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.

The Live Love Laugh Foundation at the summit of Everest (Part 2)

The Khumbu Ice Fall changes every day. Crevasses open up, searacs collapse and every trip up and down is a different experience. Because of the snowfall later in the season the condition were much safer than the first time I went up. Still, as I climbed with Pa Rita Sherpa, we were careful with every step we took and it was a relief when we reached Camp 2 early in the morning of May 7. 

Camp 2 under the snow

After already spending so many days above 6,400 meters that season, my heart rate and breathing felt comfortable that afternoon at dinner in the kitchen tent. Talking with the Sherpas during meals is something I always look forward to. I have been climbing with the same Sherpa team since 2008, nine years, and spending time with them feels like spending time with family. It really feels that way. During my stay at Camp 2 I kept going over the weather forecasts for our possible summit day, May 12, and also the plans for the Sherpa team that was climbing to the summit. It was on May 9 that I was forced to make a decision between using this as my final acclimatization rotation to Camp 4 and try to climb without using supplemental oxygen or to go for an early summit, giving up on my personal goal, and making sure that The Live Love Laugh Foundation’s banner made it to the summit. As mentioned on Part 1 of this post, I felt my work with the Foundation was a priority. I decided to go for an early attempt.

Climbing on the Lhotse Face

I continued the ascent reaching camp 3, at 7,200 meters, after climbing halfway up the Lhotse face on May 10. The climb was over ice rising at an average of 50º. Thankfully there were very few climbers on the route. That’s one of the advantages of going for an unusually early summit: no crowds. It’s never easy to set up Camp 3 since shelves big enough for the tents need to be choppedfrom the ice. I spent all that afternoon and night by myself since the Sherpas prefer to climb directly from Camp 2 to Camp 4 and spend a more comfortable night at lower altitudes. Enjoying the silence and solitude, I ran the stoves all of the afternoon, melting ice and boiling water, making soup and instant noodles. That’s as far as my cooking skills go on and off the mountains. There was some snowfall on the afternoon, but not more than what was forecasted. Before the sun set below the horizon I was rewarded with an amazing view of Pumori and Cho-Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world.

Everest and the Geneva Spur

I woke up early on May 11. During the night I didn’t sleep much but still felt rested and ready to head up. All my gear was packed when Pa Rita arrived and it was time to move. That morning I had been melting ice for about two hours to have enough water for the whole day. To me, the climb from Camp 3 to Camp 4 is one of the toughest parts of the expedition because you can see most of the route and it never seems to get any closer. We continued to make our way up, passing the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur. The upper part of the Lhotse face seemed to have more snow than any of the other times I’ve been up there and that was a good thing since when the mountain is dry there is constant danger of being hit by falling rocks and ice. The snow keeps all of that buried. Still, as we reached the South Col, the rocky and icy saddle formed between Everest and Lhotse, I was amazed at seeing it all buried under the snow.

The South Col

Pa Rita Sherpa's turn at the stoves

We arrived at Camp 4 around 2:00pm and it took us a few minutes to set up a tent and get settled inside. We had been using supplemental oxygen from Camp 3 and that made it a little bit easier. Once we were inside our tent and we had the stoves going it started to snow. For hours we had heavy snowfall and I started to worry about the conditions higher up and how that would affect our chances to summit the next day. I tried to stay positive and reminded myself I’d been at the South Col many times before under worse weather and I knew we would get our chance that night. During the afternoon Kenton Cool, the British climber, came by to talk about our plans and it was good to know there would be four other climbers going up that night. We would be the first foreigners to try to summit form Nepal since 2013. During that afternoon an Camp 4 we also go word on the radio that the Sherpa team had reached the summit. A few minutes later the snow stopped. Finally things were going our way and around 6:00pm I made the final call to start climbing for the summit that night at 12:00am. That meant we would have just 5 hours to rest before we had to start getting ready to leave Camp 4. 

So up at 8,000 meters, we spent the afternoon of May 11 resting inside our sleeping bags, dreaming of the summit. There was no wind on the mountain and the sky was clear. The sunset was spectacular.