Afterthought to X-Pyr 2016

It’s been two weeks since the official end of X-Pyr 2016. My personal experience as participant in this amazing race was too short. On day two I caught a thermal just a few meters off the ground while I was already committed to land and ended up crashing into a barbed wire fence. I was incredibly lucky to have hit a post with my shoes and avoided hitting the spikes with my body. But my paraglider wasn’t as lucky. It was still traveling at a high speed and the barbs caused severe damage to about 25% of my wing.

Start of X-Pyr 2016, Hondarribia

I considered the situation with Alex, my teammate, and we agreed that it was a complex repair, not something we could just tape up and it was a significant safety risk. We didn’t have a backup glider and it was impossible for us to buy, rent or in any other way get another glider within the next few days. I even told Alex I would pack my damaged glider and walk as far as I could, without the possibility of flying, until the race was over. He smartly talked me out of this idea. We decided to call the Race Director and let him know that we were retiring. Our race was over. 

For us X-Pyr involved months of planning, training and dreaming. It wasn’t easy to take a step back and see three amazing athletes and pilots make it all the way to the Mediterranean. But because of my background as a mountaineer I understand that there are variables that are outside of my control, that I can’t change and therefore I should accept and move on. That uncertainty is the nature of adventure races like X-Pyr and that’s part of what draws us. My definition of adventure: a journey in which the outcome is uncertain. X-Pyr is definitely an adventure.

Preparing for the race, and the race itself can be a logistical nightmare for participants and assistants. But it doesn’t compare to the extraordinary effort made by the race organizers. While we have mandatory rest periods from 22:30 to 5:30, they kept going all night looking after us. I’m extremely grateful to Íñigo Redín and his amazing team for putting together such a complex race, and still make it challenging but fun for us. I would also like to thank my teammate Alex for planning and dreaming being a part of this adventure with me. You can always expect him to keep a cool head and a smile, and he won’t disappoint.

So what’s next for me? Paragliding competitions, summiting an unclimbed peak in the Himalayas, marathons, ultra-marathons and multi-stage adventure races in the desert. And that’s just until the first half of next year! But I’m sure that wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, on the back of my mind I will be thinking of X-Pyr 2018 and reaching El Port de la Selva. 

X-Pyr: The hike & fly race across the Pyrenees

When in the middle of January of this year I received the email confirming that our team had been selected to participate in X-Pyr 2016, I first felt thrilled and proud to have been chosen for one of the biggest and most exciting adventure races in the world. My next thought was, “you better get it together because the first half of this year will be one of the most challenging of your life”.

I’m no stranger to tough challenges. I’ve been climbing mountains for the past 23 years and among many other achievements I’ve stood on the summit of Mount Everest (8,848 meters) 6 times. I began paragliding as a safer and more efficient way of getting off the mountains and I’ve participated in many competitions. I’ve sailed offshore for thousands of miles, mostly singlehanded and I’ve run in about two dozen marathons, Ironman triathlons and hundreds of road races. But this year would be especially challenging because I had to run a marathon in February, I had to train for and climb Mount Everest again during the spring and I had to get ready for X-Pyr. My teammate Alex Gonzalez was a big help with planning the logistics for X-Pyr while I concentrated on my climbing expedition.

I flew to Nepal on March 28 and went flying in Pokhara. It’s one of my favorite sites. On April 7 I flew to the Himalayas and began the trek to Everest Base Camp, climbing a 6,200 mountain on the way. I arrived at Base Camp on April 19 and began the slow process of getting acclimatized to the altitude. My plan was to try to climb without supplemental oxygen but, as I was climbing in association with The Live Love Laugh Foundation trying to raise awareness about the dangers of depression and mental health disorders, I made the decision to give up my personal goal and reach the summit with the Foundation’s banner. I got to the summit on May 12 climbing with Pa Rita Sherpa on a day with perfect weather conditions. It was my 6th summit.

As I returned to Base Camp the next day my mind went from climbing mode to hike & fly mode. Everest was behind me and X-Pyr was where I would focus all my energy and time. I returned to Mexico a few weeks later and one of the first things I did was to go to Valle de Bravo and fly again. What an amazing feeling to be back in the sky after dreaming about it for two months. I knew there would be a lot of catching up to do with only one and a half months to go before the start of X-Pyr.

During the weeks leading to X-Pyr I will be flying more than I’ve ever flown before, and I will be posting updates on this blog and on social media about my training and preparations. Thank you for following me on this adventure. 

The Live Love Laugh Foundation at the summit of Everest (Part 3/Final)

The Ice Bulge and Triangular Face

During many of the nights I’d spent at Camp 4 on Everest (8,000m) on previous expeditions, it had been so windy that we even had to push out the tent walls to keep them from collapsing. This time the forecast that predicted a maximum wind speed of 10 mph was completely accurate. And even though I actually didn’t get to sleep, I was able to rest and listen to music until 11:00pm on May 11 when my iPhone’s alarm went off. By then Pa Rita Sherpa was already awake. 

First we got the stoves going to brew coffee and melt ice to have enough water for our climb to the summit. Because of the lack of oxygen, it takes much longer at that altitude to put on all of our gear and to get ready to leave camp. Just putting on my Millet double boots took about 10 minutes. The gear I was wearing was: two pairs of socks, double boots (with heated insoles), two pairs of long underwear (bottoms, thick and thin), two pairs of long underwear tops (thick and thin), down suit, buff, OR gorilla mask, OR heated gloves, goggles, headlamp, crampons and harness. In my backpack I had extra gloves, down mittens, two litters of water, ice axe, VHF radio and first aid kit. I also packed The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s banner and two of the three oxygen bottles I had available. Finally, in my down suit pockets I put my camera, iPhone and satellite phone. By 12:15am on May 12 we were ready to go and I called base camp on the radio. The final push to the summit began under perfect weather conditions.

We could see a couple of headlamps on the route that meant Kenton Cool and his group had decided to start early. We followed their tracks and soon made it all the way to the top of the ice bulge and the beginning of the Triangular Face. Because of the heavy snow on the afternoon before and from previous days, there was much more snow on the mountain than I’d ever seen before. But this particular kind of snow was extremely dry and wouldn’t stick so, even though the four climbers above us had made a great effort to kick steps, when we got there those steps were already covered with snow and we had to do the work all over again. It would be like that the whole way.

The five hours we spent climbing in the dark was a surreal experience. Our world was reduced to the area that our headlamps reached. The rest was darkness and it felt as if nothing else existed beyond the light beam. That night there was no moon and the sky was clear so when we took a break and turned off our headlamps, stars began to appear and soon the whole Milky Way followed. I’ve spent a big part of my life in the outdoors and countless nights sailing under the stars but I’ve never seen a night sky so stunning as the one I saw that night. Another amazing thing I saw that night was thunderstorms all around us, thousands of meters bellow. They were so far that we couldn’t hear the thunder but we could see the light show for hours.

We continued climbing very efficiently on the way to the Balcony at 8,500 meters. I lead and Pa Rita Sherpa followed. It was such a relief having the mountain to ourselves and not being stuck climbing behind many others. The decision to go early in the season was paying off even if I was using oxygen. While we climbed we didn’t talk much and stopped just a few times preferring to keep moving and stay warm. Although there was no wind, I reminded myself to be proactive and keep moving my toes and fingers, keeping the circulation going. 

From the Balcony to the South Summit. You can see the other four climbers above us.

I had put on new batteries on my headlamp before leaving Camp 4 but I could clearly see that it was losing power. The batteries were supposed to last for about 50 hours but the temperature was -30ºC and the light was becoming very dim. Thankfully the sunrise was sneaking up on us and soon I didn’t need the headlamp anymore. We were at the Balcony, the spot where Hilary and Norgay spent the night before they climbed to the summit for the first time 63 years ago. From there we could see the other four climbers 200 meters above us. As we changed oxygen bottles for new ones the sun finally came up over the horizon. It was about 5:00am

The next challenge was to climb up on the southeast ridge all the way to the south summit. For me this is one of the toughest parts since I find the two rocky sections difficult. It took us another two and a half hours to reach the south summit. The other climbers were just 50 meters away from us. Although I felt tired, knowing I was so close to my goal gave me the emotional boost I needed to get to the summit. 

From the South Summit, the ridge towards the Hillary Step.

Another challenging section was the traverse on the ridge towards the Hillary Step. This year it had so much snow that instead of climbing over rock we followed a knife-edge snow ridge with many cornices. Then it was time to climb the Hillary Step. But when I reached the place where it should have been, all I saw was a snow ramp and I actually thought the boulders that formed it were gone. I thought they might have collapsed because of the big earthquake the previous year and I later wrote on social media about this. The boulders were just buried under the snow as I later found out. So for us it was just a simple climb on that snow ramp and then we were on the summit ridge.

It’s very hard to describe the avalanche of emotions I felt when I saw the four people ahead of us standing on the highest point on the planet. It was a mix of satisfaction, relief and so much gratitude for the people that made it possible for me to be there one more time. 

Climbers at the summit of Everest

When I took the last few steps to the summit I had tears in my eyes that quickly froze to my eyelashes. After giving a hug to Pa Rita Sherpa, and congratulating each other and I removed my backpack and took out The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s banner that was rolled inside. Pa Rita took my photo holding it. We had reached our goal: climbing to the summit of Mount Everest for mental health awareness. We were sharing the message: #YouAreNotAlone. It was 8:24am. When I made the radio call to base camp I could hear the cheers on the background. After 3 years foreigners had reached the summit of Everest from Nepal. It was my 6th time up there.

I closed my eyes and silently thanked the thousands of people following the expedition, the Trustees of the Foundation for believing in me. I also took a moment to think about the people struggling to overcome depression and mental health disorders, wishing they will soon get on the road to recovery and to start living a happy life.

Having carried my satellite phone all the way to the summit it was time to call my family. It’s very important to talk to them from the summit and let them know how their support had been essential for me to have reached my goal again. Since there was some battery still left on the phone I also tried calling Deepika Padukone to thank her and let her know how the movement she started with the Foundation had reached the highest point on the planet. She showed a lot of courage when she opened up about her problems with depression. That courage was an inspiration to me. After several tries where the call was sent to voicemail, I left her a message and switched the phone off. I thought, “How cool is that? Voicemail from the summit of Everest!”. Finally, I took a few minutes to enjoy the spectacular view: eight thousand meter peaks and massive glaciers all around, blue sky and perfect weather. I had climbed using oxygen, but giving up on my personal goal had been worth it. I had no regrets. As we left the summit, 45 minutes after we had reached it, I looked back and saw for the last time that magical place. I concentrated on noticing every detail and saving that image on my mind.

It took us 7 hours to safely climb down to Camp 2. As I lay inside my sleeping bag I began to realize what I had achieved. It was probably going to be my last time up there. For 11 years, Everest had given me some of the toughest and some of the most rewarding moments of my life. Climbing it I had made great friends and I’d seen amazing feats of courage: people putting themselves at risk to save the lives of other. I’m very grateful for all these experiences: good and bad. I also feel unlimited gratitude towards the people that made my adventures on Everest possible. They have helped me get closer to my ultimate goal: to live a meaningful life, full of unique experiences.