An early Everest summit meant that I could squeeze in an unplanned week of family time in London before my appointment with the park service on Denali. This past week felt like a never-ending feast of sensations: smelling my kids hair, falling asleep while reading with Theo, heaviness of his head on my chest, cooking fresh vegetables with my daughter, Freya, and listening to her form’s breakfast concert of good and not-so-good classical recitals. Home.
After Everest, these emotions were strong, smells pungent, tastes delectable; perhaps magnified by deep fatigue one has after not-sleeping for a long while.
Spending a week at home felt very nourishing. While I was away completing my Explorers Grand Slam world record challenge – some 55 days skiing to the North Pole and climbing in Nepal – my 6-year old son’s reading has flourished. He has also firmed up his career aspirations: “I have decided I want to become a comedian!” My daughter’s clarinet sounds have become more fluid and she has come up with an intricate plan for a climbing birthday party in July.
It was a week of unpacking, paying bills, washing off Khumbu Valley dust from my gear, being fought over by my kids ‘Will you pick me up from school today?’, and being subject of their witty remarks and ‘mountain’ jokes. A week of two breakfasts and two lunches a day and 8pm bedtime as my body moved to reclaim its needs in a ‘normal’ environment.
Over the past two years of expedition-going I learnt that the key to happy co-existence of my life on the hill and my homelife is to be fully present when I am here. Wake up and embrace life with its schedules, meetings, routine. Not complain about urban sounds, grey suits on the streets and lack of fresh air. These will be the moments that I know I will miss badly over the next few weeks as I wander off in a blizzard or sleep in a bivvy hung on a ledge somewhere high up on a snowy ridge on Denali.
This week my kids asked a lot of questions about my journey as I shared with them my latest photos: “Did you have to stay up for a polar bear watch outside of your tent?”, “ What did oxygen taste like? Ice cream?”
One question stood out: ‘Why do you need to re-climb Denali?’
Inquisitive child’s ‘why’? Indeed, a great question. My kids know about the world record that I am trying to set. Last June’s summit of the big bad American mountain as formidable as it was is now too far removed in time. Still, it is hard for them – aged 6 and 8 – to comprehend why one would go up the same mountain twice. It’s one thing to explain ‘how you climb’ through a story of mental resilience and physical endurance.
But that’s not a full story. To keep going we need a powerful ‘why?’.
Summits may well be anti-climatic. You all have seen the “Central Park” scene of the Everest summit with lots of ‘downsuited’ people gathered on a steep snow patch. The journey to summit is anything but. Over the past year there were many moments of elation but so there were hours of self-doubt, frustration with my human fragility and deep fatigue. The combination of the two made me a better, more patient person. I gained appreciation for how little we need to be comfortable, how warm one can be sleeping in a -40F bag on ice and for the uplifting power of human encouragement.
So, as I land in Anchorage, it is time to get serious and to focus. This is my last mile. A friend, professional triathlete, once told me: ‘You don’t start running a marathon until the 20th mile’. Having summited Denali last June, I know that I got off lightly with immaculately sunny weather and little precipitation. I used to joke that I got “Denali” lite. A year on, I am looking at a different, more challenging route with a smaller team of very able friends. The forecast is for a heavy snowfall with some days of 50 inches of new snow. That means having to take turns to break trail in deep snow, digging out your tent every few hours, staying away from snow accumulation. My team has staying power. We shall be exercising grit, prudently. Treating this challenge as a puzzle that needs to be unlocked. And having plan B in case weather does not cooperate or conditions prove to be too risky in order to reach our goal.
What keeps us going? Ultimately, our passion and desire to fulfil our dreams and by doing so to commit to the principles we believe in. In my case, inspiring girls and young women to aim higher, persevere and attain. What keeps us going is the faith of people around us. In a Nepalese puja ceremony before climbers leave on their summit journeys, lamas bless gear for good luck and safe return. This week, Theo and Freya ran riot with my climbing possessions, writing messages with Sharpie Extreme markers on my helmet, boots, ice axes and water bottles. I know that these messages of theirs won’t fade, regardless of the challenging conditions I may face. ‘Go get it done, mum, and come back home!’ Those words in child scribbling may very well be that small thing that makes a difference and gets me on the top!