The following is a guest post from Jamie Clarke which recently appeared in an issue of Innovations Magazine.
Clarke is a Canadian adventurer, author, filmmaker, entrepreneur and inspirational speaker. Based out of Calgary, Canada, he has summited Mt. Everest twice, climbed the Seven Summits and ridden camels across The Empty Quarter of Arabia. Clarke speaks all over the world at conferences, corporate retreats and professional associations. Clarke co-owns two adventure apparel retailers based out of Calgary, Alberta. The Out There Adventure Centre is a bricks and mortar shop on Stephen Avenue in downtown Calgary. Live Out There.com is an online outdoor apparel store that serves all of Canada online.
Climbing mountains is a trivial pursuit. Nothing of real significance comes of the effort except for those who endure it. That said, the climber’s rewards, regardless of an expedition’s outcome, are some hard-won lessons. Chief among the lessons taught near the top of the world is the importance of fuel and forging the character to carry it.
Working at high altitude, as one might imagine, is brutally taxing. Up high, every task leaves you on the edge of desperation for air. Your first time, it borders on panic.
The body starts recognizing, around 10,000 feet, that it’s facing a problem. The body actually ramps up the production of red blood cells, doing it quickly enough that a climber feels “acclimatized” in a couple of days. Until, that is, about 23,000 feet. There, for me, the red blood cell production line begins to falter, Above 26,000…nothing. The red-cell factory closes. And the climber is on borrowed time, every aching footstep beyond.
And mountaineers, like literal soldiers, carry. Tents, sleeping backs, stoves, socks, gloves, crampons — the list goes on. Then there’s the fuel. The endless fuel. Canister after canister of propane, isobutane and butane, all of it life-giving. The finest tent, the best sleeping bag, the highest quality food — it’s all for nothing if that precious fuel’s not there.
High altitude means thirst. And cold. It’s one of the most fundamental understandings of any climber. Climb 5,000 feet out of a valley, and you’re looking at a drop of 25 or 30 degrees.
Dehydration goes beyond. It’s insidious. Racks the body. Distorts the mind. Builds obsession. Acclimatization to altitude has a diuretic effect. Anywhere over 10,000 feet, dehydration lurks as a real life threat.
Climbing Everest is like writing a novel — silly to do it unless you have to, unless you’re driven. Desperately under-fueled lungs means most climbers develop “high altitude hack,” a persistent, debilitating dry cough that can even lead to fractured ribs.
As part of the communications tech team on my first Everest Expedition, 1991, the climbing leader asked me to carry a load to a high camp above the North Col. I was elated that he’d called on me to support the team in a climbing role. The load he asked me to take: fuel canisters. Pedestrian stuff, I thought. But important. So critical is an expedition’s fuel supply that the inventory gets counted, recounted, counted again.
Young. Inexperienced. A mere techie. And assigned the heady duty of climbing with the fuel on my back. The trouble was...all those expected high-altitude troubles had caught up to me and brought a couple of cracked ribs, compounded by a long battle with exercise-induced asthma. Even lacing up my boots at 21,000 feet was tough work. I was in a bad way.
Part of me wanted out. I took my pitiable tale of damaged ribs and compromised lungs to the climbing leader. He listened patiently. Said nothing. Then tossed me a roll of duct tape. “Duct tape,” I said intelligently. “Now that I can carry!”
“You’re not carrying the duct tape,” he said. “You’re wrapping it around your chest. Splint your ribs. Then go carry the load.”
I listened for sympathy. No hint to be heard.
Back in my tent, I mumbled words I’d best not repeat here. Nothing for it but to do what I’d been told. Clothes off. Tape wrapped. Then…Damn! He probably didn’t mean to apply the tape directly to my skin. Pause…
The climbing leader’s imagined words played in my head, growing in their abruptness, their unkindness — a symbolic rant by a Captain Ahab frustrated with weakness: Stop your complaining, poor baby. Go tape up your ribs if they hurt so much. Maybe your mouth, while you’re at it. We’re all suffering here. Build some character, man. Carry the bloody fuel or piss off!
A sad but half-funny sight…a shirtless, hairy guy in a frigid tent, wraps and wraps of duct tape around his chest. Precious are those moments when one realizes one’s own idiocy. And, for me, a common kind of moment.
I did so wish I could get that tape off in private, remain unembarrassed. But I needed help. Imagine, if you will, a salon wax job — only done with krazy glue. It was, you might say, memorable. The pain made sure I’d never forget the physical feeling. Or the lesson.
Carry the fuel. Pull your weight. Stop making excuses no matter how impressive or legitimate they might be. Get the job done.
Long story short, I carried the fuel. It hurt. I stopped complaining. I got it done.
What’s your fuel? Where do you have to carry it? How much? How high? For whom? Why?
Every adventure, every business, carries its price, demands its essential fuel carry. That fuel, and the effort to haul it, takes time. It’s unglamorous, too. You, madam entrepreneur, must master enough accounting to understand what your accountant does, even though you “hate” it, and you’d much rather be out meeting folks in need of better hearing. You, sir, though you’d rather be fitting a hearing aid, must improve your website and social media strategy even though you find one boring and believe the other useless.
Your fuel carry might be outright physical work, whether it’s in the gym to improve your health or in your clinic to improve the reception area. It might be mental work — that stuff you just don’t want to think about. It might well be learning — something you wish you just didn’t have to bother with.
Here’s what Everest taught me: Do it. Start now. Don’t dawdle. Don’t complain. Don’t go looking for a way out. Climb. Climb sensibly. But climb.
And don’t forget the duct tape.