Dreamers who risk death to feel most alive
Climbing mountains is a spiritual experience, writes Derek Fanning
Men climb mountains because they are dreamers and because it makes them feel alive. I have climbed many high mountains and one day I dream of climbing Mount Everest. I fully agree with the English actor Brian Blessed who, at the age of 70, still travels around the world adventuring and runs several miles each day. He said that for him adventuring was the most important thing of all, more important than acting; that it filled him with an energy and a vitality that was priceless; it filled him with soul.
Blessed has spoken out against many things in our modern world including our cult of celebrity, being middleclass and conventional and people who end up living their lives in an empty drudge with no spark, who end up each evening in the corner of their sitting rooms watching TV in a vegetable state.
Mountaineering is the opposite of all that because it is so stark and so real; when you are climbing a high mountain God is really present before you. Blessed also commented that you go to Everest not to die but to feel alive (he has attempted Everest on three occasions).
I remember climbing a dangerous mountain in Nepal and prior to setting out my mother gave me a miraculous medal and a younger woman gave me a bottle of oil which possessed spiritual properties. The former gift was more old-fashioned but I had respect for both items because I respect all spiritual beliefs when they are sincere and heartfelt; when they are compassionate and have sympathy for the human. I have just returned from trekking in Peru -- a country where many people still believe that the mountains are invested with spirit and should be revered. This belief stretches back centuries to the Inca civilisation and beyond, who believed that the spirit of a God called Apu dwelt in the mountains. This was a creed I could fully relate to because I also feel that mountains are filled with spirit.
If we fast-forward from the Incas to the romantic poets of the Industrial Age, we will see men such as Wordsworth stating the same thing, that mountains are filled with soul.
At the time of writing, much of what happened during the recent K2 tragedy in Pakistan still remains obscured, but from what I have read in the press so far some salient features stand out and the most important of them is a sense of camaraderie, a sense of friendship.
The various climbing teams had united together rather than adopt some competitive stand-off attitude. That unity would have given them great strength, in both practical and emotional terms, and given them the best chance possible of getting up and down this dangerous mountain without incident. For me, getting to the top of a high mountain is not important -- sure, it would be nice, but what is actually important is friendship, a sense of bonding, with the other people around you.
Friendship and love are at the heart of the universe.
I met Ger McDonnell just once, or rather saw him just once. I was staying in my friend Pat Falvey's climbing lodge in Kerry because I was rockclimbing in that beautiful county and when I came down to breakfast, Ger was sitting with other mountaineers at the other table.
I didn't chat to him, I didn't get to know him at all, but those who did know him speak very highly of his qualities, of his humour and of his compassion. When I saw Ger he had just returned from his 2006 attempt of K2 during which he was struck by a rockfall and had to abandon the expedition -- he still had the ugly-looking wound on his head from that rockfall.
Pat Falvey has said that Ger was an extremely strong climber and indeed all the climbers on K2 would have been very strong. The weather conditions were favourable; they were together; they were very fit and technically able: all the boxes were ticked for ensuring the best possible chance of returning to camp safe and sound. They reached the summit of this hugely demanding peak and tears of happiness may have been shed at that point; they began making the descent and then the nightmare, the tragedy happened, when a serac -- a giant edifice of ice -- avalanched the team.
I just hope, I pray, that when the tragedy occurred and the end came, that it was painless and swift.