The Heights of Sacrifice

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On April 18th 2014 I was almost half-way through the final chapter in the Seven Summits voyage when the deadly avalanche struck the Khumbu icefall, a section of the mountain which we were preparing to climb through a few days later. The death of 16 Sherpa and the ensuing political drama involving some Sherpa and the Nepalese government led to the effective and unprecedented shutdown of the mountain on the Nepal side.

As we all hauled ass back to Kathmandu, thoughts turned to next year, to the possibility of doing it all again. While our lives and health was intact, we lost all our funds when the climbing season was cancelled. That included life savings, loans from family, donations from local business and the local community and the effects of the cancellation would stretch beyond the financial and into almost every part of my life since.

I left behind a 12-year aerospace career at Rolls-Royce in December 2012 to focus on full time training to finish the Seven Summits challenge. You don’t get many opportunities in life to finish an epic goal, so I was not going to miss my chance and I wanted this done before concentrating on other things including having a family (I didn’t say ‘settling down’ because I don’t understand that expression). Many remain at work while preparing for Everest, but I wanted to turn the experience into a unique scientific and social experiment. The goal ahead was to complete the last two peaks – Antarctica and Everest (at a combined cost of €70k/$90k per person), so all of my savings and investments were put on the table alongside loans from family and kind donations from local businesses and my local community in Longford. The folks at UL were kind enough to allow me to live and train at their facilities in exchange for the scientific experiment of being the first person to live for an extended period in an Altitude House. So with a big bill ahead I quickly learned to live on almost nothing, with maximum thrift and I became really good at it. Luxury food shops at M&S were replaced by bulk shopping at Lidl and I discovered that if you hit Tesco an hour before closing they reduce prices on sandwiches to almost nothing! I excelled at every variation of beans on toast and was lucky enough to have convinced Flahavans to sponsor me with porridge oats and Moojo to sponsor me with chocolate milk so my nutrition levels would stay high throughout what was incredibly gruelling physical endurance from July 2013 to April 2014.

I read recently where a Kilkenny hurler described sacrifice as ‘When you’d like to have a biscuit, You stop and think there’s a fella in Clare and he’s not having a biscuit’. That was how I felt for over a year during my training. Every time I saw a chocolate bar or a pint or a bag of tayto I would have an acute desire to just have the one, but a voice inside would remind me that there will be 300 people trying to climb Everest alongside me, and all of them are training just as hard or harder, and none of them will be having a pint or chips or chocolate. The sacrifice goes well beyond confectionary and pints to personal relationships, family, finances, career and beyond. I can’t eat the biscuit because the guy in front of me on the fixed ropes in the death zone did not eat the biscuits and 10 of the people climbing the mountain are statistically going to die so I better damn well make sure I’m not one of them. I was living at the coal face of sacrifice.

Now I find myself caught between peaks. Everest is both behind me and in front of me. The voice that has been in my head since we left Base Camp on 25th April has not disappeared, it is louder than ever. I need to go back and finish the job and I hope to return to Everest in April 2015 to do exactly that.

But life between peaks has been no fairytale. May was spent getting back to normal once the media storm had died down and by June I was in London looking for work. That process has proven easier said than done. Lots of qualifications but also lots of expectations. I would have long debates with myself over taking a ‘career’ job that would require me to commit fully but would affect training and put Everest 2015 at risk versus taking a ‘filler’ job just to pay the bills but if it did not have a salary large enough to help pay for Everest then it is not the right option. So I became indecisive and picky, filtering out less desirable jobs, looked for high paying roles with flexibility so I could train. July went past and still nothing. I have never been out of work in my professional life and so getting used to the change of pace and the mental challenge was hard. Daytime TV taught me that people bake competitively in a large tent, Jersey and Essex have a lot in common, ‘Yes Prime Minister’ is still as funny as ever and there is no insect too disgusting for Co. Down born Bear Grylls to consume. Alternatively when I stepped outside the door in London my remaining money would disappear so rapidly that I found myself under self-imposed house arrest trying to motivate myself to explore new options and think differently to get myself back on my feet. I also discovered that the one thing you enjoy least of all is people asking you how the job search is going. You make up generic answers coupled with a generic smile and quickly make your escape. Clearly people are asking with the best intentions but if you want to wind up someone who is between jobs, ask them how their job hunting is going, or even better suggest obvious things they could do which might get them back to work, because chances are they never thought of any of those things more about a thousand times a day! The dichotomy between business-class flights and high energy negotiations at Rolls-Royce versus the utter austerity of my post Everest world could not have been more stark and I was by now feeling sorry for myself. Were it not for the kindness of my girlfriend Rima and the patience of my family I would have easily pushed the return to Everest into the future in favour of a return to normality.

If I had been raised in the USA I would probably have been diagnosed with ADD because I can’t sit still all that much and I can’t bear wasting time or doing things I have no real interest in. My work for the past decade was 12-hour days with the weekends spent jetting around the world to meet clients and hammer out deals. The pace was frenetic, the work was high pressure but interesting and when it came to a halt in 2013 the cold turkey effect was incredible. The initial symptom was a complete loss of adrenalin, it just cliff-edged. It is often said that some folks who reach retirement can suffer immediate health problems and die soon afterwards because the adrenalin of work has been masking major medical problems. I went from a being motivated and driven to not having much energy or motivation. The transition was almost immediate and at first I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Luckily the Altitude House experiment kicked in and I was back in my groove, measuring performances in training, watching trends, building a brand in Irish Seven Summits, fundraising and pointing myself towards a goal I now felt sure I was ready for. Funding hovered over me the whole time like the Sword of Damocles but some family loans at the 11th hour saw me over the line.  After the failure of Everest the predictable slump returned, and this time it was back with a vengeance.

June was a collection of endless days spent half-heartedly applying for jobs I didn’t really want, in a location I didn’t really like, to earn money I needed to complete a task that really should have been done already. We often think that the long-term unemployed simply need to shake themselves up and change direction to find their way, but I am pretty sure now that their challenge also becomes mental, its the challenge of a lack of purpose and direction, of disappointment and eventual lack of worth when the job doesn’t materialise as easily as you may have imagined.

On July 4th I ran out of money. Completely! From that point I had to figure out the cheapest way to fund myself. The GFC was still affecting the aerospace industry so job hunting was yielding little of real interest. I could not get a loan because I was not working and I have not lived as an earner in Ireland since 2000 or UK since 2008 (I was in USA and Germany from 2008-2012). So I decided to rack up any absolutely necessary spend on my credit card, and take money via the ATM from that same credit card to pay off the credit card each month until I reach the limit. So my credit card became the cause of and the solution to my financial problems. It was the only option that allowed me to live independently (sort of), and for the past 3 months that is exactly what I have done. My girlfriend cuts my hair each month to save money, I hit up Tesco just before closing for last minute deals, and I have not bought any new clothes or luxuries for a long while now. Kudos to people with young families who have to do this every day in order to ensure that income covers bills while taxes rise faster than inflation. Its true that you have to live it to understand it. I sometimes lie awake at night staring at the ceiling wondering what I will do when the credit card reaches its limit or where to live when I have to move from my current location in a few weeks time. It has got me down and I have needed to proactively kick myself back into action and stop feeling sorry for myself. I have good mental strength (I rather need it to climb into the death zone on Everest) so I can force myself into change when things get me down. My problems are temporary and I have the capacity and smarts to find a way out, but for many these problems are more permanent. I have great respect and admiration for those who battle through each of dips and manage to create the wonder and joy necessary to keep their family happy and fed. You guys are the real heroes.

So in August while utterly fed up, I sought free advice from a life coach in London who told me to start making money from some of my hobbies while I am job hunting. I love messing around with website and graphics design, so I decided to start there. A practice run at overhauling the Killoe GAA website with a new structure I learned then led to the contract to build the new Longford GAA website which launched on 3rd October. Since then another contract appeared and the potential for 2-3 on the horizon too. Hopefully more will follow and I can utilise freelancing to take me back to Everest in April 2015. I have also started looking at “house sitting” where you get paid to mind someones house for a number of months. Its sounds a bit crazy but it may solve my housing problem. I am also looking at App development and learning new skills (slowly, sometimes frustratingly) to develop creative solutions with the aim of funding Everest in 2015. I don’t do free money, I have never taken social welfare, and I am not a socialist type, hence I believe that if you work hard enough, get lucky and keep learning new skills the opportunities will come. The challenge is big, I need to raise €15k/$25k to make Everest 2 a reality. That is not impossible, but I need to get lucky, work hard, train hard and stay focussed every day to stand a fighting chance. There is no more room for feeling sorry for myself, the clock is ticking and the guy in front of me on the fixed ropes has been training for months now.

I am between a peak and a hard place. I never expected the challenges that have materialised over the past 12 months. I write this between job hunting and freelancing, with -€500 to go until I reach my credit card limit and zero in my bank accounts. It is a humbling position, one might even say a unique life changing experiment to see what it feels like to go to the wall and bounce back stronger than ever.

I am betting that I can. My Seven Summits goal and the adventures that sits beyond the mountain depends on it.

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