It’s common knowledge that summitting Mt. Everest takes lots of practice, expertise and preparation. However, what few people know about the climb is that the hardest skill to master is giving up control.
It’s an odd concept – surrendering control of a potentially life-threatening situation and allowing the elements to take their course. But this is precisely what Mt. Everest summiteer and author of Naked at the Knife-Edge Vivian James Rigney learned to do during his intense training at Base Camp before he and his team launched their summit bid, marking the beginning of the 3,500-meter climb to the top of the world.
At the time, Rigney was 39 years old and had already completed the other six of the Seven Summits. As an executive coach during the rest of the year, the Ireland-born climber knew well how to go with the flow and maintain an open mind. Of course, when traversing ice fields and traveling across narrow bridges atop seemingly endless crevasses, even his vast, previous experience didn’t quite feel the same.
For that reason, Rigney had to undergo a fierce transformation in which he had to release the voice inside of his head and replace it with the breath of the mountain.
Mt. Everest Weather Waits for No One
Once you reach Everest Base Camp, you are at the mercy of the elements. It is up to you to compensate for the lack of oxygen and running water as well as the high winds. To make things even more complicated, weather conditions have to be just right in order to safely complete the course.
“The mountain decides whether it can be climbed or not,” Rigney told Outsider in an exclusive interview. “If the winds don’t go down, you’re not getting up.”
In other words, you have to climb Mt. Everest during its sweet spot. Typically, this is in May, just before monsoon season and when Subtropical Jet Stream winds decrease. Of course, it takes highly advanced expertise to know when exactly the best days to summit Mt. Everest are. And according to Rigney, it’s not a wide range of dates.
“It’s a tiny amount of time,” he said. “In a good year, you might have 10 days, but generally it hovers around five-ish.”
With such a small window available, climbers have to come to terms with the fact that the majority of their journey is out of their control. For many of us, that’s a tough pill to swallow because so much remains unknown. But once that front-country tendency to be in charge of our destination subsides, it becomes easier to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Every Step Counts
While relinquishing control gave Rigney freedom to embrace his environment, that didn’t mean he could become careless. There’s no room for error while summitting Mt. Everest. Unsure footing and foolish mistakes can quickly become death sentences for climbers and their teammates, so every step and every second counts. This is because Mt. Everest is as unforgiving as it is beautiful.
With regular avalanches caused by moving glaciers and the freeze-thaw cycle of the frozen desert landscape, there’s no time to waste. In Naked at the Knife-Edge, Rigney recalled how crucial each moment was during a test run of the Khumbu Icefall, the highest glacier known to man. Because of how swiftly this humongous 10-mile-long iceblock shifts, new crevasses open at an alarming rate, meaning climbers have to be hyper-aware of each foothold and spend as little time in the region as possible.
After completing the Icefall with his climbing team, Rigney reflected on the consequence of their relatively slow pace of seven hours.
“For every additional minute we stayed in the Icefall,” Rigney said in his book, “our chances of experiencing a dangerous movement or collapse increase exponentially. This was a team wake-up call.”
Not only did this moment solidify the team members’ dependency on one another for safety, but it also made the risks of Mt. Everest’s landscape terrifyingly real. And while crampons, ice axes and harnesses help climbers gain back a small amount of control over the obstacles ahead, the raw reality is that these potential summiteers may never come home. In the right mindset, this is a surreal reminder that the mountain is an equalizer of man – all may become victims of its wrath, no matter age, experience or gear. And in another, it’s a paralyzing thought that can freeze climbers where they stand.
The key to survival and summitting is to stay in the former, more accepting state of mind.
‘Vulnerability Is a Distinct Strength’
Of course, keeping this mentality is easier said than done which is why climbers have to train their minds twice as hard as they train their bodies, according to Rigney. Quieting those voices is like acclimating to a lack of oxygen, slowly teaching your heart to pump more red blood cells. It takes practice and persistence, and many times, you’ll feel exhausted afterward.
Once Rigney find his own internal rhythm, he began to see the world in a new light.
“Vulnerability is a distinct strength. It strengthens your core and allows you to be connected with yourself, to be more productive and to be more connected with people because you’re being honest with yourself. You’re listening to yourself.”Vivian James Rigney
In order to relinquish control, Rigney explains that climbers have to be vulnerable – a skill that has become increasingly difficult because we are such guarded creatures.
“It goes back to this premise of we’re so worried what people think of us,” he said. “We want our shared price to be so high all the time that we forget ourselves along the way.”
So many adventurers experience a sense of clarity once they step into the wilderness, and that’s no coincidence. Safe from judgment and expectations, they tend to let the walls fall like an avalanche. That’s exactly what Rigney experienced, himself.
“I was worrying so much about what people thought of me, and I had to just find north and find my life’s compass,” he shared. “But we have to let go of things in order to experience that sense of deep presence and being at peace and being aware of what’s happening around you.”
Rigney Found Solace on Mt. Everest by Living in 24-Hour Increments
It’s a lot to ask of someone – giving up control under unbelievably stressful conditions. But Rigney learned one technique that made the mountain appear a bit smaller. The Mt. Everest summiteer began living in 24-hour increments.
“It slows time down,” Rigney explained. “The sun rising every day acted as a reset and was quite real for me.”
In the front country, maintaining such a mindset is nearly impossible. Between our jobs, social lives and familial obligations, it’s difficult to stay present.
“There’s just so much stimulation today with social media and everything that’s happening around us. There’s just so much hitting us, and we tend to be far more reactive than we believe we are.”Vivian James Rigney
According to Rigney, all of our daily distractions prevent us from truly enjoying each moment of the day.
“It’s almost like we have the anesthetic of distractions and busyness,” he said.
This busyness coincides with the need for control, both of which are useless on Mt. Everest. Once climbers leave behind these front-country tendencies, there’s no filter to dim the beauty or danger of the mountain, and that’s when they crave control the most.
Ultimately, this is the turning point for Mt. Everest summiteers. They either stick to their front-country mindset or embrace the chaos of the mountain.
As for Rigney, well, it’s clear which path he took.
“I faced my death, my demise at 39 years of age,” Rigney shared. “I became hyper-aware that I can actually change my destiny today, one day at a time.”