National Geographic : 2015 Sep
90 national geographic • september 2015 Meru Central via the Shark’s Fin, a brutal climb many thought impossible. And over 35 years of climbing, I’d done first ascents in Antarcti- ca and the Rockies, Alps, and Himalaya. These experiences didn’t change any of the inherent dangers, but it did mean we three were able to move faster and implicitly trust each other with our lives as we tried for the summit. That night, at camp 3, Renan and Cory both privately expressed concerns about climbing any farther with the entire team. We spent the next day in our tents acclimatizing, and there was no way around the painful conversation. In his soft-spoken way, Renan noted that the climbing was going to get more dangerous. It was also pointed out that three people moving fast had the best chance of summiting in the brief time we had left. Emily readily agreed that she was in over her head. But Hilaree was deeply offended and insisted that she should go for the summit. I explained it was an issue of safety for the whole team, but Hilaree was wounded. “I’m going to say one thing,” she said, her voice welling with emotion as she left the tent, “[Expletive] you, Mark, for the vote of confidence.” Nothing is more damning in the mountains than hubris, yet hubris is fundamental to climb- ing mountains. All serious mountaineers pos- sess big egos. You cannot take on the risks and constant suffering of big mountains without one. We may talk like Buddhists, but don’t be fooled, we’re actually narcissists—driven, sin- gle-minded, masochistic narcissists. Nearly all of us, on some mountain at some time, have defied logic and refused to turn around, as Hilaree was doing now. Some of us have been lucky enough to survive those misguided moments. This may sound harsh, but I’m at a season in my climbing which in the end is all that really matters. After nearly two weeks of trekking, we finally climbed out of the fetid jungle onto the rising southern flank of Hkakabo. The tropical humid- ity gave way to a bracing alpine mist, and we dug into our bags for fleeces and down jackets. We’d all lost weight and were tired from the arduous trek. And we were running out of time. In plan- ning the expedition, we had agreed to be home by Thanksgiving. In Kingdon-Ward’s time, the end point of an expedition was rarely based on a preset date, but in our modern age, time is the least available commodity. We had just 10 days before we had to begin our hike out. I knew Ozaki had needed 25 days from base camp to climb the mountain. Over the next week, we put in three camps up the spine of the west ridge, but under time pressure and faced with the difficulty of the terrain, relations among the team were fray- ing. I was especially concerned when Hilaree reached camp 2 dangerously hypothermic. We got her warm, but it was a cautionary mo- ment. The next day, climbing to camp 3, neither Emily nor Hilaree appeared comfortable on the steep, exposed faces of ice and snow and moved slowly. In retrospect we should have expected this slower pace. Emily is a national sport-climbing champion but had little experience climbing this kind of mixed terrain. Hilaree is a renowned ski mountaineer with some challenging alpine climbing expeditions on her résumé. But Cory, Renan, and I have deeper backgrounds in this type of environment. Cory had been the first American to summit Pakistan’s 26,362-foot Gasherbrum II in winter—and survived an av- alanche in the process. Renan had been part of the team that summited India’s 20,702-foot All serious mountaineers have big egos. You cannot take on the risks and constant suffering of big mountains without one. We may talk like Buddhists, but don’t be fooled, we’re actually hard-driving narcissists.