Would you sacrifice a digit for a summit?

It’s an old cliché that there’s nothing quite like reaching the summit of a mountain, but the feeling of elation when you return to base camp and the achievement begins to sink in can be just as satisfying in a very different way, if not more so. When I reached the summit of Muztag Ata in 2007, which at 7546m is still my highest to date, it was cold and windy and the risk of frostbite was very real. I was overjoyed, but I didn’t hang around, making futile attempts to record some summit photos with my frozen camera before shooting back down to high camp again. A couple of days later things were very different. I remember gazing out of the window of our bus at the desert landscape of Xinjiang, western China, a strange feeling of contentment verging on bliss welling over me that I later realised could only have been the thing we call happiness. It lasted for several hours, and there are very few times in my life that I can remember feeling like that.

Richard Parks (right) with Geoff Holland on Cho Oyu last year
Richard Parks (right) with Geoff Holland on Cho Oyu last year

So when I enthusiastically emailed three of my Cho Oyu companions last week to congratulate them on their successful ascent of Everest, I believed I had some idea what they were feeling like. I thought they might be able to pick up the email on their return to base camp, having made their way through the Khumbu Icefall, Everest’s last dangerous obstacle, at the moment that incredible feeling of elation was beginning to take hold.

Little did I know that for one of the climbers things would be very different.

Richard Parks took his boots off at base camp to discover he had 1st to 2nd degree frostbite in his big toe. After visiting the base camp doctors and sending a photograph of his damaged foot to specialists back in the UK, he learned that although the toe could almost certainly be saved, it might be tender and more susceptible to frostbite for the rest of his life. Oh, and he would need to get back to low altitude as soon as possible, to start the blood circulating so that his recovery could begin. He would need to rest his foot for anything from 3 weeks to 3 months.

Not a problem, you might think. He has just climbed the highest mountain in the world; he has earned the right to put his feet up, let his achievement sink in, and rest and recover ready for his next challenge.

Frostbite injury: although this hand eventually made a full recovery, loss of digits is common
Frostbite injury: although this hand eventually made a full recovery, loss of digits is common

But Richard has set his sights on bigger things, and for him the challenge is not yet over. A former Welsh rugby international, he was forced to retire because of injury in 2009, and for the last two years has been re-training as a mountaineer. In December 2010 he embarked on his 737 Challenge, an attempt to climb the highest mountain in each continent (the Seven Summits) and reach both poles in just seven short months. It was a challenge that required not only a great deal of physical and mental toughness, but also a healthy dose of good fortune.

One by one he has ticked them off – the South Pole, Mt Vinson, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Carstensz Pyramid, the North Pole, and now Everest – but it seems his luck may finally have run out with two mountains still to go: Denali and Elbrus. Due to depart for the first of these on 10 June, it seems hard to believe his foot will have recovered in time. The furthest north of the Seven Summits, Denali in Alaska is renowned for its extremely cold temperatures (“so cold you have to pee through a sock,” the high-altitude mountaineer Phil Crampton once said to me). Although it will be late in the season by the time he arrives, and it will have warmed up a bit, Richard will still have to contend with the storms that are a regular feature on Denali, often keeping climbers tent-bound high on the mountain for days. And weathering a multi-day storm while stationary in a tent seems sure to bring on a recurrence of his frostbite.

I know what I’d be doing if I were him. I’m a very cautious mountaineer. In 2009 I stared up the Japanese Couloir on Gasherbrum I and watched an avalanche come down the fixed ropes I was due to climb. The following day I packed up my things and descended, while bolder climbers went on to the summit. Last year I watched seven tiny figures reaching the summit of Baruntse while we were packing our camp away. It was -30 C at base camp, and as I watched plumes of snow batter off the summit nearly 2000 metres above me, I knew it must be well below -50 C up there, and frostbite injuries to some of those climbers seemed certain. For me, it was not a summit window, and I have no regrets about leaving either of those mountains.

The Japanese Couloir on Gasherbrum I: watching an avalanche come down it was enough for me
The Japanese Couloir on Gasherbrum I: watching an avalanche come down it was enough for me

On the other hand, I’m not him, and by admitting the above I’m more or less telling you why. I’m no international athlete, and although I can be very determined on a mountain, I don’t possess that drive to succeed that must be a characteristic of all elite sportsmen. I started mountaineering because I enjoy the scenery, and the scenery is usually better on the top. I hope I would never sacrifice a digit to reach a summit.

But will Richard? I spent more than a month with him on Cho Oyu last year, and know him to be level-headed and sensible, the sort of person who always wants to listen and learn, and make himself better at what he does. Technique, fitness and determination are all characteristics of a successful mountaineer, but the very best, the true survivors, also have wisdom.

For now Richard is doing everything the doctors tell him to help his foot to heal, but it seems impossible that it will have recovered enough to attempt a mountain so cold and unpredictable as Denali so soon. Whatever he decides to do and whatever the outcome of his challenge, I hope he begins his next one with two whole feet.

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