Everest 2014: What’s More Important: Mental or Physical Toughness?

IMG_0019-2Some people say climbing Everest is mostly mental not physical but I beg to differ. Climbing Everest is about ands.

The first time I attempted Everest, I was not ready, physically or mentally. The second time, only a year after the first, was a sad repeat. And the third? Well physically, I was better but mentally, that is a long story. But for the fourth, everything came together. I was in Everest Shape plus had the right mental toughness to go beyond what I thought was possible.

The physical part of any climb is a given, but many climbers underestimate what it takes. They toll for hours in the gym on the treadmill, the stair master (with pack), lifting weights as if they are going to the Olympics but still fall short at 23,000 feet on the Lhotse Face. It is there that the harsh reality of climbing comes into focus. It is not about how strong you are but rather how you prepared.

Climbing at altitude is about having your body in balance. It is a system. Can your lungs feed your heart, your heart feed your muscles, your muscles power that next step? Can your mind control your doubts? If any part fails, every part fails.

When you are at 27,000 feet where there is 35% the oxygen of sea level, the real test comes into play. Your lungs, heart , legs – your total body simply screams, STOP! It is at its limit and can go no further. Similar to a marathoner at mile 23, your body has had enough. If you don’t stop, it will stop for you. What to do?

I have been amazed at how far I can push my body, safely. But it came with years of experience, proper preparation and motivation. As I often tell my audiences, there are a thousand reasons to stop and only one to keep going. To summit Everest, you must find that one reason. And it is unique and personal to you.

Perhaps no one else will understand your reason and that is OK, at 27,000 feet in the harsh winds, unbearable cold with the wind blowing against your goggles, there is no one else. You are alone on the mountain, in your own world, fighting your own demons. If you don’t know why you are there, you will probably not summit; or perhaps return home.

Trek to Everest Base Camp

This is arguably the part of an Everest climb. Seeing the Khumbu, surrounded by the highest of the Himalaya, you are inspired in ways you never knew possible. Walking along with your teammates you share stories of dreams. Each night you go to sleep in a teahouse wondering if this is really happening or just another dream.

Everest Base Camp

Arriving at BC, the excitement is almost palatable. Looking around you see hundreds of tents. Yaks go by indifferent to your excitement. Walking the dirt paths is a Tower of Babel. It seems every nationality is represented. You look at each climber with an air of competition. Hmm, she looks fit. He looks a bit soft. You are judgmental yet insecure that you can compete.

The Khumbu Icefall

A flowing river of ice. Getting dressed at 3:00AM at 17,500 feet awakens your senses unlike anything you have ever experienced. Damn that headlamp, why did the batteries have to fail now? You struggle with the simplest tasks. You stumble into the dining tent to stare at your fried egg, toast and coffee. Your appetite is gone. The first ladder shatters your self confidence. You struggle for breath.  

The Western Cwm

As the sun bears down, the sweat flow into your eyes, it stings, you hurt. The climb to Camp 2 starts flat but at the end, you wonder what happened to your fitness. You trained hard. When the machine at the gym beeped and flashed “workout over”, you proudly pushed harder for 2 more minutes. Maybe you should have done another hour.

Lhotse Face

You have been staring at the Lhotse Face on every rotation knowing when the time came, it would be a test. From afar, it looks vertical, in real life it is worse. Clipped into the fixed rope, you follow the climber in front. At this point, it is no longer a competition, it is survival. Get to Camp 3 for the acclimatization night or perhaps for the summit push. You forgot the reason, now it is all about the next step.

The Base Camp Wait

Finally back in Base Camp, you await the weather window. Over dinner, a teammate asks the unspoken question, “Do you think you will summit” The bravado is over, exhausted. Everest has erased any sense of over-confidence. Chomolungma has shown you that you are not ready. You dared to shout to the world you can climb her, but she has shown you who you really are. You look at your teammate, struggling to give a simple answer. Words are no longer adequate. You both sit in silence.

To the South Col

The climb past Camp 3, along the Geneva Spur, you arrive at edge of the Death Zone. Now you get it. You feel strong, yet weak. Excited, yet afraid. You long to go higher, and to go home. The contradictions are like nothing you have experienced in life.


The Icefall gets all the fame but the climb to the Balcony deserves equal billing. It starts steep in the dark. You start walking when you normally go to bed. Knowing you have 18 hours of constant movement ahead, you focus on each step. The climber ahead of you steps aside. You pass. A fleeting moment of confidence enters your mind and you increase your pace. Then reality slaps you in the face as you heave for breath. What is my oxygen level? Can my Sherpa turn it up? Too late to train harder now. Slowing down, you regain control. Short, simple steps – a mantra that you repeat. OK, that’s better. I can do this.

The Southeast Ridge

When you talked to your guide, he never talked abut this section. It is dark, cold and windy, and steep and rocky. At home you did a few hikes in your crampons but never on rock. Your ankles feel wobbly, legs weak, pack heavy. The angle eases halfway to the South Summit. Thank God. Looking up for a rare moment, you see headlamps ahead. They are above you, high above you. The angle increase again, steeper than anything you have climbed, ever. The wind picks up, the sweat on your chest from struggling to the Balcony now feels cold against your skin. Can I do this? The body says no. It is mile 23.

South Summit

Taking a break at the South Summit, you sip cold water. The energy gel awkwardly goes down. You feel exhausted. There is little left inside. But then something catches your eye. The sun. The sun is rising. A thin yellow line marks the end of night and the beginning of day. Sitting on your pack, you simply stare. The lights of the South Col begin to dim. The Makalu massif comes into view. There’s Ama Dablam, looking tiny surrounded by other 20,000 foot hills. A surge of optimism floods your mind. A new fuel charges your body. The game has changed, the challenge has shifted from the legs to the mind.

To the Summit

Leaving the South summit you go down for a bit before climbing higher, but you don’t care. You know you are going to make it. All the doubts are erased. You have pushed through the darkest moments. Looking ahead you see the Hillary Step. Tired but confident you push higher. You can do this.

Climbing Everest is about balance. You prepare your body, you prepare your mind , but can you prepare for unexpected – your own mind games.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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17 thoughts on “Everest 2014: What’s More Important: Mental or Physical Toughness?

  1. Excellent writing again, Alan. I am following you for couple of years by now. I think with all your writing you’ve done so far, you’ll be better if you start writing a book…..Thanks again for sharing your experience and telling the truth about the real thing…as always you said… Climb on…

  2. Alan, this is great. Thanks. Whenever I hit the summit I have to keep my focus on getting down, and by the time I get to camp I’m swearing off climbing forever. Then on the ride out I see a really cool looking line and wonder what it would be like to climb it …

    1. Charles this reminds me of my favorite quote:

      “The test of an adventure is that when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself “Oh now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home. And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”
      ― Thornton Wilder

  3. Amazing Alan, I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like! You must be so strong to go through all of that- even though you train & prepare for it all! Stay Strong!

  4. Loved it. My thoughts are stuck on the SE Ridge …. just how steep, I wonder? Could I do it? Perhaps I’ll find out one day…

  5. Alan,

    I think you captured the essence of what it takes to climb Everest, sail around the world, or any other ultra-endurance event. Climbing Everest is special for sure but what makes it special is the preparation necessary to overcome the unfathomable difficulties that lie ahead. None of us know if we will be prepared when faced with the adversity of hypoxia and fatigue. The best we can do is prepare for any and all situations – both mentally and physically. I live at 320 feet above sea level and have 28,700+ feet to get accustomed to before I hit he summit. It most certainly will be a struggle but one I hope to be ready to overcome.

    Thanks so much for the great post. I really appreciate you posting my blog link on your site.

  6. Amazing stuff Alan, and incredibly helpful for me in my own preparation for Everest South this Spring. It’s made me realise I need to focus more on my preparation for the task ahead, no matter how hard I train physically. Thanks also for including my blog at the side of the page!

  7. I wish that this piece of anthology be read by all the climbers for all the climbs in the world. So precise, so true, and so human. Thank you.

  8. I always wonder why guides / outfitters don’t provide this type of “beta.” Like the best writing, you’ve described things that all of us have thought and felt, but perhaps at the level just below what is necessary to articulate it to others. When people ask me in the future “what is it like to climb (any mountain, really),” I’ll send them this link!

  9. Simply an outstanding description of what it takes Alan. Wow. Thanks for the sharing these insights, they are pure gold.


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