A few things recently have got me thinking about the definition of success, in particular, some discussions today with various Exodus staff about the trip and their perception of my ability (which, I have to say, is rather different from mine, but then they don’t actually know me). To cut a long story short, they told me their main aim is “to get me to the top safely”. Now that’s all very well, and of course I want to get to the top safely, but is that actually my primary aim? Will I consider that a success and anything else a failure? Sounds obvious, but I’m not so sure. If it were easy, I wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. What if someone were to help me? How much help would I theoretically allow while still constituting it a success? If it’s not tough, there’s no point in it.
Someone I know via a facebook group, though never met, and who has type 1 diabetes, attempted to climb Kili last month with Jagged Globe. She only made it to day 2 before she was hit with a stomach bug and was taken back down. I know just what D&V while trekking up a mountain feels like, from my Inca Trail experience, and it’s pretty nasty, though I managed to complete my trip (mainly because there actually wasn’t a possibility of going back). That I would definitely consider a failure, though of course, it was not her fault, just unfortunate. And it is in fact my biggest fear.
Jerry Gore (pictured right on the North Face of the Eiger), another online friend with type 1 diabetes, and a serious climber, recently attempted an incredible challenge to raise money for young Nepalese people with diabetes, by climbing three of the Alps’ toughest routes: Divine Providence, Chant du Cygne on the North Face of the Eiger, and the Fish on the South Face of the Marmolada. You can read about his exploits here. He completed 3 climbs, but two of them were on different routes because of various problems, and he felt utterly disappointed with the result.
In his words: “By midnight I was back at the car. The other two climbers had driven off to a warm hotel (lucky Germanic bar stewards!) and I was alone in the forest, cold but okay, waiting for Calum. I tested; 170ml/dl. High but not too bad after what I had just been through – almost 24 hours of non-stop action. I took a couple of units of fast acting insulin. I began to reflect on what we had just done and what I had achieved this summer and simply broke down – the tears cascading down my cheeks. Climbers are never satisfied and are their own worst critics. I had failed, failed to properly complete my challenge, failed to do what I set out to do. Failure, pain, frustration. It all just hit me. My right elbow was constantly inflamed now and needed surgery. My knees were wrecked and in general I felt flat – where was the elation. Where was the adrenaline, the high, the feeling of achievement? Had I done it?” For him, partial success was not enough, even though, as he himself admitted, had achieved some incredible things despite many adverse conditions.”
He later does, however, acknowledge his own success: “I would like to end this piece by saying I finished the climb easily and in control. I achieved an amazing route and all went well. But I can’t because I didn’t. We succeeded in making the right mountaineering decision. And for that I feel proud but we only just made it and it was silver at best not gold. But one thing for sure was clear to me at that time, sitting in a dark and damp forest alone in my thoughts – it was not my diabetes that had held me back, it was not the fact that I have to manually control my blood sugars and test and inject up to 10 times a day. Bottom line – Diabetes is a real pain in the bum, it can really depress and shut you down sometimes and inhibit you but if you have the motivation and insulin and equipment it is definitely and absolutely NOT an excuse to live an unfulfilled life.”
Some wise words indeed. I also wonder if achieving the goal but hating every minute of it still counts as success. I think that depends on whether you look back on it with better memories. The Inca Trail was an achievement for me, despite the one tough day of being ill, because overall it was a fantastic trip. Toubkal was an achievement in that I actually reached the top, but my memories are marred by some lesser moments and by the fact that I felt no one else cared whether I achieved my goal or not. On the last cycle trip I did (2 weeks around Cuba) I met my goal of never giving up and riding in the support van (unlike at least half the group), so that for me was a huge success.
Ultimately, for me success boils down to whether I will look back on the trip and be proud. Jerry, while disappointed and dissatisfied, is clearly still proud of his achievement (and rightly so). My mum climbed Kili in 1962, and had a pretty tough time of it, but despite shrugging it off with a mere “it was awful, but I just got on with it, it’s what you did”, I know she’s secretly pretty proud of her achievement (and I am very proud of her too!). So, if I don’t make the summit itself, I’ll be incredibly disappointed, but I know it’s not wise to focus everything on making it, in case something happens that’s out of my control, such as severe altitude sickness. But I hope, like Jerry, I’ll at least be able to look back with pride and think of what I’ve still achieved. And of course, try again another time.