It’s Not About the Summit

I’ve often find the title of Lance Armstrong’s book (too bad he’s fallen so far from grace), “It’s Not About the Bike,” coming to mind whenever I think about my return to Everest…I’ve frequently had the thought, “It’s not about the summit.”

For me (in this moment of deciding to give Everest a third try), the reason to go back isn’t about standing atop the world’s highest mountain (though that would be a momentous thrill and accomplishment), it’s not about completing my goal of the seven summits (though that would be seriously cool and awesome), or any of the other common reasons given for climbing Everest.

For me (right now), it’s about not wanting to give up on myself. It’s about wanting to overcome a huge barrier to being all of who I can and want to be. It’s about believing and proving to myself that I am good enough to summit. It’s about abandoning scarcity thinking, abandoning PTSD thinking/patterns/hooks, abandoning thinking that holds me back and limits me, abandoning a growing sense of fragility and vulnerably.

And at the same time, it’s about raising windhorse (Buddhist gig for raising energy and intention), it’s about performance under pressure, it’s about completion and not giving up. It’s about climbing through fear and loneliness. It’s about applying life lessons, hard work, and inspiring others. It’s about climbing respectfully and as safely as possible in an incredibly harsh yet beautiful environment. It’s about giving and about taking (learning to ask for help, direction, inspiration, support). It’s about overcoming instead of giving in. It’s about pushing harder and higher than I ever have before. It’s about climbing as high as I want to and seeing the view…the view from the top of the world and the view of myself as whole and complete, instead of broken…

With all the media coverage in 2013 about the lines on summit day and all of the questioning of the value/cost/risk of climbing Everest following the icefall tragedy in 2014, I found myself in a very questioning and mixed place wondering if I still wanted to climb Everest? Did I have enough heart to climb Everest? Was it worth dipping into retirement savings to climb Everest? Was it worth exposing others to the risks? Was it a worthy accomplishment? Those questions still bump around my skull a bit but since the “Ah ha pufferfish moment in Nepal on the summit of Gokyo Ri,” much less so.

In 2007, when I went to the mountain, I was overtrained and fatigued from all the community outreach I had done before going. Training was thrilling and full of intensity and I put everything I had into getting ready. As a result, on the mountain, I got the team cold/respiratory infection early on and had a hard time fighting it off and ended up out of rotation from my team. Eventually, I got better enough and went up on a rotation, one on one with my personal sherpa, but also picked up giardia (beaver fever) somewhere along the way. The folks at the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic thought it was altitude related so didn’t treat the giardia for ten days, but, by then, I was down fifteen pounds, weak, and wasted and I called the expedition off because I didn’t think I had enough strength remaining to be safe up high. I was on the only woman on the team, there was much emphasis on moving fast/being dumped off the team for being too slow, it was a highly macho space, my connection with my personal sherpa was tenuous, and the entire experience was incredibly lonely and isolating…

In 2010, I put many of those lessons to work and arrived at the mountain much more rested, very fit and not over trained. As the team was ready to go up on the first rotation to Camp One, I got a bladder infection that was very hard to fight. I should have gone down to a lower elevation right away instead of trying to treat it at basecamp. After a trip down to Pheriche to recover from the infection (and three courses of antibiotics), I was well enough to do a rotation up the mountain one on one with Lakpa Sherpa. Lakpa and I climbed to Camp Three over the next few days and I was moving well. I wished we had stayed up at Camp Three for the night but the expedition leader was advocating just tagging it. We then headed down to basecamp the following day so Lakpa could rest enough to go up on the first round of summit bids. After my rotation up to Camp Three, I headed down to Loboche to meet Marian and to rest a bit lower. I was supposed to have at least a week off before attempting to summit.

I got called back up to basecamp the very next day to go on the second, and supposedly last summit bid, (five days sooner than expected) so my schedule looked like this…Camp One for a night, Camp Two for two nights, climb up to Camp Three and tag it, return to Camp Two, descend to basecamp for one night, hike to Loboche for one night, hike back to basecamp for one night, and then go back up to Camp One for a night, then I moved to Camp Two and hit a bit of a wall.

I was willing to try to go to Camp Three but we couldn’t figure out the logistics of my sleeping bag (i.e. the sherpas would carry it but, of course, would go much faster than us and I didn’t want to have to go to Camp Three to have something to sleep in. A week later, I realized that we could have had a teammate carry my sleeping bag and send his up with the sherpas so if I wanted to turn all that would have had to happen is that my teammate give me my sleeping bag and I’d carry it down. We should have called down to basecamp to get help with thinking it through–that’s a lesson I will carry with me…people downhill (i.e. at a lower elevation) will likely have better brains to figure out such things…It also told me that perhaps if I’d had a personal sherpa, I could have rested a day or two at Camp Two and hoped for another summit window.

As it turned out, that summit bid didn’t go forward, they climbed to Camp Four and then came back to Camp Two for nearly ten days…Another teammate and I both, not knowing there was going to be another summit window/bid, both carried our stuff off the mountain. When we got back to basecamp we hung out for a bit and then learned there would be another summit bid but the leader said we’d have to carry our own stuff back up (because there wasn’t enough sherpa support left at basecamp). If we wanted to have a go, (by then I’d been up and down twice in less than ten days, had fought off three bladder infections or the same infection three times), we’d have to carry our loads back up on our own. Neither of us couldn’t muster the will or energy to carry the huge load back up the hill…in hindsight, I wished I’d been able to ask for an appropriate rest between my foray up to Camp Three and my summit bid-it was still very early in the season and there was much time (as evidenced by the second team spending nearly 14 days above basecamp) and I wished I had stayed at Camp Two when I hit the wall instead of descending the same day and asking what the options were…hindsight is filled with clarity and I will use those lessons in planning a next go…

Last year, I asked Alan Arnette his thoughts on why his fourth attempt on Everest resulted in a summit when his first three did not-this was his response:

Looking ahead to Everest, you know what there is to be said but here goes. I would focus on 3 areas:

1. Stamina
2. Cardio/vascular
3. Mental toughness

You are already great at all three but it seems like the little things get between you and the summit. Perhaps thinking through the details, in detail, might reveal area of improvement. Look at rest, hydration and nutritional patterns at all phases of the expedition. Look at hygiene, both your own and teammates and group involvement.

For me, I knew I would get sick at some point so I brought my own heavy duty drugs (levaquin – investigate carefully for issues) because Azithromycin seems to be more and more ineffective in the Khumbu. When I go sick I took it and was better in days – saved my climb.

I think surrounding yourself with like-minded people is also key to avoid the drag down effect of negative attitudes. That is why like larger teams so I can select my own clique.

I bought extra Os so as to relive any time pressure on the summit. I knew I had enough no matter how slow I went. Then funny that I went faster than I ever imagined not really needing the extra Os. But peace of mind is critical.

I insisted on going at my own pace and sleeping at C1 each rotation. I never raced anyone else.

Lessons I am taking with me…all of the above plus…

I’ll train smartly and efficiently, seeking out advice and coaching often…

I had no trouble with illness whatsoever on my past three Nepal expeditions but I know to treat things early and vigorously as they arise and to consider early descent to speed healing and I will commit to all preventive measures that I can think of…

Sometimes it’s lonely being on the mountain with just me and a sherpa. I hope/plan to stay healthy enough to enjoy my teammates’ companionship on acclimatization forays and summit bid…

I’ll communicate more and sort out less on my own…

I want a team leader who believes in me and can help me muster both the internal and external supports I need to reach my expedition goals…

I will ask for help/support whenever needed during preparations and during the climb. I will enjoy the generosity of others and know that I deserve to receive it…

I want my team to have enough size/support so I can have help carrying stuff when I need to…

I’ll put in a mandatory sit and wait period when hitting a wall (i.e. sit with it for 24 or 48 hours before making a decision to leave the mountain/quit if the situation allows for that time (i.e. not above Camp Three, good weather, etc)…

And indeed, all this can be in place, and I still might not summit…I know that…but I know applying these and other life lessons will give me the best chance of climbing beyond where I’ve gotten before and that’s where I want to go…

To the summit that’s beyond my stuck spots and to the summit of Everest (hopefully in that order.)

Thank you in advance for coming along with me.

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2 Responses to It’s Not About the Summit

  1. Ray Kopcinski says:

    Dear TA,

    I can’t tell you how your last two posts have moved me. You have given life to the feelings that have rattled through my brain since 2007. I don’t know if you remember me, but I was on that expedition with you. I was supposed to climb to Camp 3 but also succumbed to the Khumbu Cough and left after 4 days at basecamp. In retrospect, it wasn’t the cough that got me…I lost confidence in myself and I let the mountain beat me mentally. I was only going to Camp 3 and not the summit, but my fears and the lack of a confidante/moral supporter…someone to talk to and talk me off the ledge caused my will to dissolve. If you recall, I was not/am not a “spring chicken” but I have felt an inexplicable draw to Everest that has lodged in my soul. I, too, want to “rage against the dying of the light” and prove to myself that I can be what I want to be and as you so eloquently put it…

    “it’s about not wanting to give up on myself. It’s about wanting to overcome a huge barrier to being all of who I can and want to be. It’s about believing and proving to myself that I am good enough to summit. It’s about abandoning scarcity thinking, abandoning PTSD thinking/patterns/hooks, abandoning thinking that holds me back and limits me, abandoning a growing sense of fragility and vulnerability.”

    I would consider it an honor and privilege to be a part of your expedition in 2016 if that is something you would consider. If not, no need to respond to this email, but thank you for solidifying and verbalizing what has tormented me these many years. Your words in themselves have helped me…not so much to vanquish the “beast”, but at least get him in a “good choke hold.”

    Much health, happiness and success in 2015 and on your new journey…

    Ray Kopcinski

    • TA Loeffler says:

      Hi Ray,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reactions to my two latest posts. Our relationships to our “Everests” are complex, varied, and multi-layered, changing and shifting through time and circumstance. As the Buddhists say, we have to navigate between our ditches to find the middle way. I always figure that expedition teams come together in lots of different ways and I am happy to patch you through to the person who is going to lead the expedition in 2016. It’s likely to be a fairly small team. I’ll drop you a line via personal message with his contact info. Glad you’ve got the beast pinned down-wrestling skills are frequently called for in such endeavours.

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