A Glimpse Into an Epic Quest
Sometimes in life you have the opportunity to cross paths with ridiculously inspiring people. Gavin Bate, Founder of charitable trust Moving Mountains, is one of them. A full-on expedition leader and charity fundraiser, Gavin uses his position as owner of climbing, trekking and safari holiday company Adventure Alternative to raise money for sustainable community projects all over the world. Fresh from summiting Everest on his sixth expedition there, gapyear.com caught up with him to find out about the dangers of sleeping at 8,000m, risking death to rescue a friend, the psychology behind reaching the most iconic summit in the world, and how you go to the toilet on the planet’s tallest mountain...
“When I got there it was very, very powerful. It’s extremely hard to put into words. Elation is the most predominant emotion.”
Gavin Bate is trying to explain the feeling of standing 8,848 metres above sea level at the peak of the most infamous mountain summit in history. It’s understandably a little difficult to fully articulate. We are speaking to him just a couple of days after he descended from base camp, and the emotions are still raw.
“The fact that all of my climbs have been linked to Moving Mountains, that’s also hard to put into words,” Gavin continues. “I can’t think of Everest without translating it into schools and monasteries and hydroelectric power plants, with Sherpas and hundreds of people benefiting.”
In the 11 years Gavin has been climbing Everest he has become very close to the men who put their lives in danger in order to try and guide people as safely as possible up the mountain. “I know most of the Sherpa climbers on the mountain,” he says, “so there’s a cause behind it all, and emotionally that’s very powerful as well.”
Together with Sherpa and friend Passang Tendi, Gavin reached the top of Everest on his latest expedition just after 10am on Sunday, 20th May 2011. Despite climbing the mountain six times, this is the first occasion Gavin himself has actually reached the summit.
There are a whole load of reasons why you might not make it to the summit of a mountain. For example, during an attempt in 2009 Gavin’s mask froze, forcing him to descend with hypoxia. He uses an interesting analogy to describe the factors that have to fall into place to make summiting viable.
“If you imagine getting to the summit point is a bit like getting all the strands of a piece of rope to come together to actually make that piece of rope. There’s a lot of luck involved.”
In fact, the chances of making it to ‘summit day’ and reaching the top still being a feasible option is very slim. “Over ten weeks, the likelihood of getting to the top and the weather being good, with everyone healthy and the mountain, you know, letting you get there...it’s pretty unlikely,” says Gavin.
Gavin is quite clear that it is his job to decide whether a summit challenge is viable. Making the wrong decision could genuinely be the difference between life and death. It's a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders, but then that's the job. “There’s a lot of factors coming into play," he says. "My role is to bring these strands together. People pay guides to judge the right time to summit the mountain.”
What about personal factors needed to reach the top? “You’ve got to find the right balance. You need to be aggressive to climb the mountain, but at the same time deeply respectful and very, very patient.”
Gavin has tackled climbing Everest in many different ways; approaching from Tibet or Nepal, climbing with or without oxygen. He explains these choices can make a tremendous difference not only to the success of your trip, but also your survival.
“The moment you go without oxygen you might as well be on a different planet,” he says. “It’s a completely different type of expedition and the probability of coming back alive is much, much less.” He’s speaking from experience. In 2007 he was climbing without the use of oxygen and almost died from pulmonary oedema.
What marks Everest out from other mountains, though? Does the sheer extra height of the thing make that much difference? “Ok, there are 14 mountains in the world over 8,000m,” Gavin replies. “Everest is the only one of those where you have to sleep at 8,000m before you summit. And that single fact is the one thing that separates Everest from the others, because at 8,000m something happens to your physiology.
"That’s why it’s called the Death Zone.”
This is not as melodramatic as it sounds. At 8,000m your internal organs start to struggle and begin to fail one by one as your body goes into self-protect mode. “The reason people die on Everest so easily,” Gavin emphasises, “is because you’re sleeping at such a high altitude that your body organs are shutting down.”
And that’s before you take into account going to the toilet. “I knew you’d ask that,” Gavin laughs. “Ok, you’ve got to imagine when you’re climbing Everest you’re burning 6,000-7,000 calories a day, but you’re only eating about 1,000, so your whole body is working at a continual calorie deficit.
"That means you only go for a shit once every four days, and when you do go it’s very, very dehydrated. It’s not like your once-a-morning constitutional.”
What about number ones? “You just go in a bottle in the tent, or anywhere you can – as long as you can get through about seven layers of clothing to get what you need to do.”
What if you can’t get through?
“You pee yourself.”
With any attempt on the summit being so fraught with danger and urinals noticeably scarce, what keeps drawing Gavin back to Everest? Is it the physical and mental challenge? Raising more money for charity? Are there deep personal motivations?
“It’s a bit of everything,” he says. “I’m a mountaineer. That’s my main thing in life. I can’t stop this passion I have for climbing high mountains. Everest is just one mountain I climb. I’ve spent my whole life climbing.”
Though indulging passions, meeting individual challenges and attaining personal self-fulfilment are not things to be sniffed at, it’s clear from speaking to Gavin that he needs his expeditions to accomplish more to be worthwhile.
“Standing on top of a piece of real estate five and a half miles in the sky is essentially quite a selfish, pointless pursuit,” he argues, self-effacingly. “It’s quite difficult for people at home...for them to sit and wait. So I do look for a slightly higher purpose, a slightly better reason.”
Gavin’s company, Adventure Alternative, and his charity, Moving Mountains, are inextricably linked. “It’s self-serving,” he explains, “I use the charity to provide capital investment into things like schools and hospitals and all sorts of things in places like east Africa and Nepal and Borneo. And I raise that money by doing things like climbing Everest. The company steps by providing tourism to offer a revenue stream for those areas.”
For Gavin, the main motivation of many people to climb Everest, however, lacks that higher purpose. “The sad truth is that many people climb Everest for very selfish reasons,” he says. “They do it to lean against a bar, tell a story about it and bolster their own self-image.
"That’s perhaps part of our society. We’ve lost things in our society. We’ve lost a lot of faith. We’re looking for things to give us purpose, and many people think standing on top of a mountain is going to give them that.”
So what does he think about that?
“I think it’s bullshit,” he says, with hesitation. “You know, sitting on top of Everest is just sitting on top of a mountain. People probably won’t judge you differently either way. They either think you’re a nice person or not. They like you or they don’t like you. Everest doesn’t change that.”
Gavin started climbing 25 years ago. Back then, the only people he took on expeditions were other climbers. “Now it’s a whole different ball game,” he says. “Now I take people away with me who want to fill some hole in their life. I guess it’s just the evolution of our society.”
Everest is undeniably iconic. For many people the mountain is literally their Everest, and whoever you are it takes a great deal of time, money and effort to make an attempt on the summit. Having heard stories of people being left behind so their fellow climbers can reach the top, or people pushing on to summit when it might be dangerous to do so, does Gavin have any psychological insights regarding people who might want to ‘conquer’ the mountain, whatever the cost?
“That has happened,” he explains, “and when it does it reaches the media and unfortunately creates this default image of climbing. The reality is that it doesn’t happen very often at all. You could count on one hand the number of times it has. You know, most people aren’t going to leave their mates behind just to get to the top.”
But the psychology of reaching the summit is very important? “Yes, it’s a very big part of the expedition. As a guide not only am I aware of it, but I have to control and manage it. Over ten weeks my clients are going to go through rollercoasters of emotions.
“Come summit time it’s very, very intense. People really change character. As a guide I have to maintain consistency and calmness as these people who have never climbed at altitude are struggling to cope with what’s going on around them.”
I wonder if Everest is solely the preserve of the strong and experienced. Being such a symbolic challenge, most people would be interested in scaling the infamous peak. Is it possible for anyone to climb Everest?
“There are companies that will charge you a greater amount of cash to provide you with a greater degree of support,” Gavin explains. “I charge you $45,000 to climb Mount Everest. For that I provide five bottles of oxygen, one-to-one Sherpa support and all the base camp services and everything.”
But Gavin expect clients to have a reasonable degree of climbing experience, so come the day there is a certain amount of personal management on their part.
“There are other companies that charge $125,000,” Gavin says. “They will provide much more oxygen, they’ll provide three Sherpas [per person] and massive support levels. They can take people with less experience. So...you pays your money you take your choice.”
He adds: “There are people on this mountain that have only ever climbed Kilimanjaro in their life. I don’t agree with that, but there are companies that cater for it.”
It’s worth pointing out here that you can climb on Everest without trying the scale the whole thing. Gavin positively encourages this. “I do those trips,” he says. “The walk to base camp is one of the great walks of the world. It’s a great cultural experience and it’s beautiful.”
What happens if you then go above base camp?
“Above base camp you have to pay the permit fee, which is $10,000.”
Ten years ago people were still pretty limited with how they could inform people back home about expeditions. Today, Gavin has his own website with 3D tracking maps, live donation and Twitter links, scrolling photo galleries, video blogs and more. Does this make Gavin’s trips any more exciting? Does he feel any more connected to people back home?
“Not at all,” he answers. ”The technology is phenomenal, but I use it to raise money. The advantage today is that I can raise money instantly, people want instant connections. The website is fun and funky, but it doesn’t remotely distract from the job of climbing the mountain.”
For Gavin, modern technology is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it allows people to follow his progress and donate to his causes with a few clicks, but on the other hand he believes instant connection to home can be a complicating factor.
“People go travelling on their gap year trips, take some photos and seconds later they’re up on Facebook for people to see. There’s a desire to connect all the time,” he says.
“But I used to travel for four or five months without getting in touch with people back home. The most my parents would get is a postcard. I take people on youth expeditions and the biggest problem I have is that they only need to feel homesick for two seconds and they’re texting home.”
Presumably that can cause some issues?
“Definitely. I get parents calling the office saying that their daughter is homesick!” Gavin says. “The thing is, I want people to be homesick. I want them to have a really shit day in Africa because that’s part of the experience. But try telling that to parents.”
As well as being an accomplished mountaineer, experienced expedition leader and inspirational charity fundraiser, Gavin is arguably – although I suspect he would never describe himself this way – a hero. In 2002 he carried his injured friend Will down from Everest on his back with minimal provisions. It was an epic journey, and one that nearly killed them both.
“It was a face route, not a ridge route,” he begins. “That means you’re climbing the face of the mountain, so it is technically harder. I was with a friend of mine. We were climbing without oxygen and without any Sherpas at all. We had a final camp at 7,800m.
“Around 150m from the summit my mate dislocated his kneecap and collapsed on the ground. I was left with a very big choice. Should I either carry on to the summit and leave him, descend and leave him – thus ensuring my own survival – or should I stay with him and pretty much guarantee my own death.”
While Gavin has been fairly light-hearted throughout our interview, it’s obvious this is an experience that still affects him deeply today. His speaks more slowly, measuring out the words precisely. It’s not a tale he tells at the bar.
“Accidents on Everest are very rarely survival stories,” he continues. “But I decided to stay with him. And because he couldn’t walk, I put him on my back. And that’s what I did, I descended the north face of Everest with a man on my back, and it took me three days, with no oxygen, no food and no water.”
What do you say to that? You can’t say anything. So I didn’t.
“That was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had on any mountain, anywhere. We were very, very lucky to make it alive. Very, very lucky indeed. When we got to the bottom, we both collapsed and we both had complete emotional breakdowns. I have nightmares about it even now.”
But how was he able to carry his friend down? Was it some kind of automatic survival or protection instinct? “I don’t know what enabled me to carry him,” Gavin answers.
“I think there was a mountaineering instinct going on, because I took all my gear down; my tent, all my bags. It was ridiculous. I get asked why I took all my gear with me, but my training said that I should always carry my gear and clear the mountain.”
It’s an incredible story, and you’d need to have a pretty cold heart not to respect or be affected by it, regardless of whether Gavin’s actions were due to pure instinct or total altruism.
The adventures don’t seem to stop for Gavin. He’s giving himself four-to-six weeks to recover and then he’ll be off again. He leads expeditions throughout the year, and will soon be hitting Mount Elbrus in Russia, a trip to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with friends will follow and then some climbing in Corsica in August is on the cards. But he does have words to cool anyone thinking of leaping at the chance to copy his personal template.
“It’s my choice,” he says. “There’s a lot of sacrifices along the way. It sounds exotic, but there’s a lot of sacrifice, like leaving people you love at home.”
It’s clear that Gavin is the Real Deal, a modest but committed and genuinely inspirational character that has given up a lot to pursue his climbing passions and raise money for causes close to his heart. Everyone at gapyear.com wishes him safe travels and exciting future challenges. We reckon there’s a lot we can learn from Gavin, even if it’s from the comfort of our own homes.
Although, if by chance you do find yourself broken and stuck on a mountainside one day, hopefully Gavin will be around.
And he’ll probably put everything on the line to get you home again.