Setting lofty goals is second nature to this climber, because he his able to change his plans in crucial moments
“AM I A BUDDHIST? NO. I’M A RATIONALIST”
Austrian David Lama was the first to free climb probably the world’s toughest peak – Cerro Torre in Patagonia – and wrote alpine history in the process. What made his ascent so impressive, was that his first attempt at the jagged, 3,128m spire failed.
In two new documentaries, Lama can be seen pushing his limits and dealing with disappointment as he attempts to make the first ascent of the south-east face of Annapurna III (7,555m) and the first-ever ascent of Lunag Ri (6,895m) in Nepal. The Red Bulletin spoke to him about staying cool when the pressure is at its highest.
THE RED BULLETIN: You chose a pursuit in which the slightest mistake could have lethal consequences…
DAVID LAMA: That may well be true, but it doesn’t mean that I make decisions when I’m out on expeditions any differently from how I do in my regular life. It’s a matter of experience and self-evaluation.
In your films, you come across as relaxed, cool and composed. It doesn’t matter whether you’re thousands of metres up a rock-face, climbing on an icy ridge in the middle of the night or having to give up on an expedition that’s been years in the making. You always exude a Buddhist calm.
What you call Buddhism is in fact rationality. If I had to describe the mindset of successful mountaineers in as few words as possible, I’d say it was rational and objective.
That’s the opposite of what you’d expect to hear from a person at the top of their game. Aren’t successful people often hell-bent on getting their own way?
It’s not about trying to pull off something sensational. We wouldn’t climb a rock-face where we didn’t have a chance of making it to the summit. We make a rational decision. You know your climbing partner; you study the weather; you calculate the risk of error.
And yet still you might not succeed. In the spring, you had to turn back on the south-east ridge of Annapurna III in Nepal…
The bad weather made success impossible. It’s irrelevant whether you call it failure or not. Making any other decision would have been wrong.
All the preparation, which would have taken months, went up in smoke at that moment. You came across as though you didn’t care.
Obviously it’s annoying. But making rational decisions also means that you constantly have to change your plans. It’s as simple as that.
Most top-level sportspeople would say the opposite: “Be ruthless. Don’t let obstacles get in the way of success.”
In mountaineering, you constantly have to check your perceptions against reality. After all, a plan is only an idea. And an idea is a fleeting thing.
There are 41 mountains on the Earth taller than Annapurna III. What is it about that mountain that appeals to you?
No one has ever climbed the south-east ridge. First ascents are the core of mountaineering for me. Then it’s the level of difficulty and the remoteness of the route. We’re going again next year.
As a mountaineer, you have a reputation to look after. How do you cope with failed expeditions?
Obviously you always want to be successful. But regardless of the outcome, any expedition still offers hundreds of experiences you can learn from. For example, in November 2015, I climbed Lunag Ri, which no one had ever climbed before, with the very experienced American climber Conrad Anker. When the weather forecast promised -35˚C for that night, Conrad said, “At least we know it’s going to be cold.” You must think that totally banal, right?
Just a little bit!
But I learned something from Conrad’s composure. There’s no point in moaning about bad news. Any information is a good thing. In this case, we knew we had to pack an extra gas cartridge. Believe me, on an expedition, these little details can be what ends up making all the difference.