Climbers may initially decide to attempt Mt. Everest to challenge themselves or experience sky-high views available to no one else on the planet. But what gets them through the grueling climb comes from something much deeper within themselves.
No one knows this better than Mt. Everest and Seven Summits climber Vivian James Rigney. Since summitting the world’s highest peak at 39 years old, Rigney has shared his experience, the triumphs and challenges alike, in his book, Naked at the Knife-Edge. When Rigney sat down with Outsider, he spoke about the kinds of mental obstacles that climbers face once they arrive in Nepal. From there, it’s an uphill battle (figuratively and literally, of course) to the top.
But in order to get to that point, Rigney shared that some serious mental training is required. Most importantly, the Mt. Everest summiteer advised that future climbers ask themselves, “What is your reason for doing this, really?”
Mt. Everest Summiteer Encourages Future Climbers to Turn Inwards Before Venturing Upwards
Besides the obvious perks of reaching the tallest peak on Earth – traveling the world, experiencing new limits – there’s a core reason for taking this life-altering risk. After all, climbing Mt. Everest isn’t as simple as hopping on a plane and trekking toward the top. As Rigney detailed in his book, the preparation for the trip, alone, is an exhausting process. Rigney and his team completed an intense regimen of gym work, running and swimming all so that their bodies were equipped to travel the 20.5 kilometers or 12.74 miles from Base Camp to the summit.
But the physical requirements are only a fraction of the challenge – just 30 percent of the focus, according to Rigney. The rest is all mental which is much harder to train for, especially when so much of the climb is out of your control. With your body already lacking oxygen and water during the trek, it can be hard to shut off that inner critic inside of us all. And when that happens, you find out what’s truly behind your motivation to summit Mt. Everest.
Rather than waiting until you pass the first terrifyingly deep crevasse on the mountain, Rigney advises that future climbers make self-discovery and introspection a core part of their training and preparation before the trip. While fighting through their first storm with thousands of meters to go, these climbers will ask themselves some deep, existential questions.
“They will have to face those feelings,” Rigney assured.
‘How Will They Remember Me?’
Of course, all Mt. Everest candidates exhibit the same kind of unwavering determination in their careers, relationships and even hobbies – you have to in order to reach nearly 9,000 meters above sea level. But behind that remarkable drive is something much more definitive of your character. This is what will take you to the top of Mt. Everest.
The Mt. Everest summiteer, himself, underwent some “painful questioning” about his driven nature.
“I’ve been always achieving, achieving, achieving, proving that I can do things, proving that I could be competitive, proving that I could be successful and enjoying it along the way,” Rigney explained. “And then I got to Everest … when I started to feel physically weaker on the summit ascent, specifically on summit day, and these questions came into my mind. ‘What am I doing this for?’ Yes, it’s an achievement. It’s accolades. That’s great. But if I fall into a crevasse this morning or this afternoon, how will they remember me?”
For Rigney – and perhaps many other Mt. Everest climbers – his motivation was to leave this world a better place than when he found it. The summiteer faced his own questioning as he battled raging winds and near-vertical walls of ice. He pondered whether his accomplishments will be just a list in a eulogy or if any of his life’s work will stick with people after he is gone.
“And the answer was, I don’t think they’re going to remember any of those achievements because they won’t internalize it won’t go into their bloodstream,” he said. “I’d like to leave a ding on the universe in some shape or form, to move people to connect with people.”
Rigney Warns Against ‘Robotic’ Nature of Chasing Summits
Oftentimes, after completing such a remarkable accomplishment as summitting Mt. Everest, climbers experience a desire to push farther and see what else they can conquer. While this is an admirable mindset, Rigney cautions that this line of thinking can take away from what the experience has to offer.
“We become robotic in chasing things that we don’t even know why we’re chasing them,” Rigney explained.
That’s why the mental component of the climb is so crucial, not only to reach the summit but to come back a better person for it.
“Climbing mountains should be as much a learning experience as a physical experience,” Rigney continued. “So, the learning experience should be around humility, should be around how we live our lives and balance. Not just being a hamster on the wheel constantly, running, chasing because it’s not fulfillment. It’s the opposite of fulfillment.”
Within that learning experience, climbers will come home with a stronger sense of “vulnerability, humility, intuition, legacy and compassion.”