Even if you don’t know a great deal about mountaineering, you’re probably aware that although Everest may be the highest, K2 is the greatest challenge you can take on in the sport. A notoriously unpredictable and deadly mountain that’s claimed many lives over the years.
One man who has undertaken this immense challenge is record-breaking adventurer Adrian Hayes, on two occasions in fact. His first attempt ended in disappointment after the enforced abandonment of the expedition, on the day two other climbers tragically died on the mountain. His attempt the following year was no less difficult, but ultimately an altogether more triumphant occasion.
In his inspirational new book, One Man’s Climb, Adrian gives a very personal account of his two attempts, charting the sacrifices he made, the heartache and the sizable obstacles he encountered along the way. We caught up with Adrian to relive some of these incredible events and find out the profound lessons that scaling ‘the savage mountain’ K2, can teach us all.
The MALESTROM: How did you first get into adventuring?
Adrian Hayes: Basically, growing up in the New Forest as a kid we were doing things at age seven and eight that I suppose parents these days would be shocked about. Going across marshland, coming back literally up to our chests in mud. All things kids used to do when they were off their screens, you’ll get an idea of my view of technology and screen time.
That’s how it started at an early age. Then age 16 I did a mountaineering, Scottish winter course, because I’ve always been fascinated by mountaineering, Bonington, Fiennes, Polar expeditions, and it carried on from there really. So I’ve been doing it all my life.
TM: What was the draw to climb the daunting K2?
AH: It was always on the cards. The trouble with these big goals is you always think, is there any bigger? Obviously, Everest is the biggest, but in mountaineering terms, K2 is the jewel in the crown. It’d been hovering round in my mind, it’s high risk, but low reward, nobody was summiting it.
So that was the real worry, putting all this time, effort and money into just going on a long camping trip in the Pakistan Karakorum, and of course it’s about the journey, not the destination and all that, but still, you go for a goal.
It was that personal story, that trauma that happened in 2012 that provided the kickstart. In the film A Star is Born there’s a song called ‘Shallow’, that song could have been written about me anytime I was trying to fill this void. People can turn to drink, they can turn to drugs when trauma happens, they can go into depression.
It’s been my way on occasions where I’ve had some real serious cases, bang, escape, big goals and go for it. But once I was on that gravy train there was no holding back, whatever happens, I was on this path and there was no stopping until I’d completed it.
TM: It’s a massive task to undertake. Maybe just give us a little detail about the preparation you had to put in? Just what’s required to attempt a climb like this?
AH: I’ve got this theory, you hear a lot about training for four years for these things. My own way of doing it is by having a good level of base fitness, so basically, I run, I swim, I cycle, I do triathlons as well, go to the gym and I go to rock climbing walls and hike when I can. So that’s your base fitness, that’s before breakfast, then we get the real work done. When you’ve got a high base level it’s not too difficult, you just focus in on whatever you’re doing.
What I learned, the difference between my attempt in 2013 & 2014, is I was rock climbing still and doing athletic climb moves and you really don’t need that on K2, it has to be really specific training. What you need is those powerful legs, quads and lungs. That’s why the second year I went absolutely bonkers, sand dune running, ankle weights everywhere.
Real specific training, 12-hour hikes, two-day hikes out in the mountains of the UAE and Oman, that was a great training ground. They have massive buildings there, Dubai has the largest in the world, I used to get on the fire escape and run up there with ankle weights and a heavy pack. You need to be strong, we’re talking climbing 7/8 thousand metres with a heavy pack on your back.
In the second year, I stopped the rock climbing, because being a fantastic climber at sea level wasn’t a massive help. On top of that, there was cycling and running, so it was beserk training. But it’s a limited time, it’s not for a whole year, you can’t keep it up for longer than three or four months.
TM: You mention in the book about people saying they’re training four years for one particular attempt, but that’s just not sustainable in reality…
AH: No. You can’t set a goal four years in advance. The whole point is it’s the mental side that’s going to drive you, you’ve really got to want this thing. Setting a goal in four years time, yes that’s the overall big picture, that’s what you’re going for, but you’ve got to get those interim goals on the way, the little ones, depending on what sport it is.
Even with my big Polar expeditions, it was just too far beyond comprehension to think we’re on this ice for 75 days, it would drive you mental. So short goals, blast it with three to four months brutal training and then get on the plane and relax, you’re there, nothing more to do.
TM: Many people reading the book will have been aware of the dangers of K2, but perhaps not about its dark history – one of the first attempts to climb it even had occultist Aleister Crowley in the expedition. Were you well aware of everything that came with climbing K2 when you attempted it?
AH: It’s full of the worst of human decision making and behaviour. I’m pretty critical of today’s world, celebrity-driven stuff, and gimmicks and all that. But we’ve had these controversies throughout explorations since time forgot. The only thing was back in those days there were fewer people doing it.
It was some seriously driven people who were perhaps slightly more off-piste than the rest of us in those days. But they would go to any lengths to succeed. All extremes. Yes, it has a pretty dark history.
It was the success of 2012 that made me think this may be possible. It was about minimising risks and maximising what support we could get. It’s not about me doing the first solo climb on one leg blindfolded.
It’s not about ‘look at me’, it’s a mission, it’s a goal, I want to do it and I’ll try and minimise the risk of doing it because I’m not claiming to be Britain’s top mountaineer or top explorer, that’s not my thing. I’d love to be known as one of the world’s greatest personal development coaches and leadership team development coaches, that’s the other one.
TM: Can you tell us a bit about that first expedition which was called off. You had a lucky escape, or rather you used your gut instinct to call the attempt off. Unfortunately, there was a tragedy that day with mountaineering guide Marty Schmidt, and his son Denali losing their lives on the mountain. That must have been heartbreaking?
AH: Yeah, we were shocked. I mean there was death all around that part of the mountain. They were father and son, that was one, which put a lot of reflection on me as a father. Marty was such a hugely well known and experienced guide in the adventure world, one of the top guys out there who’d been doing it all his life, that was another one.
So I thought, this could have been us, you get that self-preservation thing, we could have all gone up and all been wiped out and it would have been the greatest disaster. We didn’t, we made a call, we came down, but it was a shock. Failures don’t happen to me, it was like, what was this all about? Was that it? We head to camp 2 and it’s all over. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t in the script.
It was only a few days later when we found out that it could have been all of us and, that old used quote, “it happened for a reason.” It just wasn’t our time. I talk about death a lot in the book in a philosophical sense. It’s a bit like, when your time’s up, your time’s up. You can say we’re so lucky and be traumatised, but I’m not traumatised at all, we came down, we survived. Of course, I think about those guys a lot and the families they left behind.
TM: Given what happened. What was it that drove you to try again? Was it that need to succeed?
AH: Again it was that gut instinct. It would have been so easy to go here’s yet another failure, two people have been killed, let’s go back to the golf course. But something told me, I don’t know, we were better prepared, better organised and we’ve got to go back.
Of course, I had this call with Al Hancock, this great teammate of mine and he was of exactly the same mindset. I mean we’re different characters, he’s a hard drinking, womanising Canadian, and I’m a hard-drinking, womanising Brit – that’s just a joke!
No, we’re totally different, but we have a complete synergy, an alignment of how we operate, we go at the same speed, we’re not greyhounds but we can keep going forever. So we said let’s get this thing together and drove the whole thing to get back. People were coming to us asking for advice and wanting to know what we were doing, so we sort of became leaders of the whole pack in that second year.
TM: There are some seriously dangerous sections on K2, the Bottleneck with its 150-metre ice seracs in particular. How did you tackle those massive challenges?
AH: Well the overall dangers are, it’s steep, you’ve got to be a technical rock climber, a technical ice climber. You have to move pretty fast at high altitudes in extreme conditions. So it’s steep from start to finish, the weather’s always appalling, the snow conditions are always appalling, there are rock fall dangers and avalanche dangers, that’s throughout.
Then there are the specific challenges, as you rightly said the bottleneck, you just can’t believe how steep that thing is. It just goes on and on and on. Hanging on there throughout the night, it’s a serious proposition.
One of my concerns as I write in the epilogue is that with last year’s success, more and more people are going to be looking at K2 saying, “Everest is passé, this is the extreme guys”. It’s ripe for a disaster with too many people in that bottleneck. And those ice seracs, they were 150-metres, not even just vertical, but overhanging.
I remember thinking, my God! Look at these things. So you have these known things and then the bit you don’t get to see is the ice slope around of the seracs, that was very steep ice that you had to crunch with the ice axes. It’s steep from start to finish, the only flat bit was the summit and there was no time to hang about and enjoy it.
TM: What were those hairy moments second time around? Was there a point when you thought it might not happen?
AH: Hanging on the bottleneck on the way up, we had some serious stuff there. Going around those steep ice seracs with sheer drops below. Personally, I found the heat was a killer, once the heat came up at 10 or 11 in the morning I was dying, I don’t do well in heat.
It’s a funny old world, you have these two-month expeditions, you’re preparing and preparing, you’re interim goals are to set up camp one, then camp two, get the rotations in, then it all comes down to the final summit push.
So a two-month expedition, three years in planning and preparation comes down to that final night. That’s what’s going to make or break it… the summit push. And that descent was hair-raising, fogged in, whiteouts. One guy ahead of us who I can’t name, he was all over the place, his mind was completely spaced out.
It was dangerous stuff. Really dangerous. I mean we were exhausted. We hadn’t slept much in three or four days, we were depleted of oxygen. That old term digging deep had never been more applicable. I had the same on Everest as well, having to dig deep to all the reserves just to get through.
TM: What did that moment when you reached the summit mean to you?
AH: It’s not a sudden thing. I think from about two hours out when we got this ledge line and we’d got some extra ropes there we knew we were going to get up.
Of course, time was running out, but we were pretty certain, you keep going, stay strong and believe you’re going to get there. Getting to the top is surreal in a way, this bloody steep thing, that’s been steep the whole way, suddenly flattens out to the size of a tennis court. It’s not the great all singing, emotional thing.
To me it was, we’re here, fists aloft, look around you, then let’s get to work. I mean we had to get a picture, get a video. Of course, we had the hugs and everything like that, but as I said in the book, you’re only halfway there. You know there’s a massive challenge ahead to get down.
The difference from my Polar expeditions, those things had been going for two months, when you reach the North Pole and the South Pole, all the emotions get let out. It’s the end, it’s a totally different scenario. It’s only when you get to base camp that you can go, “oh my gosh, we did it!” Coming down, there’s rock falls going on, you can never afford to switch off.
TM: What’s tougher the walk to the North Pole or the steep, dangerous climb up K2?
AH: Well for a start mountaineering is the riskiest sport on earth, nothing compares with it. But secondly, there is a lot of rest time. With the Polar stuff, it’s just day and night, day in day out, it’s relentless. Walking to the North Pole is the most brutal thing on this planet and no one does it now.
The last week is the equivalent of trekking to base camp and then summiting. It remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think anything will ever beat that. I would go back and do other eight-thousanders, I love Nepal and speak Nepalese from my Gurkha days, but going back to the North Pole, you’d really want to have to do that for a convincing reason.
TM: What did you learn from climbing K2? How did it change you?
AH: There are lots in a way. The value of gut instinct, this is why I hammer on about technology, as it’s taking away our observation skills, our awareness. Social media and technology are destroying that. How many people can’t drive a bloody car without a sat nav?
So we’re missing what’s going on around us and coupled to that our gut instinct, we all have it, but we ignore it. We ask Siri, we ask Google for an answer, we don’t think for ourselves.
The trick is to get back to the so-called normal life and tap into that – because my brain is fried most days after a day of emails and too much screen time. I also learned the real value of teamwork, how me and Hancock worked was second to none.
If you really want to focus on a goal you have to have that blinkered approach, there’s a debate as to whether it’s selfish or self-preservation. Apart from for significance, the other reason we climb these big mountains is to get that amazing view of the world below.
Life on these expeditions is stripped down to basic simplicity and you just look out on the world below and think, my goodness, if only you could get most of the world to experience this we wouldn’t be living such bonkers lives.
Conflict, materialism and consumerism, at the end of the day these things don’t matter. So that’s why we do these things and if it sounds philosophical, then that’s what it’s about as well.
TM: You mentioned significance there. You write in the book your thoughts on the true reason adventurers attempt major feats, that it may be for more than just charity as is often stated…
AH: It was once said anyone who goes up Everest is looking for something. Let me put it in perspective. I love running, cycling, swimming. If you do a 10k race that’s fun or a half marathon, you have the camaraderie of your teammates. Then you’ve got your extreme stuff, your ultra-marathons, and not just rock climbing a crag, but doing a big expedition.
Yes, there are joys and the looking down on the world below, but you don’t push yourself through all that pain just to have these joys. You can get that down at Harrison’s rocks in Kent. The main reason I believe is for significance. That’s internal, intrinsic, self-worth, self-pride, purpose, recognition, fame, respect, all those things.
The problem I’ve got is with social media driving this thing beyond all recognition. We’ve got people saying, “I can do this too, I’m worth it”. We’re in a silly little world and that’s why I think just be honest about it.
Very few people who came to climb K2 claimed they were doing it for charity. In fact, there was just one. We all came because it was the gold medal. I don’t know if that’ll last, because people need sponsors so have to claim they’re doing it to raise money for this thing or that.
Running for charities, the small things say, I get, but the big things, expeditions costing 50k, come on guys. I won’t mention any names, but when you’re a big celebrity with a film crew and you’re paying a big guide to climb a big mountain in a million pound exercise, great if you’re doing it for a documentary or for career, but don’t say you’re doing it for a charity. Because that million pounds could have gone directly to the charity instead of funding what you’re doing.
TM: What about you’re own future goals? Is there anything else you want to achieve?
AH: The big question everyone asks me is what’s next? The hardest challenge I’ve ever had is the five year battle through the family courts for contact with my daughter. I was battling a system that is broken and the strain and pressure were harder than K2 and the North Pole put together.
But the good news is my daughter now lives with me and she’s my full-time occupation. I’ve taken her to Bhutan, Nepal on medical missions, Mongolia for a documentary, she’s travelled around the world with me.
I’ll get back to the big stuff, I’ll keep on with the big mountains, mainly because Nepal is so dear to my heart. So I’ll see how many of the eight-thousanders we want to do. But I’ll be very clear what it’s about. I’ve got this medical mission I’m doing, that’s my little bit for the world. Then Kanchenjunga which is the third highest will probably be my next one, that’s for me.
TM: What do you hope people take away from the book?
AH: That’s a great question. Because I really do want people to have a reflection of their own lives, a compass for our own lives as well as a compass for climbing the mountain. I’m hoping it’s going to appeal to everyone out there.
Not just adventurers. Men and women, young and old, hopefully, they can get something out of it. I put so much work into the book, I suppose I just want people to read the stories and the lessons. That’s what I want people to take away from it.
TM: Finally is there a piece of wisdom you’d like to share with us?
AH: It’s not that everything happens for a reason, it’s that things happen, it’s up to us to find a reason. You have to tap deep into your inner self to find it. It may take a day, a week, a month, a year, but you’ll find the reason eventually.
One Man’s Climb: A Journey of Trauma, Tragedy, and Triumph on K2, published by Pen & Sword History is out to buy now.
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