As a professional athlete, mountain guide, and public speaker, I often have the opportunity (or obligation) to attempt to inspire others. Whether through stories, images, or shared experiences, it is a role I cherish. It is the single thing I most hope to do through my company, Alpenglow Expeditions, and through my professional life.
This past June, in France, I was lucky enough to receive some serious inspiration. I had just spent a difficult month dealing with the fallout from the tragic accident on Mt. Everest. While all of my Sherpa and western team survived the accident, it dramatically changed the course of our individual expedition (cancelled) and the industry (Everest expeditions may not run smoothly on the South Side for years to come). I spent the month of May reconstructing our Everest program and in vigorous debate with operators, government, media, and climbers about what the future of Everest guiding should look like, while also trying to support our Sherpa as they dealt with their grief and loss.
By the end of May, I needed some time to reconnect with the reasons I believe so strongly in introducing people to climbing. My girlfriend, professional rock climber Emily Harrington was in the midst of a 6-week trip to two of the world’s best rock climbing spots - the Verdon Gorge and Ceuse, both in France. I was excited to see Emily, excited to climb, and excited to meet her friends and fellow pros.
I arrived just in time. Jonathan Siegrist, after months of training and 6 weeks in Ceuse, was incredibly close to sending his first 5.15a climb, named Realization/Biographie. For non-climbers it is difficult to imagine the difficulty. The route is overhanging, with tiny hand and foot-holds, often separated by long reaches and gymnastic moves. For me, the difficulty really didn't matter. What mattered was the effort success would demand. Jonathan had to be singularly focused, and even with that focus he still needed to find more. Strength and power, memorizing the moves (and executing them perfectly) was not enough. He also needed to mentally fight through doubt and the fear of the season ending without a send. And to deal with skin issues and bleeding fingertips. And the risk of getting the balance between enough and too much rest wrong. He wanted to attempt the climb (after dozens of times falling off in the same place) 100% rested, but could not afford to lose even a tiny bit of power through not climbing enough.
Meeting Jonathan for the first time in the middle of this process was fascinating. He was focused - careful of his diet, drinking only a single glass of wine a night (a difficult feat in France, where good bottles of wine cost only a couple of euro), doing hang-board workouts (a type of finger training) on rest days, hiking up the hour approach slowly so as not to waste energy - and yet still laughing, supporting each of us on our climbs, and seemingly enjoying the truly arduous process of projecting one of the world’s hardest climbs.
And his attitude paid off. After a frustrating period of forced rest for another split fingertip, and then a few more failed attempts where even the first moves off the ground seemed impossible, Jonathan sent. Not only did he send, he floated. Quietly through the bottom crux, the improbable rests, and the move he had fell on countless times before. And then with a banshee’s yell as he grabbed the jug that signaled the end of the crux, and his entrance into easier climbing terrain and the tiny group of climbers who have sent 5.15.
I, along with my teammates and most of the climbing population of Ceuse that day, all got to witness his poise, his effort, and his success. And my love of this sport was instantly rejuvenated to the highest level in years. I couldn’t wait to get on my project. I couldn’t wait to try to emulate Jonathan in his effort and in his ability to enjoy every step through pain and frustration. And I couldn’t wait to introduce someone new to climbing and the lessons it can teach us.
I was, and am, inspired. No matter what our level of experience or ability in our chosen work or play, it is essential to experience the struggle of others (newbies or the best in the world), and to be inspired by their effort and passion. Thanks to Jonathan, Emily, Cameron, and Colette, for a much-needed dose of inspiration!