Once something new and exciting gets lodged into my imagination, I become driven to plunge ‘head-first’ into it. It totally consumes my passion and energy to learn it, try it, go for it. It becomes a freight train and there is just no stopping it.
From drawing on toilet paper at four years old, to getting up at 4 am to go duck hunting when I was twelve, I had to squeeze in every moment I could to pursue my passions. At 20, after getting a taste of the world working at Expo 67 in Montreal, I was ready to get out there and go explore the world myself.
Hitchhiking all the way from Scotland to Afghanistan in 1969, I then bused it to India and Nepal. In Kathmandu I met a New Zealand climber who had just returned from trekking about 300 miles to Everest Base Camp and back. His story, within seconds, shot so much adrenaline into my bloodstream, I knew I had to go and try to do it too.
Within days I was crossing over high mountain passes, dropping into tropical valleys, vaguely finding my way up and over the Khumbu Range. With no mountaineering experience, alone, no tent, only a summer sleeping bag, eating potatoes and rice, I somehow managed to climb up the Khumbu Glacier to approximately 19,000 feet to Everest Base Camp. I spent 32 days alone in the greatest mountain range on earth surviving only on my energy and wits.
The ‘Blue Goose’
Travelling became a passion and way of life for me. In Amsterdam, I bought an old British 1956 Bedford Duple Coach with 41 seats and a gas engine. Competing with Magic Bus, I made my living in Europe hauling around all those wandering ‘baby boomers’. My bus was called the ‘Blue Goose’ and somehow, with dubious credentials, it flew a new culture of travelling hippies from Amsterdam to Spain, Morocco and Greece in the early 1970’s.
Over the years I had the great fortune to ride a ‘banana boat’ up the equatorial backwaters of southern India; participate in Afghanistan’s tough national sport called Buzkashi, where fierce horsemen battle each other to deposit a headless goat carcass at the opposing end of a immense field; experience the bizarre, drug underworld in Kandahar; spend 4 days in and out of consciousness with high fever in a dusty hotel in Kabul; visit an oasis in the Sahara; travel 3rd class rail all over India; get caught in a huge, deadly earthquake in Gediz, Turkey; witness an attempted coup d’état in Athens; live in cliff caves in southern Morocco where the Atlantic meets the desert; spend 3 days in a tiny village high in the Atlas mountains attending an amazingly beautiful Berber wedding. The list goes on…
Art, then Business…
Back home in Canada in 1976, I pursued my art with vigor. I painted on Plexiglas and developed my own style and a theme called ‘Man’s Relationship to Science and Technology’. My images were positive and hopeful about what a future technology would do for humanity. I am still very proud of that body of work.
In 1983 I plunged into creating my own business of real estate. With no capital but a lot of will power, I somehow built a company mostly on faith and determination alone. Having been a struggling artist for many years taught me the values of self-motivation and creative thinking. Certain people believed in me and I could not let them down.
When I think back, I realize how lucky I am to have always seen life from the perspective of a glass half-full. My attitude has been to just ‘go for it’. Of course, I have had my share of failures but I would not have done it any other way. I believe balance is really the key. Being positive and enthusiastic does not mean stretching foolishly beyond your limits or reason. Going outside your ‘comfort zone’ is great. Making sure your eyes are wide open so as not to peril body and limb is even greater.
I seem to seek out new challenges all the time. Maybe my personality type judges itself on results. One thing I know, I have a lot of fun Daring to Reach my goals. In my imagination, I am always in some Olympian race trying to catch up and somehow knowing I can. Realistically, in this ‘big world’, becoming the absolute best is unlikely, but being your best is pretty good too. The joy is in the process of willing and learning and just going for it.
The Windsurfing Years
In 1985 a trip to Connecticut launched me literally head over heels into windsurfing. I lived and breathed the sport. As usual, I progressed from big board to custom small board way too quickly and almost became ‘shark meat’ in the storm-surge 15 foot breaking waves in Cabarete’s reef. But as a result and out of necessity, I learned very quickly certain life-saving maneuvers. I travelled every opportunity I could to Cape Hatteras, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Lago di Garda to sharpen my skills. Windsurfing really came close to rivaling the passion I had put into my art for so many years.
Along the way, skiing and mountain biking have been and still are passions. Returning to mountaineering, however, deserves special note. In 2000, I was invited by my dear German friends to windsurf with them in Italy. After meeting them in their hometown of Karlsruhe, we drove to the Italian Dolomites for several days of hiking. On day 2 we climbed a 1500’ rock wall called the Via Ferrata Tridentina. It was my 1st experience rock wall climbing and frankly the whole Dolomite experience whetted my appetite once again for mountain culture.
November 2001, just after 9/11, I took off for 23 days to Peru to hike 40 km in the Andes to Machu Picchu, followed by a 80 km trek around Mount Auzangate in the Cordillera Vilcanota, and an attempted summit of 19,029’ (5800m) Nevado Maria Huamantilla. Bad weather and zero visibility just below the summit shut us down.
November 2002 I ventured to Bolivia to attempt to climb 19,974’ (6,088m) Huayna Potosi. My 1st attempt was cut short by needing urgent medical attention in La Paz for a tooth abscess. Ten days later my 2nd attempt at the summit got abruptly halted by heavy snow and avalanches. I may not have reached those summits, but my passion for mountaineering piqued even more. Knee surgeries delayed my return for awhile. Mount Washington became my winter training playground for the next couple of years.
In 2005 I decided to attempt to climb Mount Aconcagua, 22,856’ (6,962m) in Argentina. It is the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. Even after many months of training, I had no idea if I was up to such a lofty match, but I had to find out. January 3rd, 2006 I flew to Mendoza to join my team.
After nearly getting shut-down with knee pain on the long 50 km march-in, and then at 22,000’ ‘hitting the wall’ desperately out of calories, I somehow squeaked in a summit at 4:15 pm January 23rd 2006. I finally knew what it felt like to reach the top. It was a very extraordinary feeling. March 2006 I joined some friends for a week of hiking Bryce Canyon in Utah. In September my good friend Gilles Barbot invited me to join him and a small group to do a 4 day challenge in Bretagne, France. Being so close, I headed down to Chamonix afterwards to climb Mont Blanc.
Denali in Alaska was my next big mountain. Also known as Mount McKinley, it is the highest mountain in North America (20,320’), and being on the Arctic Circle, it is one of the coldest high-altitude mountains to climb outside of Antarctica. Extremely crevassed and moody, we spent 23 days navigating storms, seven feet of snow, arctic temperatures and blustery winds to sneak-in a summit at 6pm May 26, 2007. The descent was as fickle as the climb in windy, white-out conditions.
March 2008 I made my decision to join an international team to climb an 8000m mountain. There are only 14 mountains in the world over 8000m and all of them are in the Himalayas. There is no such thing as a safe and easy 8000m mountain, but Cho Oyu in Tibet, the 6th highest, is probably the best one to start with. Arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal the 31st August 2008, I met my team of 9. Overcoming a lot of protocol, we finally got to the mountain a week later and began our long acclimatization process. After weeks of moving up and down the mountain to increase our red-blood count, we got our narrow weather ‘window of opportunity’ to make our summit bid. Leaving high camp (25,000’) at 11:30pm and climbing all night up steep rock and icy terrain, we reached the summit of Cho Oyu (8201m) at 6am October 5th. Thirty kilometers distant stood Mount Everest and Lhotse, below us like huge anthills, stood all the other towering mountains of the Himalayas, and still further beyond you could see the great plateau of Tibet. Hard training, determination, believing in yourself, and daring was the simple key to our success.
My next climb was completely unexpected. January 5th, 2009 an email arrived inviting me to replace another climber on an expedition to climb Vinson in Antarctica. I had only 36 hours to be on a plane for southern Chile. Having dreamed for years of going to the Arctic and Antarctic, I could not begin to resist. Antarctica is a continent of incredible extremes: of beauty, of survival, of challenge. In -45° frigid temperatures, 24 hour daylight, absolutely phenomenal vistas, we were able to stand on the summit of the coldest, most windswept continent on Earth. It was truly a trip of a lifetime.
With so many avenues in life to follow, there is naturally no right or wrong one. Every direction produces interesting results. My road has been to search out challenges, to push beyond the horizon, to DARE, to REACH, to DISCOVER.
A Dream Achieved
MOUNT EVEREST: Reached summit 23May 2010, 08:15am
The Everest challenge was everything and more than my original expectations. Heading back up the Khumbu Valley after 40 years (December 1969) and especially arriving in Namche Bazaar, was a moving moment for me. That original experience of trekking to Everest Base Camp alone 40 years ago and having a dream, even if it was in a distant recess of my mind, to go back and climb this great mountain some day, was a fulfilling and huge life experience. It made me realize that I am exactly the same guy now as I was then, needing adventure, needing challenges, living life with passion. I had no idea if I would make it, but I knew that nothing, at least under my control, would stop me from giving it my best shot. There are some things in life you just have to do.
Photo: Leo Dickenson
The rewards are many. Climbing through the dangerous Ice Fall crossing ladders and crevasses teaches managing fear. Getting up at 2am in the cold, day after day, teaches diligence and strength of character. The long hours of physical endurance teaches fortitude and determination. The passion to want to do it at all teaches spirit and love of life. The beauty, albeit stark, teaches appreciation of life at the extreme end.
I have been asked repeatedly over the years how I manage to suffer and endure these climbs. The simple answer is ‘one step in front of the next will get you to the top’.
After climbing Everest I wrote: “Everest demands your psychological tenacity. You must be stubborn; you must hold fast; you must know why you are there. You must see what you don’t want to see, but be able to remove it from mind’s eye. You must focus on one thing or you will die. Your world is exactly one step at a time.”
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