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'I glimpsed the curve of my own soul': mountaineer Adrian Hayes on summiting K2

18 October 2019 - 13:56 By Mila de Villiers

'K2.' One seemingly innocuous word. Two seemingly innocuous syllables. 

Yet the utterance of the world's second highest mountain's moniker is met with one of awe-cum-terror.

At 8,611 metres above sea level, this sublime (in the Kantian-sense) structure of rock, ice and snow located on the remote border between China and Pakistan, has gained notoriety for its unpredictable weather, devilish climbing routes, and danger to mountaineers - one person dies for every four who reach the summit. 

Since its first ascent on July 31, 1954 (by Italians Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni), numerous attempts have been made to summit the so-called Savage Mountain.

American mountaineer George Bell coined this austere sobriquet after having nearly slipped to his death in a failed attempt to summit the peak in 1953.

His precise words: "It's a savage mountain that tries to kill you." 

Then again, the world-renowned German-speaking Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner proclaimed that "an artist has made this mountain" upon his ascent in 1979.

Granted, this oke is hardcore: he made the first solo ascent of Mt Everest back in '78, the first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen and was the first climber to conquer all 14 eight-thousanders (the world's highest mountains, measuring more than 8,000 metres in height).

Fast-forward to the 21st century which saw the introduction of the Instagram hashtag #K2NoO2 adopted by climbers keeping their followers up to date with their progress. 

Why would anyone commit themselves to this Herculean task? you ask.

Fortunately, one man has the answer.

British adventurer, mountaineer, Guinness World Record holder, former-SAS reservist and first-time author, Adrian Hayes, is in Johannesburg for the South African leg of the transcontinental promotion of his debut book, One Man's Climb: A Journey of Trauma, Tragedy and Triumph on K2.

One Man's Climb chronicles Hayes's two attempts of reaching K2's vertex. He candidly writes about the emotional toll it took on his psyche amid personal crises he was experiencing at the time, including being denied custody of his children following a tumultuous divorce. 

After having ordered a coffee ("strong, I'm still jet-lagged") with a healthy portion of cream on the side, the now-60-year-old Hayes - who made his first successful attempt of summiting K2 on July 26, 2014 - falls away. 

English mountaineer George Mallory's snap of "because it's there" in response to a journalist asking him why he decided on climbing Everest in the early 1920s has since been immortalised as the "most famous three words in mountaineering". 

Is the selfsame axiom applicable to Hayes's resolution to conquer K2?

"Everything I've done since I was 16 years of age - which was striving for a life of achievement - has driven me," Hayes declares with a determined look in his eyes. "I want to achieve everything I could in this life: goals, self-worth, self-respect, all that. That has driven me.

"The reason climbers - and adventurers - say they do these things [eg mountaineering] is for the freedom, the beauty, the fresh air," he continues, gesturing with his left hand as he mentions each reason.

"You get all that on Table Mountain or the ...  the ... " Hayes pauses, his face screwed up in concentration, his fingers clicking in agitation. His struggle to recall whichever mountain he's attempting to mention is near tangible. "The Magimbiziboti?" he tries, before elaborating with "The mountain range outside Johannesburg?" 

The Magaliesberg...?

"Yes! Magaliesberg! Close enough," Hayes chuckles.  

Likes can claim lives

Throughout the book Hayes comments on modern human's insatiable appetite for significance, which we tend to realise via social media platforms. 

"Do it for the gram" might be the definitive millennial maxim but Hayes is dismissive of their (ahem, our) innate desire to rely on external validation as means to achieve a sense of significance. 

"'Look what I'm doing', 'look where I am', 'look what I've achieved'," he says, spewing (warranted) vitriol at selfies, holiday snaps, and casual pics of champagne glasses in airports.

"We're all doing it, we're all in this great PR machine. It's important who you become," Hayes stresses. "That's the real joy." 

Hayes regards Everest as the metaphorical tip of the iceberg, referring to the spate of overcrowding the earth's zenith has been subjected to since the advent of 2019, in no small part thanks to the abundance of pseudo-dopamine-chasing-selfie-fiends.

"It's the desire to show what we can achieve," he proclaims in obvious distaste of the parties guilty of causing potentially lethal congestion. 

To a Mountain Unknown

Hayes devotes a number of pages in the book to the omnipresent sense of uncertainty synonymous with Alpine climbing, singling out the magnitude of "making the unknown known". 

K2's remoteness is of such a nature that the actual mountain is only made visible on the final day of the gruelling nine-day trek to base camp. 

"It's an unknown," Hayes explains. "It's a two-letter syllable, it's got an horrendous history.

"When I first saw it, for the first time, it lost that unknown power. Suddenly it was there. It's known to a certain degree. Mountaineering is full of unknowns, but at least we can see it and feel it in front of us..." he muses.

"I'm a visual person ... it took my breath away." 

Sadly, its "horrendous history" proved to be prophetic during Hayes's first attempt to summit in June 2013.

Decisions, despondency, despair

Hayes and his party reached an impasse when they were confronted with heavy snowfall and poor visibility the day before they intended on climbing to Camp 3 - the penultimate camp one reaches before progressing to the summit. 

Lapka, one of the Sherpas accompanying the party, warned them of the hazards ahead.

"My Sherpas climb to Camp 3, but very deep snow. Some place waist deep. They fall back and slide into avalanche ... They drop equipment in cache halfway. Back here now. They say too dangerous to go up."

A 'Chinese Parliament' ensued between the group of international climbing teams - Spanish, Swiss, Macedonian and Japanese - and a consensus was reached: to abandon the attempt. 

Prior to this discussion two of Hayes' team members, Marty and Denali Schmidt, a father and son from New Zealand, had already departed, deciding that the weather would not deter them from reaching Camp 3.

Their decision to persevere cost them their lives. 

An immense avalanche had struck Camp 3 that night.

"100% mareko cha," Mingma, a Sherpa who had climbed to Camp 3 following concern from Hayes's party after not having heard from the Schmidts, informed them via radio.

"100% die," Lakpa translates.

Named for the highest peak in North America, Denali was only 25 at the time of his tragic death.

Hayes elaborates on the despondency he felt following their decision to return to base camp and the aftermath of hearing about the Schmidts' deaths.

Two days later we found out they'd been killed

"The despair of when we got down to base camp ... that most of the team had decided 'that was it'." Hayes gravely shakes his head in recollection of this distressing memory.

"And that what was so despairing. That we didn't even give it a shot.

"'What's this about? We've just gone to Camp 2 and we've given up already, this is crazy'," he incredulously states. 

Hayes recalls how he sat himself down on a rock, tears of disbelief welling in his eyes. 

"At that stage we didn't know the Schmidts had been killed ... And I like to use the quote 'not everything happens for a reason, but if things happen it's up to us to find a reason'.

"That reason," the motivational speaker continues, "may take a day, a week, a month, a year, 10 years. I couldn't understand the reason [at the time].

"Two days later we found out they'd been killed. We could all have been killed if we'd gone up there and then you think - "

Hayes abruptly pauses, a look of concentration etched on his face, before continuing with "I sat on the same rock and I thought 'that was the reason'."

There and Back Again: A Climber's Tale 

This experience did not discourage Hayes from attempting a second summit.

"To me it was just unfinished business," he says of his decision to re-attempt the climb roughly one year later. One of his 2013 team mates, Al Hancock, shared Hayes's sentiment and joined him.

"Gut instinct told me to me to go back again. And I can't explain why because, frankly, if I'd failed that second time, I don't think I would have gone a third year.

"It's just not worth it," Hayes continues in a voice bordering a fine line between bitterness and sorrow.

Blink and you'll miss it

"It was much more real the second year," he pensively relays inbetween sips of his coffee. 

Hayes illustrates his second attempt with an enthused whoosing sound, his eyes widening, and his arms emulating the motion of wind rushing by. 

"And I'm using that sound-effect," he eagerly adds, "because it all went by in the blink of an eye. 

"The first year I'd allowed personal crises to distract me. You cannot go into such risky, massive goals with having any issues at home," Hayes stresses in earnest.

"You've got to sort those issues out."

He gives a hollow laugh.

"Or you've got to block them off. That's what I did the second year: I blocked everything off. You have to be in the zone."

The ability of isolating yourself from reality is a feat not many can accomplish.

Nonetheless, not even Hayes's body is immune to having to rid itself of waste. Which brings us to the topic of high-altitude hygiene.

That's what I did the second year: I blocked everything off  

Abluting above terra firma 

"Well, you do it at the camps," Hayes matter-of-factly states. 

"K2 is steep from start to finish, apart from Camp 4 which is on the shoulder [a flat space]."

In the history of mountaineering, accidents, near-accidents and deaths have occurred owing to mountaineers having to leave their tents to void their bladders or bowels.

Hayes describes an excruciating few hours in which he had contracted diarrhoea mid-ascent.

"I had to hold it in," Hayes remembers. "Now, without going into graphic details, it is ... you know, dangers of ... accidents were high.

"It was agony. Amongst everything else."

As if being beset with diarrhoea at 8,000-odd metres above sea level wasn't enough of an unfortunate situation, the unbearable scorching of the star at the centre of our solar system vexed Hayes to no end. 

"The heat!" Hayes exclaims in horror. "You're climbing at 8pm, it's freezing, with a bitter cold wind. The sun comes up, it's still cold."

From about 10am onward the sun had metamorphosed from a seemingly welcome prospect into an undesired adversary.

Its rays had begun beating off the surrounding glaciers' ice "straight into my face". Hayes winces in recollection of the unpleasant memory, adding that the heat had become so unbearable that he was forced to remove a few of his torso-covering sartorial paraphernalia, with one (of his many) layers rolled up to his chest, exposing his navel to the unfavourable weather conditions. 

Et tu, Sol? 

The elements and unexpected excretion aside, Hayes endured.

A selfie at 8,611 m above sea level.
A selfie at 8,611 m above sea level.
Image: Adrian Hayes

July 26, 2014

On July 26, 2014 at 3.20pm, he had reached the summit of the planet's most perilous peak.

 "I glimpsed the curve of my own soul," he writes of the emotion he experienced upon conquering K2.

"I got into prolific writing," he bashfully smiles.

"It's a ... a ..." Hayes' eyes dart around the coffee shop as he searches for the words to describe the feeling of reaching the summit of the 'Savage Mountain'. 

"Reaching the top ... Okay, practical side first," Hayes interrupts himself, adopting an air of pragmatism. "There's less hoo-ha, less of a spiritual side. You're only halfway there, you've got to get down," he fastidiously explains. 

 "Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory"

Hayes quotes high-altitude mountaineer Edmund Viesters' words in the chapter detailing his descent. And with reason. 

"Descent is where all the accidents [75%] happen," he explains in earnest.

Oxygen depletion is a reality: "You cannot get carried away and cry," he says of the moment one reaches the summit. Hayes imitates sobbing in joy, "'I reached the top'." *cue faux sobs* 

He was "about the tenth one up that day," and gave team-mate Al Hancock a brief "thumbs-up, mate" as opposed to an embrace. "We have work to do," the former SAS-reservist says with a fixed expression. 

After a "quick picture, quick video, quick call-back on the summit," Hayes started his descent as the "practical side" of his ego had spoken. He spent "five minutes tops" at 8,611m above sea level.

It's an ethereal experience... 

Hayes compares the summit push with the final 150m of an Olympic gold medal race. 

"You  know within 150 metres, 200 metres from the top - you know you're going to do it," he resolutely states.

"But at the same time there's a pinch in yourself ... the surrealness ..." 

Hayes cites the juxtaposition between reality - the preparation, the emotions, the hardship, the trauma back home - and the fact that you've just achieved the feat of reaching the top of a "place where you can't survive" as contributing to the hypnagogic experience.

"It's surreal, it's quite surreal to go up there," he repeats in awe. "It's an ethereal experience..."

Emotions aside, Viesturs' words still ring true.

Hayes, who was leading a crowd going downhill, was met with K2's notorious atmospheric conditions.

"We were in a white-out [intense blizzard], the snow was coming, visibility was weak," he fires off. 

He came across a "stricken climber, delirious from lack of oxygen".

They encountered rockfalls.

The possibility of avalanches never wavered from his mind.

"It's just full, full-on," Hayes intensely relays.

By the time they had reached Camp 3, he was hardly compos mentis - a combination of having gone "without very much sleep for five days" and oxygen deficiency. 

Getting down to camp the majority of the party members could hardly talk.

"Talking was like that," he hoarsely whispers.

Hunger, thirst and fatigue aside, "you've still got to melt snow for water, you've got to cook food, you've got to get your sleeping bag out". 

There's no-one greeting you with Energade, foot massages or orange slices à la completing marathons, cycling races, or triathlons. No sirree. 'Tis only you, your judgement, and your climbing companions. 

Take note of the plural. 

In teamwork we trust

The title 'One Man's Climb' pertains to Hayes's individual struggles - of both physical and psychological natures - yet the (trite) adage of "teamwork makes the dream work" cannot be dismissed in relation to undertaking a feat the likes of conquering K2. 

Teamwork, Hayes maintains, is more than a compulsory annual corporate-do. 

Especially so when ascending mountains which extend 8,000m above sea level.

Not coughing in a team member's face, not passing food with your hands, being conscious of each other's toiletry habits, the ability to have reasonable discussions about agreements and disagreement are compulsory factors to be mindful of when climbing the world's most challenging mountains. 

"Above all, trust," Hayes states. "Trust is the most fundamental thing."

Need one be reminded of the Sunday Times's tragic and ill-fated sponsored expedition to summit Everest back in 1996 which mutated into an unmitigated disaster owing to a lack of trust between the team and their deceptive leader - described by a former Sunday Times reporter and amateur mountaineer as "a Formula One bullshitter of note" - Ian Woodall?

Hayes himself candidly affirms: "Everything went wrong."

From our greatest despairs come our greatest learnings

A 21st century Homeric epic

Composing the book wasn't without its challenges.

Hayes confesses that he initially struggled to start writing the story (of K2) as the passion wasn't there.

"When I started to bring in the personal story, things got into this flow. He elongates the pronunciation of 'flow' so it comes out as 'fuuuh-loooooow'.

Potterphiles will enjoy the following pronouncement: after having read that Her Royal Rowlingness penned Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in coffee shops, he followed suit.

And voilà - a few months later he had a corporeal account of his personal Odyssey. 

It was "quite emotional" to write the final part of the book he concedes, on account of him being allowed to see his children again, and having his daughter back home.

"That concluded the story," he gently affirms. 

Hayes achieved catharsis with the writing of his book when he came to the realisation that "from our greatest despairs comes our greatest learnings".

He further opines that we should attach more value to who we become as people before shuffling off this mortal coil. 

To step out of your comfort zone, to not waste life on conflict, on bitterness, on revenge, on - "oh my goodness!" - watching TV! all come highly recommended by Hayes. 

Mzansi has mountains, too

And if us hoi polloi wished to recreate a similar sensation without having to brave the Himalayas?

"It's very easy, very easy," Hayes says, clearing his throat.

Rock climbing is "a total ethereal experience" and the mountains in Joburg and surrounds (here's looking at you, Magaliesberg) have "excellent crags.

"Your mind isn't on your crying baby at home, the financial crisis, climate change," he expounds. 

For our country's coastal cats Hayes recommends sailing on the ocean. "It's a different world ... your own real adventure."

And for the curious among you, why yes - he still is in possession of all his extremities.

All of 'em.