In May somewhere along the Annapurna Circuit’s long, winding, dusty road, I began to believe that after a safe and successful slaying of snow on two peaks that I had finally achieved my goals as a Himalayan mountaineer. This shouldn’t be that shocking since I have spent ten years pioneering first ascents and descents in the world’s highest range with narrow-minded focus and more than a handful of narrowly missed catastrophes blending the good times with the bad and no regrets for how we did it. This insight was forced upon me in January, when my friend Jack died in my climbing partner Jon’s arms and then I decided to take a day off from filming heli-skiing in Haines, Alaska and my friend Rob died on a routine run guiding clients. The number of passionate people I have seen meet their demise in the mountains now takes up two handfuls of digits and that is likely too close for comfort, and forces me to ponder my own fate.
One foot in front of another, I destroyed the outsoles of yet another flimsy pair of trail runners while intellectualizing these facts and hiking nearly 120 miles in three days with a pack and three friends. Alongside a few private tears, I shed a sense of denial that had tight rein over my ambition and made me finally realize that what some saw as cheating death, I found as actually cheating life, more specifically, the lives of those who expected me to be around. All this time surrounded by mountains that had made my 20’s so amplified with excitement I thought, what can top this? What can possibly shift my mood and drive so powerfully, so intimately at my core?
Now about to be a dad in November and no longer having the steely gumption to tempt another impromptu meeting with the reaper head on and send him packing again, I asked myself what else can I motivate to do at 32 and heading into my prime? How can I continue to grow as an athlete and not kill myself? How bold is bold, really? How can I waste all the skills that I have developed to safely navigate the Himalayas? It was a struggle to look deep inside at who I am and know each morning that the punishing trek back to civilization was not yielding an easy answer to any of those questions. Perhaps it would take longer than that? Or never come at all, leaving me empty inside and looking back on times I would nastalgicaly refer to in the future as starting with: “When I was in shape…”
Or maybe not…
Enter Mike Aish, a two time Olympian in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter, who is a respectable marathon runner as well. Mike came into my life one month later because I am CEO of a production company that creates programs centered around people who ask themselves the same questions: how do I go to the next level and in doing so, who can teach me, what can I learn? Mike is not afraid of failure, as are none of the other amazing ultra marathoning athletes I have met this summer while creating an eight episode TV series about his pursuit to compete in his first 100-mile ultra marathon (trailer below).
It is so crushing as an extreme altitude athlete to find that hiking 100 miles in three days is really just something that someone else can do in about 15 hours. But Mike is what they call a “manimal” and he gets people’s fire going. I guess the moral of the story is, ask for what is next and what is next will find you.
I started trail running in 2008, and now it is looking like something I will continue to do with so much more knowledge thanks to Mike and maybe finally, an answer to my question of how to spend my “prime years” safely. In this way, I can still enjoy the mountains without the pressure of life-threatening consequence and with a small Osprey Talon 4 or a Raptor 10 on my back and I can finally have time to answer some other deep questions I have while enjoying killer views. It is sort of the way I guess you might expect an alpinist to progress when life, death and all the things you love get so amplified and you just want to simplify down to nothing again—making time to experience a new adventure and shed some of your self along the way to make room for the needs of others.
August 10 was my 33rd birthday and my goal was to run from the town of Ophir to the town of Telluride and hit seven summits along the way. You can check my route in the picture below, starting from the two points on the right and dropping down into the valley via the long ridge going from right to left. More on my run in a post later this week…
This is a run I’ve wanted to do for three years and it has turned me back two other times… bad weather and technical running are not a good mix, especially when you are as bare naked as a 4-litre pack, a little water and some food above treeline in tricky terrain all day. It is humbling as an extreme altitude athlete to try something new and enchain seven peaks at once—alone, hungry and tired, but also something I want to do and don’t care about failing at. After all, it is an irrefutable part of my DNA that I will always want to see what I am made of when risking epic failure on the road to becoming a better person than the day before. I may never achieve something as great as an ultra marathon, but it is good to know that there is still something out there to reach for. I’ve never shied away from an adventure that complicated, but I’m more excited about my future now than ever before because I can finally have both a family I love and the mountains, well, I can still be in them and push myself—just not like before. I don’t have to have fear to enjoy them, and that is okay with me.
Ben Clark is a mountaineer and native of Clarksville, Tennessee, though he is based in the mountains of SW Colorado. He starting rock climbing as a boy and progressed to larger, more challenging mountains in his early twenties. At the age of 23, Ben became the second youngest American to summit Mount Everest, via the North-Northeast Ridge Route. Today, Ben climbs and skis the Himalayas for the pure joy of what may happen, but trains in his home mountains in between edits and when not on location documenting an adventure.