When I was about 21, I went to visit New Zealand. It was kind of a graduation gift from my parents and I was so stoked. The reason I was going? Because I was an epic Lord of the Rings fan.
But no matter, the reason I wanted to go so badly is because of all the mountainous scenery the movies showed me. I didn't believe that that kind of epicness existed and I just had to see it for real.
So I went, and loved it, and geeked out, and saw all the mountains. I loved it so much that I actually came home after the two week trip and then flew right back over for another week. This time I stayed with my guide and her parents. This is important because while the father looked 100% like Gandalf the Grey, he also had some serious photo collections of his climbs up Mt. Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand). And he made sure to show me. I remember looking at those pictures thinking, Wait, normal people can climb mountains? Maybe being a Gandalf lookalike isn't normal to most people, but he seemed like a normal person to me.
I always say that that's when the germ of an idea of climbing mountains originated. After that, I always found myself not necessarily climbing mountains, but at least traveling to see them, whether it was heading to the Swiss Alps, the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, or the Andes. And it wasn't until I saw a little show in late 2007 on the Discovery Channel called "Everest: Beyond the Limit" that my fate was sealed. I was going to climb Everest.
I wasn't sure how or what that even meant, but I was going to do it. I remember telling my parents in a very passionate and sure way that I was going to do it and I was met with both laughter and anger (I think part of them thought I was joking and another part of them thought I was an idiot). So like anything in the world that's a dream, I took baby steps toward it. I didn't necessarily know how one goes about climbing Everest, but I was sure as hell gonna try and find out! I read about a dozen books on the subject of mountaineering, starting with Into Thin Air, then reading just about every Ed Viesturs book, and then every other Everest disaster book. Many of those books were pretty grim, but for some reason I was getting more and more motivated to do this thing.
Then I realized I needed to learn how to actually climb. How to actually survive on a mountain. So in May 2008 I headed out to Seattle to join a training course set up by Alpine Ascents on Mt. Rainier. It was an 8-day Denali prep course. I actually had no intention of climbing Denali after but it was the only course available since I had joined so last minute.
So I did the course, fucking hated it, but summitted, but absolutely frigging hated it. Did I mention I hated it? I almost gave up and went home 45 minutes in from the parking lot. Another dude actually did give up that fast and I was like, Yeah I feel his pain, this sucks. It was snowing blizzard style and I quickly realized mountaineering isn't a fun game. But for some reason I stayed - probably because I was too embarrassed to quit so fast like the other guy. And before I knew it, a few days later, I was standing on the summit. We came down, had some beers wearing our panda-eyes sunburns proudly, announcing at every moment we could get that while it was a cool experience, we would never climb anything again. No way in hell!
One year later I was standing on the summit of Denali, than a year later on Mont Blanc, and then in 2011 I finally found myself in a position to climb Mt. Everest - so much for never climbing again. I didn't summit but I got real close (the Hillary Step, 50m from the top). I was devastated but stayed the course and found myself giving it another go in 2013, this time from the Tibetan North side. Failed again, coming short about 250m.
Frustrating as hell.
And here I am again, in 2016, almost ten years later after watching that Everest show thinking to myself, I'm gonna climb that thing, on Mt. Everest preparing to climb it once and for all.
And to make the story even more circular, last night we had happy hour at our base camp with the one and only Russell Brice (the head guide of Himalayan Experience, the main star of that same Everest show). It's absurd to me that years ago I was just a young little punk dreaming of Everest, watching this guy on TV run an Everest expedition, and now here I am an experienced Everest climber years later, laughing together over boxed wine with that very same guy!
Who would have thought I would have ever made it to the mountain, let alone three times. I would have loved to summit that first time (it would have saved me a lot of money, time, and effort), but I have to admit that I am grateful for having failed twice before. I think I learned so much about who I am and was and will be, just by failing on that mountain. It's the cliché thing to say, but those failures are what drive you. Fall down seven times, get up eight. It that balance of highs and lows in life. Ups and downs. But it's true, what else is life but trying to accomplish the things that we dream about, that we can't erase from our minds, the things that we are basically telling ourselves, Hey, see that experience over there? I want that as one of my memories. A memory that lasts a lifetime.