mike ... ” The same American voice started asking “Does anyone have a radio?” Nobody answered. At over 6,000 metres and well after 10 p.m., most climbers would have been sleeping. What could be wrong? I stuck my head out of my tent and called “Over here.” The others in the encampment were Swiss, Polish, German, Chilean or Argentine and not about to try to communicate with the American who had called out into the night. I was the only other native English speaker in our high-altitude camp.
It turned out that “Mike” had left for the summit at 1 a.m. and still had not returned. A seasoned climber who had previously summited Everest, Mike had felt confident he could make the Andes summit bid alone. It was his climbing partner who was calling out for Mike and somebody with a radio. Mike’s partner had stayed behind because he was not feeling prepared to attempt the summit due to trouble acclimatizing (later he was evacuated by helicopter due to a cerebral edema).
The fact that Mike had not returned was concerning because some of the world’s worst storms are known to cover the Cerro Aconcagua summit after midday. No living person was likely to be descending the mountain after ten o’clock at night!
Climbing Cerro Aconcagua is said to be comparable to climbing an 8,000-metre-high Himalayan mountain. In the Himalayas the treeline reaches around the 5,000-metre level, and in the Andes the treeline ends 3,000 or so metres up, suggesting comparable conditions in terms of oxygen. For this reason there is a a school of thought that says the Cerro Aconcagua might have a "death zone," where the oxygen level is below 50 percent of that available at sea level and is not enough to sustain life.
The possibility that Mike was still wandering in the death zone on a storm-beaten mountainside was unlikely. The possibility that he would make it through the night was even more unlikely.
At the time, I was sharing a tent with Christian—our team leader and a native of Chile. He had climbed some of the world’s highest mountains and later that year would accompany his sister to the top of Mount Everest, making her the first South American woman to set foot on the summit.
Christian had participated in many successful high-altitude rescues and seen his fair share of death too. He knew how to lower a living body down a mountain and he also knew the techniques for getting a corpse down.
It was Christian who radioed base camp to pass on word of Mike’s disappearance. We were told that an Argentine army rescue party would leave in the morning and that there was nothing that could be done until then.
With my lack of experience in high-altitude rescues, and the enthusiasm of a nineteen-year-old, I felt concerned that we should leave immediately to search for Mike ourselves. Christian assured me that we would be risking our own lives and that we were highly unlikely to find Mike until sunlight. So instead we told Mike’s climbing partner to have soup, other liquids and food on hand in case Mike should return that night. It was going to be a matter of hurry up and wait.
That night all I could think about was the possibility of having to step over Mike’s dead body the next day. What would I feel if I saw Mike lying lifeless in front of me, having failed at what I myself was about to attempt? Did I really want it that bad? Was I like Mike, ready to give my life for a dream? I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the questions spun in my oxygen-deprived brain until it was time to get up.
We had decided to leave for the summit at 4 a.m. Due to the fact that we had carelessly melted ice with our Coleman stove next to the tent opening, the condensation from the steam had frozen to the inside of our tent during the night. So between the thoughts of finding Mike’s corpse and the subzero temperatures of our tent- turned-igloo, it had not been a restful night to say the least. In the neighbouring tent I could hear another member of our team throwing up his breakfast in a struggle with altitude sickness. It was the start of a day to remember.
When you climb in high altitude, everything is slow-moving— including your thoughts. The lack of oxygen gives you just enough of a high to let you feel somewhat detached from the rest of your body. Everything becomes rhythmical: ten steps, stop, breathe, ten steps, stop, breathe. The interesting thing is that you realize the true test is more about the mind than the body. You are so alone. You can hearyour every breath and every heartbeat. Even if you can see other climbers, you feel isolated and alone inside your own body, left to your thoughts and mental stamina. With all the physical and mental discomforts that go with high-altitude climbing, it is a wonder people keep doing it.
Because of the conditions your body is under it is important to stop frequently to hydrate and consume calories. Having enough provi- sions for the climb requires multiple portering trips up the mountain. For our trip to base camp we had used mules to porter everything. From there on out we were our own porters. From base camp we portered up half our equipment and provisions to “Cambio de Pen- diente” (also known as Camp Alaska), roughly 1,000 vertical metres above base camp. After dropping off the material we headed back down to base camp. We would continue up the mountain in this way. The additional benefit of going up and down the mountain portering is that it allows you to acclimatize.
We were also applying a technique called “climb high sleep low.” The idea is that you take your body to a new altitude, forcing it to adapt and acclimatize, and then you descend to a lower altitude to sleep. This way the lower altitude feels more comfortable as your body has been pushed to new extremes. For example, you might climb to 3,500 metres and sleep at 3,000 metres, then climb the next day to 4,500 metres and sleep at 4,000 metres, and so on.
A person suffering from the effects of high altitude can be put into a special bag that gets pumped full of air to increase the air pressure and recreate the effect of descending to a lower altitude. We had a bag with us and I wondered if we would be putting it to use.
I had been experiencing pain in my hands that had started shortly after leaving the tent in the morning. The pain had grown consistently worse as the morning progressed. It got to the point where it felt like knives were being stuck into my hands and I was having trouble moving them. Finally I could take it no longer and Christian helped warm my hands with friction. They had begun to get frostbitten due to my gloves being too tight and cutting off the circulation. I could only imagine the pain that Mike must have experienced being lost on the mountain for more than twenty-four hours.
As I rested on a rock in the morning, the sun emerged over the horizon, casting a giant shadow of the Aconcagua over the sur- rounding mountains. I distinctly remember it because it looked like a giant pyramid with the sun directly at its peak. At that moment I remember feeling totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Material objects had absolutely no importance. I felt small and the world felt immense. I was grateful for the oxygen I was breathing and became acutely aware of what was truly valuable. It was perhaps the closest to a religious experience I had ever been. I felt truly humbled at the enormity of the world and of life. I was a small being among massive and majestic mountains.
The climb toward the summit was slow but sure—a consistent combination of climbing and resting to regain energy. The higher we climbed the tougher it became. It was by far the most physical and mentally challenging experience of my life.
In the hour before I decided to turn back I had started to think about the trip so far. I was living in Spain at the time, and had missed my flight from Bilbao to London, England due to unexpected circumstances. I had got to the Bilbao airport extra early to check in, only to discover that no one could find my reservation until five minutes after the plane took off. I asked them to check that my flight from London to Santiago, Chile the next day wasn’t going to give me any problems. The lady at the British Airways desk told me, “I’m afraid, sir, we have you going to San Diego in California ... ” My trip to the Andes had started on an unexpected footing. I was put up in a five- star hotel in front of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, driven to and from the airport in a Mercedes, wined and dined, and had my ticket changed from San Diego to Santiago free of charge, resulting in my ticket costing half the price it would have cost had they not made the mistake. As I thought about the process I realized everything had felt natural—nothing was forced. I had enjoyed every step of the way, but now my thoughts were interrupted; I had begun to realize that I had trained only to get to the top and had never visualized my descent. I started to doubt myself, and I wasn’t sure I was supposed to con- tinue. The lack of sleep and the physical exhaustion were taking their toll. I remember distinctly feeling like I could make it to the top but uncertain I would have the energy to make it down.
The hardest part of the decision to turn back was imagining what people back home would think. While I thought about these things I continued putting one foot in front of the other. Finally as the summit appeared I heard the voice of my grandmother, who had recently passed away. “Don’t worry about other people,” she said. “Making the decision to turn back is harder than deciding to continue. Your friends and family will be proud.” At that moment I decided that I was not going to continue. It was such a difficult thing to do, yet my gut told me it was the right thing to do. I told Christian my intentions and he said he and the other climbers could always help me down if need be. I told him that I had enjoyed every step of the way so far but didn’t feel I would enjoy the rest. I certainly didn’t want to rely on others to get down.
I knew I could descend alone and assured Christian I’d be okay. We hugged and I gave him my camera to take photos from the summit.
As I started down the mountain I became aware that I was alone. At that time of day climbers were either getting to the summit or had already turned back. I enjoyed the beauty of the mountain and sat for a moment contemplating the experience. I don’t remember feeling for one moment that I had made the wrong decision to turn back. I got up and kept going down the mountain.
After about an hour into my descent I started to notice my body feeling the benefits of a lower altitude. As I came around a large rock I noticed what appeared to be a person wearing a red and black mountaineering suit lying on a glacier in the distance. As I got closer I could see one of this person’s arms moving in an attempt to put snow into his mouth. Nobody would be attempting to head up the mountain at that time of day and neither would anyone normally be trying to “drink” snow. Could it be Mike?
“Eres Mike?” I called out in Spanish. No response.
“Are you Mike?” I called out in English. “Yes.”
Mike had reached the summit the day before, around 1 p.m. He had got lost on the way down and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain, dangerously close to the south face, a 3,000-metre vertical drop. In the Southern Hemisphere the south face is always the most treacherous; of course in the Northern Hemisphere it is the north face that is always the hardest.
Mike had ended up sleeping a short distance from a high-altitude makeshift shelter used by many climbers in similar situations. Sleeping in the shelter would have saved him from being exposed to the subzero temperatures and gale-force winds. The extreme cold had frostbitten Mike’s fingers and his toes on both feet (something we discovered later after cutting his boots off).
When I found Mike he was still heading in the wrong direction and in bad condition. I helped him sit up and gave him some of my juice and chocolate energy bars. He started telling me what had happened but was making little sense. After what seemed like fifteen minutes I helped him stand up, but he lost his balance and fell. He could not put any weight on his right foot (it had suffered the worst frostbite). I helped him up again, this time putting his arm around my neck so I could help take some of the weight off his foot.
We started down the mountain. Once again it became a rhythm—we would go a few steps, stop, start again. Mike was a big guy, my build but about a head taller. Surprisingly, all my own feelings of fatigue and mental stamina had been replaced with wanting to get Mike down to the last high-altitude camp.
The process of starting and stopping for air as well as needing longer breaks to drink and consume calories made our descent extremely slow. Surprisingly nobody passed us. We were still “alone together.”
After five hours some brightly coloured spots appeared below us in the distance. It was the camp where we had spent the night and where Mike’s partner would be waiting for Mike’s return.
Mike and I continued to slowly make our way down. Seeing the tents was both an encouragement and a challenge as I knew we would not be there for hours at the pace we were going. Once we got closer I estimated that, if I left Mike, I could be back at the camp in under an hour and notify people to get help. We could go back up and bring Mike down more efficiently. I told Mike my plan. I told him I would leave him my supplies and be back to get him. He agreed to stay put and wait.
I couldn’t get down fast enough. I wanted to be able to tell Mike’s partner that Mike was okay, I wanted to get help, I wanted to let the rescue team know where Mike was ... but at high altitude things take a long time—it’s hard to be fast.
Close to an hour later I was walking into camp. It was like a ghost town: the tents were empty and nobody was there. Then I saw Mike’s climbing partner. He was talking to a Japanese climber and they appeared to be the only people in camp. As I got closer I could hear Mike’s partner telling the other climber about Mike, what he looked like, when he had left. They hadn’t noticed my arrival and continued to talk until I came right up to them. Mike’s partner didn’t recognize me and I had to recount our interaction from the night before. Then I told him that I had found Mike. He physically dropped to his knees. He started to say “What will I tell his wife, what will I tell his children ... ?” It suddenly occurred to me that, because I’d said I had found Mike but he was not with me, he had assumed I’d found Mike’s body. I quickly told him that Mike was alive, that I had had to leave him in order to come for help. The look of joy the man had was contagious; you could see the weight come off his shoulders as he realized his friend was alive and that he wouldn’t have bad news to deliver.
After explaining the situation to Mike’s partner and the Japanese climber, they convinced me to stay in camp and rest while they went to get Mike. Technically Mike was close by and as soon as they got just above the camp they would see him where I had left him waiting.
I went to my tent and collapsed inside from exhaustion. I have no idea how much time transpired—it felt like only a minute but it was probably hours ... I awoke to a familiar voice outside my tent: it was Mike’s partner. They had found Mike but not where I had left him, because he had managed to continue lowering himself down the mountain but once again in the wrong direction. Still, they had finally managed to get him down to camp. His boots had to be cut off due to the swelling and frostbite. Mike’s partner had come to me to ask what to do. I realized later that because of our interactions he had come to believe I was an experienced climber in high-altitude search and rescue, which I was not. I knew there was a rescue party somewhere but had no way of communicating with them. Christian had our only radio and he was still coming down from the summit (that day Christian summited Cerro Aconcagua for the thirteenth time).
Outside my tent the camp had started to come to life with people coming back from the summit and new climbers arriving to spend the night before their own summit bid.
I got out of my tent and began to search for a radio, but couldn’t find a single person who had one. I asked other climbers for help to get Mike down to base camp, but none of them were about to change plans or leave their groups.
In the process of looking for a radio I met a climber from Whistler in British Columbia, Canada. You never know where you are going to run into a fellow Canadian!
After a while I saw somebody getting into camp. I approached him to ask if he had a radio. He did. He was an Argentine who worked as a park warden down the mountain and he was on the way back from climbing to the summit for the first time himself.
The park warden radioed down to let base camp know that Mike had been found and to inform the rescue team where he was. Once he got word of where the rescue team was we realized we needed to get Mike down ourselves, at least part of the way. Mike’s partner was too weak to be of use and said he would stay to pack up their gear. The Asian climber was part of a team on their way up not down.
The warden and I decided that the best way to help Mike was to hold two ski poles between us, with the warden at the front, Mike in the middle and me at the back. We had taped Mike’s boots onto his frostbitten feet so he would still be able to have them protected from the ground and the cold. We were going to be carrying most of his weight with the ski poles, but he still had to take some of his own weight.
Before leaving I had packed up half the tent and supplies so that Christian could rest when he got back from the summit and yet not have to carry everything. We had given our soups to Mike’s partner the night before and I had given my remaining food and drinks to Mike as we came down together. At this point I was oblivious to my own dehydration.
The three of us started our descent, from the high-altitude camp at 6,000 metres toward base camp at 4,500 metres. Carrying Mike on ski poles had seemed like a good idea but was easier said than done. Finding footing was treacherous and the three of us had to work at it together. We took a while to find a rhythm. I remember that at one point we reached an especially steep section of scree and snow, at the bottom of which was a cliff with an almost 2,000-metre fall. In the heat of the moment we decided to go down the scree without rope and hope we would be able to stop ourselves before the cliff. The warden told Mike to put his arms around us and just try and walk forward; meanwhile, the warden and I were going to brace ourselves together physically to slow down the descent. Our technique worked and resulted in a controlled descent of skidding and sliding down.
What had taken eight hours to climb up the day before took twenty minutes to descend!
Moving in a rhythm and making good time, we arrived at the Nido de Condores camp at 5,500 metres. We stopped for a break and the warden said I should wait with Mike for the rescue team. He told me they would be there shortly and would take over.
Mike and I waited for more than an hour. The little break finally gave the two of us a chance to chat. We talked about his climb and the series of events that had taken place. We talked about previous climbs, including his time spent on Everest. At times Mike’s sentences made little sense, which gave me an idea of his mental condition.
When Mike heard about my own frostbite due to my gloves, he tried to offer me his as a gift for helping him. He told me I had saved his life. We also talked about having a beer at base camp and celebrating, not only the climb but the safe return.
Finally eight climbers appeared. It was the Argentine army, the rescue team. We were very happy to see them—we had been looking forward to this moment all day!
What should have been the end of our worries was not. It turned out the rescue team had not acclimatized and were suffering from altitude sickness. The warden appeared from wherever he had been just in time for the army team to ask if the two of us were okay to continue carrying Mike. Of course it was not what we had expected, but we were not about to leave Mike with a sick and fatigued army rescue team that needed rest themselves.
Mike, the warden, eight soldiers and I continued down the mountain. The warden and I continued carrying Mike as the soldiers walked ahead. After probably no more than twenty minutes into our descent there was a loud flapping behind us and then a large thud. We all turned and there, not even 100 metres behind us, was a combination of ropes and colourful material flapping in the wind, covering what appeared to be a man.
Believe it or not a man had attempted a world record by jumping off the summit of Cerro Aconcagua with a paraglider. His attempt had ended abruptly when he fell from the sky and crashed behind us.
At this point the Argentine soldiers left us so they could rescue the paraglider. Once again Mike, the warden and I were heading down the mountain alone.
It was at Cambio de Pendiente, the first camp, at the top of the 1,000-vertical-metre slope directly above base camp, that Mike, the warden and I were finally met by six acclimatized climbers, including wardens from base camp.
We had been watching the party of six make their way toward us for some time. The warden had recognized the group and signalled to let them know it was us. They took Mike in a quick changeover. The warden went with them, leaving me to retrieve some gear I had left hidden close to the camp at Cambio de Pendiente.
I was alone again. It was surreal, as there was no longer another person to be worrying about and no distractions from my own thoughts of exhaustion. I started to realize how thirsty I was and that I had given all my drinks and food to Mike.
Just as I started to think about where I would find something to drink, I heard a familiar voice say “Aaron! Aqui! [Here!]” It was Christian and was I ever happy to see him again—the last time had been when we hugged 200 metres from the summit, and that felt like a long time ago because so much had happened since.
Christian told me that he had been looking for me and that he was afraid I had gotten lost.
The warden, Mike and I had completed in one day what usually is a two- or three-day descent from the summit. We were in view of base camp. Although far below us it felt so tauntingly close! Christian had given me the last bit of his water, but I still felt thirsty. It was getting dark and I wanted more than anything to get back to base camp.
We started down the scree slope. Since my mind was no longer on getting Mike down, but rather on getting myself down, I started to feel extremely tired. I was dehydrated and burning my last calories. I was thankful to have Christian with me and to know he would get us to base camp. It looked like I would still be getting his help down even if it wasn’t from the summit.
Two and a half hours later we entered the maze of snow and ice formations at the bottom of the scree. We had to wind and squeeze our way through the remarkable formations that towered above our heads.
When you come out of the ice maze you are so close to base camp that you can hear people talking as well as smell fires burning and food cooking.
I remember stumbling into base camp, getting to the mess tent and taking the largest swig of orange-powder drink of my life. It was so satisfying that I still remember the feeling to this day. I felt exhausted but with an adrenalin rush that wasn’t about to let me sleep.
Down at base camp they had been following the events and cheered us in as heroes. Although taking credit doesn’t come easily to me, I certainly was made to feel like a hero for one day.
That night the whole team gathered for dinner. We all had reasons to celebrate—the mountain had given us each an individual experience. At base camp they had champagne for us, and Hans, our German team member, had brought a bottle of Ballantine’s eighteen-year-old whisky.
By the time we finished dinner we were all happy and feeling the benefits of warmth, food and good company. Some of us had made a circle and were using the massive water barrels as drums; some barrels were empty and some were full, and so the sound was quite musical. Someone played the mouth harp and another person danced like it was some kind of ritual. We played until a neighbouring team, I believe the Germans, asked us to stop. What a party, but we were all happy to call it a night. Our tents and sleeping bags were waiting for us.
I had had only a glass of champagne and a sip of whisky, but at high altitude your body reacts differently from usual and in my case that meant I was more than a few sheets to the wind.
Outside a storm was blowing something fierce. I made my way to my tent and crawled in. As I lay on my back I couldn’t help but hear the storm, which was blowing my tent so hard that it was folding right over and the sides were touching my face. In a haze of exhaustion, alcohol and a full stomach, I fell asleep feeling more comfortable in my sleeping bag than I had ever felt at a five-star hotel.
I have never seen Mike since. We never got to have that beer or get each other’s information to stay in touch—he was flown out before we had a chance.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”—T.S. Eliot
Extremes give us the ability to learn about ourselves, about the way we react, the decisions we make, and how perspective is everything. You never truly know what you are capable of until you push yourself to your limit. Always challenge yourself because life really does begin at the end of your comfort zone.
Successful businessman-turned-actor Rick Wells once told me that he had got into acting to “feel uncomfortable.” He had been highly successful at everything he had done and it was because he was able to grow from the experience of being outside of his comfort zone. The fact is that success stories all seem to involve challenge.
It’s the people who not only endure the journey but find ways to enjoy every step of the way that make it to the destination. You can’t climb the highest mountain without ever losing your breath, but you can’t deplete your energy on the first hill—you have to be ready for all weather conditions, and you can’t depend on anyone else to get you to the top. Success in music certainly isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
With great success often comes great risk. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. In climbing, the person taking the lead has the farthest to fall but also enjoys the first view from the summit.
Sitting on the side of a mountain in high altitude gave me a vision of the world and a new view on life. We really are not as important as we think we are. We are a piece of the bigger whole. Perspective is everything. No matter how big a deal something may feel to you, it really is a minute piece of the big picture.