Across the world, mountaineers, adventurers and explorers continue in increasing numbers to pit themselves against nature, push the boundaries of possibilities and, when successful, enjoy the sheer exhilaration of conquering and achieving a major goal. It is a raw and empowering feeling that is hard to compare in our increasingly sanitized, consumerist and materialistic society.
There is, however, a flip side. All this is for personal reward, satisfaction and a high. At the extreme levels it is a very self-focused occupation; it has to be. In the months leading up to a major expedition there is little time for anything or anyone else; such is the intense preparation, focus and training required. It is full on and nothing else matters. For these reasons I sometimes raise an eyebrow when I hear or read that someone is attempting a major challenge 'to raise money for charity'. Or 'to inspire others to also achieve their goals'. For while this may be true of some and can be a secondary objective, the rarely mentioned truth is most extreme adventurers do their sport primarily for their own benefits and gratification. I am passionate about numerous world causes including sustainability, population growth, cancer research and conflict resolution; am a member of a number of charities and pressure groups and have raised money for charity on expeditions when I felt there was a link. I am also passionate about people - my entire work in coaching is focused on on maximizing potential, performance and results for companies, teams and individuals.
But in the world of adventurers - increasingly belittled by gimmicks, false claims or lack of integrity in sometimes desperate attempts to gain sponsorship - to claim I was attempting K2 to raise money for Pakistani flood victims or 'to inspire others to achieve their dreams' is nonsense. I did it and do it because I'm energized being in the wildernesses of our world, I'm driven by challenging goals and, yes, want to see how good I can be. I do it for myself.
Some may believe this to be a selfish attitude, but it is a requirement in order to get to you highest physical and mental state prior to an expedition. However, despite this personal focus, there are others to consider and in the months leading up to K2 one issue caused me to question my plans more than anything - my two young children. My daughter, Charlotte, is still too young to fully understand the risks involved but my son, Alex, presumably does. How selfish was it of me to ignore my role as a father and risk my life on this most dangerous of mountains? I justified my choices because adventuring is part of my job; that nothing happens in life without moving out of one's comfort zone; and that safety would take precedence above anything else. And, at an ethereal level, a belief that fate and destiny are probably all pre-determined, out of our hands and so it doesn't really matter what we do. But these never fully prevented me lying awake many a night contemplating my selfishness.
When I used to wave them goodbye at Dubai airport to leave for an expedition, it would be all smiles, hugs and laughter. Yet as soon as they were out of sight I would sit down in a quiet corner with tears in my eyes, full of remorse and guilt. Only after a few minutes would I pull myself together, move on and, as harsh as it sounds, put them out of my mind completely to focus on the upcoming challenge. It was the mind and body's mechanism of getting totally in 'the zone' to prepare for what was to come; a complete juxtaposition of my roles as an adoring father versus professional adventurer. Of course I often thought about them in the months away on a trip and spoke on satellite telephones every so often. But denial was easier; it was easier to not have them there and to not think of the responsibility or selfishness of my actions.
Marty Schmidt may never have had the luxury of that denial on K2. To me the presence of his son would have been a reminder, however infrequent, that there are others we are responsible for - while the rest of us could spend the two months in our world of denial. On the one hand I know from rock-climbing with my son that the bond between a father and son when climbing is a truly fulfilling experience. The joy of being in nature, the total trust between you and of achieving a goal together is virtually unmatchable in other walks of life. But you can experience that in Dorset on a summer weekend. My son is only 14 so the comparison with the Schmidt's is superfluous but, if he were 10 years older, would I want him to climb K2? No. Would I climb K2 with him? No. For the risks are too great. While it's ok for me, I don't want my family risking their lives too.
We can only hypothesize whether watching his son break trail up to camp 3, Schmidt senior had any similar doubts on bringing him up such a dangerous mountain in such vulnerable circumstances. Until then, the bond between them had been a joy to witness, a father who was inherently proud of his son and a son who was equally proud of his father; two inseparable buddies who dressed the same, climbed together and laughed together. Tragically, hours later, they would die sleeping together.
In memory of Marty and Denali Schmidt, died 27 July 2013, K2