Gaining popularity around the world, climbing has expanded thanks to the increasing availability of facilities such as indoor climbing walls. This month, MF speaks with Javier Dominguez who tells us his experience of climbing the world’s tallest mountain, equivalent to 10.7 Burj Khalifas in temperatures as little as -60 Celsius, with winds of up to 200mph.
Having almost completed one of the most daunting of human challenges, how does one start preparing for such a feat?
To be precise I have not completed the feat of Everest just yet… my regulator oxygen bottle and mask broke when I was progressing through what we call the 2nd Step, at 8550m.
To prepare for this physical and mental challenge I trained for couple of years in Dubai while climbing peaks in Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and USA ranging from 4000 to 7000m. My favorite playground is Iran where I did a speed winter climb of Mt Damavand (5610m) on the hardest route (North East) from my doorstep in Dubai to the summit in 32 hours, one of the most exhilarating climbing challenges of my life. I regularly climb or hike smaller peaks in Oman, UAE and Spain, and I’m a very active rock climber. I train on climbing walls to improve my technical skillset, such as self-recovery techniques for emergency situations like falling in crevasses.
The main focus areas of my training plan in Dubai are stamina, core strength, lower body stabilisation and mental toughness. The aim is to be able to cope with long periods of time climbing in harsh conditions and carrying heavy backpacks, as well as preventing injuries in legs and shoulders. My friend and ultra-endurance athlete Ismael Blanco helped me develop a very intensive training program for the 14 weeks prior to my Everest expedition. The program focused on stamina: climbing stairs in DMCC Almas Tower in JLT for sessions lasting up to 4 and a half hours carrying a 15kg backpack. In a single session I can climb up and down 980 floors, around 21,800 steps, making a non-cumulative gradient of 3700m and 1850m elevation gain in just one evening. That is 600m more than the longest distance covered in Everest on the North side in a single stage. During the course of 16 sessions in the staircase I ascended 7,172 floors, 160,268 steps, 27,246m vertical distance, and 13,623m of elevation gain. That is three times the distance we covered in the whole expedition, were we climbed from Base Camp at an elevation of 5200m.
Another essential part of my training for Everest was mental toughness. The extreme conditions at Everest plus the isolation for two months while contemplating dead bodies all the way from Camp 3 to the summit, makes this climb more a mental challenge than physical. Before the expedition I had the opportunity to work with the wellness coach Angelica Horvatic on different techniques, such as meditation and visualisation.
During all my climbs, and especially in Iran throughout the last two winters, and those in the extreme heat of UAE and Oman deserts, I thoroughly selected and tested all my equipment as well as food supplements. I’ve found the latter a key success factor on both training and the actual expedition. Nicolas Girot Managing Director of Sport in Life, distributor in UAE of some of the best products for endurance athletes in the market, is very passionate about sport challenges, and he kindly offered me his sponsorship with a full range of items such as Gu Energy nutrition products to support me throughout my climb. During the course of my training program I found GU Roctane Ultra Endurance products to be the perfect energy source for endurance activities where I need undertake long (4+ hours) or intense (above lactate threshold) efforts. I took both Gu Roctane gel and brew with me up to 8850m, and that was definitely a success factor to get that far and coming down fast and strong.
What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome while on the mountain?
The use of the oxygen system was definitely the most difficult aspect . When I first used it at an approximate elevation of 7,700m right before Camp 2 in the North route of Everest, I promised myself this will be the first and last mountain I climb with use of supplemental oxygen. The oxygen mask restricts your vision and you can barely see your feet on technical terrain, it gets full of moisture that eventually freezes and you end up troubleshooting issues with it more than enjoying the climb for which you have so long prepared for …
Carrying a 10kg backpack all the way from Base Camp to Camp 3 was very hard considering the extreme altitude, where everything feels 10 times heavier. In this expedition my partners and I were climbing independently, meaning that we had to carry all personal gear and food, and only the group gear and O2 bottles where taken higher up to the different camps by our Sherpas.
The lack of appetite and high calorie consumption was a big challenge. During my training in Dubai I managed to get my rest pulse down to 48bmp. While sleeping at basecamp it was close to double. At extreme altitude, even if you don’t move from your sleeping bag the whole day you burn more calories than in a marathon. I managed to cope well with that thanks to the range of Gu Roctane products.
A statistic found in the Independent stated that one in ten successful climbs to the summit ends in death. Did you have any reservations about entering this challenge given the inherent risks?
Part of my mental training was focused on this. Climbing south side is relatively safe, but those scary figures come mainly from recent years of increased fatalities in the North side, where I did my climb. The first expeditions to Everest took place on the North side during the twenties, when the access through Tibet was more feasible than the current normal route via the South Col in Nepal. I’d never choose to climb Everest from the South, as it is very crowded. This season there were around 500 climbers attempting to reach the summit from the South side, while in the North we were less than 90 climbers. Climbing the North side is considerably more risky, since the weather conditions are more extreme, the terrain from Camp 3 is more technical, and the distances to cover throughout the whole climb are greater. From the Tibet side there are no rescue services available whatsoever, and therefore the number of frozen bodies that remain untouched in the mountain is unbelievable.
Were there any surprises on the ascent that your training hadn’t prepared you for?
I was approaching the ladder on the Second Step at 8,550m, and crossing a very narrow traverse with my regulator leaning from my backpack. The system got messed up in contact with the icy rock wall, and all oxygen started to escape from the rubber tube connecting the mask. I was breathing an oxygen flow of 2.5L per minute from the bottle, and suddenly it dropped to zero. As I result I had to abandon with my mental and physical capabilities substantially reduced, putting myself under extreme danger. I was 300m away from the summit and I had minor frostbite in three fingers. Training to cope with such extreme situation is not easy. Training to climb with no supplemental oxygen can be done, but it requires years of preparation and ultimately a cavalier appreciation of your limbs.
What advice would you offer to anyone who is considering following in your footsteps?
“Success is the point where preparation meets opportunity”. Train for stamina and mental toughness. Research for the best gear and climbing equipment and learn how to use it efficiently. Learn from other’s mistakes, such us placing the O2 bottle in your backpack improperly. And be extremely patient on this challenge where all stars need to be aligned for success.
Having almost conquered this mountain, what is next on your list of challenges?
I’m preparing for a Polar expedition with my friend and idol Ramon Larramendi, the best explorer in the modern history of my mother country, Spain.
I’m also working to improve my piloting skills and paraglide this winter from the top of the mountain in Madrid that was my training ground many years ago: “La Maliciosa”. The idea is to do a speed winter climb, running with my mountain glider and taking off from the top to land on the North Slope.