Home News The secret to climbing the world’s tallest mountains is not physical fitness

The secret to climbing the world’s tallest mountains is not physical fitness


At the age of 16, just as I was leaving for Mt Everest, my father passed on what they taught him at paratrooping school: “There will be moments when your body will give up. But never let your mind break.” Over the last decade, I have truly realised what those words meant.

When you are climbing 8,000 meters and more, physical fitness is important. But it can only take you so far. The ones who can push longer and harder are the ones who are mentally fi. Mountaineering is the most non-competitive of competitive sports. You are not competing against other human beings, but against Mother Nature. And you cannot compete against mother nature, only push your limits and hence, the mind matters more than the body. Your limits are tested when you are facing the wrath of nature weeks, with just one-third of the oxygen that you are otherwise used to. Paucity of oxygen can do strange things to your body, but also the mind: you hallucinate, have weird dreams, paranoias: only those who are fit mentally can keep going.

Things can spiral out of our control. Often, you lose members of your team or your sherpas. The 8,000-meter peaks have very low margins of error. The mountain does not care for your age, gender, colour or economic background—it treats everybody the same and there is only one cardinal rule that people follow in the mountains: survival. 

On the route to Kanchenjunga. Photo: Alex d’Emilia

Over the years, I have had a couple of occasions when I have collapsed mentally. In 2018, I was making my second attempt to scale Kanchenjunga. A year ago, I had to return without making it to the top: the weather was so bad, I could barely leave the camp. This time, there was a lot more at stake. There were sponsors, we had built a national campaign around the expedition and if that wasn’t enough, there was Kanchenjunga itself. Alex d’Emilia, my photographer and a very strong climber himself, was with me to document the attempt, and with him we had sherpas and a few other Italian climbers.

On 20 May, we summited the peak and everything was going well. It was the moment I was waiting for a long time—so I enjoyed my time with the mountain: the view was fantastic, we took some pictures before Alex’s camera froze. I had seen a lot of climbers coming behind us, so I wanted to turn back and head to the base camp fast. In the haste to return, I made a mistake. I ended up consuming nearly all the oxygen in my blood.

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