Few colleagues in the Senate know of my unusual diversion and I’ve done little media on the subject. High altitude mountaineering is a physical and psychological challenge like nothing else I’ve experienced in life. It’s the excitement and risk of challenging my mind and my body.
My people were not adventurers. My father came from a small Newfoundland fishing village and my mother was born and raised in London, England. The most adventurous family vacation I recall as a boy was a road trip to Truro, N.S.
When climbing I spend little time admiring the topography – the rocks, the ice and the snow. It’s hard to love an environment that is wind-swept and bitter cold, where you can barely breathe and are struggling with heavy loads. It’s a difficult environment.
In 2010 I read the memoirs of U.S. climber Jim Wickwire, Addicted To Danger: Affirming Life In The Face Of Death. He was the first American to climb K2 in the Himalayas and lost a climbing partner in a fatal plunge on Mount Everest in 1982. Is it the danger that’s appealing? Perhaps, but I think it’s more the extreme challenge.
I’m drawn to the mental and physical challenge. Working at high altitude and low oxygen, packing heavy gear with a specific and difficult goal in mind gives me that. I enjoy being uncomfortable in my surroundings. That challenge elevates you within.
In 1994 my wife and I decided that before raising a family we’d backpack around the globe. Our travels took 14 months. There were two objectives: to keep heading east from St. John’s until our journey brought us back to where we started, and to do things we normally wouldn’t do.
We swam in the Nile and Dead Sea, slept outside in the desert in Jordan, and explored the plains of India and the forests of Borneo. However it was a trek in Peru that affected me the most. It was there I did my first 14,000 ft. climb on a three-day hike to Machu Picchu. Stepping out of my tent on a cold, moonlit night, seeing the clouds far below was magical.
My first high peak was Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, but really it is just a difficult walk. Next was Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus near their border with Georgia, where climbers must wear crampons and carry ice axes. It is the highest peak in Europe. Nearing the summit I’d take five slow steps and then gasp for air. It was -40°, the wind was howling and I narrowly escaped frostbite. For the final two hours to the summit and the five hours back to high camp I was alone and exhausted.
My highest peak so far is 19,400 feet. I love the physical training, honing technical skills and organizing my gear. The planning and anticipation is exciting. The climb itself is miserable: bitter cold, gale-force wind and the challenge of trying to pitch and sleep in a small nylon tent on the side of a mountain.
You get headaches and insomnia from the lack of oxygen in the air, and disorientation is common. You can hardly breathe and will never be sure if the weather will control your destiny. There are rock falls and crevasses, and when I reach the summit I’m not happy or elated: I just want to get down. Yet trying to find your place amongst all that adversity is exhilarating.
When our lives are finished and we recall the challenges that we’ve faced and achievements we’ve earned, none of us want to leave anything on the table. That’s what motivates me. In life it is simple to attempt only the easy things.
(Editor’s note: this commentary by Senator Wells of St. John’s was originally published January 12, 2014. Wells that week successfully climbed Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, tallest peak outside the Himalaya range at 22,841 feet)