Alex Grech's blog

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Three men and Everest

Marco Cremona, Dr Greg Attard and Robert Gatt plan to climb the sixth highest mountain, Cho Oyu (8,201metres) this September, and Mount Everest in May 2010 in their challenge8000 expedition. This is their story. But there are also others in on their adventure: Victor Saunders, their guide; and the three women who live with them.

Marco Cremona, 40, is a man in a hurry. A wiry man in perpetual motion, he speaks quickly. The conversation veers from green issues - at the core of his business as a mechanical engineer and environmental consultant - to the mountain boots he has just bought online for Euros 690 from a US specialist store. At an altitude of 8,000 metres and in minus 40 degrees, size 40 feet need size 45 boots to accommodate thick socks and swelling.

Dr Greg Attard is next to show up. At 32, he’s a cross between a rugby player and a 1960s’ Rock Hudson. He lets Marco do the talking. A query about whether Maltese climbing mountains is akin to Jamaicans doing bobsleigh at the Olympics is met with a shrug.

The answer comes later in an email from Robert Gatt, the third man in the challenge8000 team. “We’ve lots of good quality rock climbing in Malta. From rock climbing in Malta, it’s a natural progression to other climbing disciplines and bigger challenges.” Climbing is also a natural way for Robert to live. “Whether it’s a sun drenched rock wall in Malta, fell running on a wet English day in the Lake District, climbing up a frozen waterfall in Italy, an Alpine gully in Chamonix or a Himalayan peak in Nepal, it’s my passion,” he says.

The three did not discover mountains at the same time. Greg was always an all-action type; a Scout, in love with the outdoors. By 17, he’d started to travel. In the summer vacations on his medical course, he’d go for an elective exchange and spend two months a year climbing in eastern Europe and Greece. Marco got the mountain bug when he decided to join the Kilimanjaro One project. “After that climb I was hooked. I met Greg when I went to Etna for training. Robert I knew socially.” Marco is the glue among the men, and the expeditions.

The three were consistently climbing higher mountains; raising the bar by 500 metres with each climb. This September, the team plans to tackle Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. At 8,201m, it is the standard preparatory trail for Everest. The technicality of both mountains is similar – oxygen is required, and the expedition can take anywhere between eight and 10 weeks. The Everest expedition is scheduled for May 2010 and will entail climbing and camping in inhospitable terrain and unforgiving, cold to reach the summit at 8,848metres.

Climbing is a logistical challenge: the team needs the support of a specialist organisation to take care of equipment, flights, porters (two sherpas for each climber), food, water, visas, transport and equipment. The missing piece in the jigsaw is Victor Saunders, the guide, who has climbed Everest four times in the last five years. Victor calls himself a cautious coward. He was chosen on the basis of reputation, which is basically measured on the number of people he has got safely up and down the mountain. He’s known as a warm, level-headed, Scotsman, and is an architect by profession.

Training can be gruelling as you need a good cardio-vascular background. Greg runs and cycles. Marco says he’s lucky that he’s lightweight, but admits to doing aerobic exercise running up and down 60 degree clay slopes. “You have to train your mind too. Mountaineers are hard-headed and everyone involved has an opinion,” he says.

Timing is everything and often make or break of a climb. There’s only a short season, pre- monsoon, in which to climb the mountain and this can result in a kind of ‘people jam’ on the ascent routes, with up to 200 people all having a go at the same time. “I hate crowded mountains. You can have one to yourself,” Greg mumbles.

Climbers have eight hours on oxygen going up, and another eight coming down. In minus 25, sweating, they’re pushing it and running out of time and energy. Hypothermia can start to kick in. “If you don’t make summit before 2pm, you need to turn back. Till now, we’ve never failed a peak. I don’t know how I would react to failure,” says Greg. It’s no surprise that 30 per cent of attempts to climb Everest end up in failure.

What makes a good team? The team’s roles seem well-defined: Marco is the logistics person and more of a trekker; Greg is more a mountaineer; Robert is ‘very technical’ and more a climber. Male-bonding is inevitable; if you are going to spend ten weeks in a tent together, you have to get on. “The mountain brings out the worst and best in each of us,” smiles Greg. “You’re dealing with fatigue and bruised egos. Saying we’re all hard-headed is an understatement”. Marco says he finds it relaxing. He can get away from the day to day and the mundane and just concentrate on the task at hand.

We skirt around the subject of danger, but it’s something they are reluctant to discuss. “Climbing is dangerous and even more so at high altitudes where the ability to make decisions is hindered by hypoxia and extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Danger is a challenge to be managed both individually and as a team. We’re not madmen. We’re taking a calculated risk. People engage in extreme sports because they are so demanding, mentally and physically, that you live for the ‘now’,” says Marco.

If you collapse on a mountain over 8,000 metres, the chances are that you will stay there. They’ve seen a couple of bodies on previous climbs. They’re too heavy, with all that kit, to retrieve without risking other lives. Knowing your limits is key to survival, and that’s where a good guide comes in. He has to know how to push a climber to his maximum capability, but not let him get beyond that. He has to look for tell-tale signs – people getting out of breath for instance. The guide can turns things around if necessary.

What makes a man contemplate bad food, no sleep, no sex for 10 weeks, pain, danger, fractures, falls, frostbite, hypothermia, altitude-related injuries, disorders or possible brain damage? The answer seems to be one word: the summit. It’s a loaded word and keeps cropping up in the conversation. It’s as powerful a driver as the purely nationalistic one - to be the first Maltese to climb Everest. There is a sense of history being made. But the real motivation is personal; it’s part dream; part challenging yourself to get out of the comfort zone; and all about ‘pushing yourself to the point where you never thought it was possible to be, mentally and physically.’ They hope that their forthcoming expeditions will inspire people to dream and have a go at turning those dreams into reality.

There is nothing as painful as summit day. Their longest climb to a summit to date was 17 hours. “Half way during summit day, you think, this is the last time I am doing this. Once you get to a summit, you have to calculate the energy reserves you have to get back. You may get summit fever. You get intoxicated. That’s the risk. People judge if you are successful if you have got to the summit. Ten metres away doesn’t count. It’s a very cruel thing,” says Greg.

What happens when you’ve climbed a mountain? Marco says on the way down he dreams of beer, junk food, and a good shower. Greg says he’d be happy to stay on the peak, and that he gets ‘post-performance depression’ when he gets home. Both men say the mountain is a drug. “We read about mountains every day. We may live here, but we live the mountain each day”.

I wonder what it’s like to live with these men. They grin and say the heroes are the women who see them risk their lives, and spend a long time away from home and large sums of money on their lonely passions. Marco says the mountains came after his relationship, and that his wife knows he is cautious, but it’s tough not being able to communicate for long periods of time. He has been away climbing a mountain for one month a year in the past years. Greg says his girlfriend knew that ‘the package involved the mountain. ’ Robert, they tell me, lives for the mountain. I ask them what happens after Everest. Marco squirms. He says he’s agreed to have one shot at Everest and then that’s it. He’s 40 and this is his last big climb. Greg says that he will find some gentler peaks to go for, and perhaps take his girlfriend with him.

There are perhaps other limitations on their expeditions though. So far, they’ve been funding themselves, but the big two climbs coming up need funds from corporate sponsors. “Climbing is expensive, so that means I have to work harder when not climbing, “says Robert. Hopefully, corporate sponsors won’t be long in coming since the team’s effort is all in a good cause. Challenge8000 has pledged that throughout the next year it will be promoting awareness of asthma and better air quality in Malta through its association with the Society of Maltese Asthmatics and the ‘Stop the Dust!’ campaign.

As they leave, Greg jokes about the frostbite from his last climb and that his big toe is still stuck. Marco says they will be linking up on Etna over the weekend. When they leave, I switch off my laptop, and wonder if I’m any closer to understanding these two complex, gifted men, intoxicated by a summit on the other side of the world.

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