I’m looking at Mark Quinn in disbelief.
You never played sports and yet you climbed Mount Everest?
No. Never. I was useless.
And you never did athletics but you climbed Everest.
No. I couldn’t run to save my life.
You climbed Everest but you never trained?
I was the laziest kid in school. I smoked and I drank.
So how did you end up climbing the highest mountain in the world?
Well, I climbed Carrauntouhill in 2009 and that was when I got the bug.
Wait a minute. Even though it’s the highest peak in Ireland, Carrauntouhill is a pimple on a blister on the small toe of Everest. It’s only 3,400 feet while Everest is 29,000 feet high.
Yeah, well then I started training. I did a couple of marathons.
He did a couple of marathons, the laziest kid in the school, as if you just get out of bed one morning and decide to run 26 miles. He doesn’t seem to think there’s anything strange about it. He’s chilled. He’s laid back. As far as I can tell, Mark thinks it’s perfectly normal to go from being a lazy unfit smoker to a marathon runner and mountaineer, and when I call him a mountaineer I’m not talking about the leisurely hills we like to describe as mountains in Ireland. I’m talking about Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest of the Andes –the tallest mountain in the western hemisphere, at 22,841 feet, because that’s where he went next, after scampering around some puny 9,000-foot Polish hills for fun.
Although Aconcagua isn’t what climbers call a technical mountain, requiring ropes, pitons and ice-axes, it still claims several lives every year through altitude and cold, hazards many amateur climbers underestimate. Mark climbed this mountain to acclimatise and prepare himself for the assault on Everest, which makes perfect sense until you remember that this is a guy who had never climbed so much as a step-ladder until two years earlier.
Mark is sipping his Coke in the sun, laughing at the ludicrous, uninformed, naive questions I’m asking him, and I suppose there’s an element of being star-struck about me. When am I next likely to be chatting with someone who got to the top of the world’s highest mountain?
Even though Everest is the highest, they say that K2 and Annapurna are far more difficult climbs technically, and Mark agrees. He points out that another Limerickman, Ger McDonnell, lost his life descending from K2 in 2008, because he refused to abandon injured fellow climbers, and this brings up another abiding question: the issue of high-altitude ethics. Mountaineering is big business. You can pay a company as much as €100,000 to lead you to the top of Everest, and stories abound of teams on the way up finding injured climbers and abandoning them to die so that they can complete the ascent and get their photos at the summit.
Mark thinks this attitude is not so much a characteristic of Europeans as of American climbers, determined to get their money’s worth, and he offers the example of a leader who gave his team a choice: We can save this man or we can continue. Which is it to be? All but the American decided to go back down and save the injured climber. The mountain will still be there next year. As a consequence of that decision, the company lost business.
Did Mark ever come across these abandoned climbers as he made his ascent?
Only Green Boots, he replies, referring to Indian climber Tsewang Paljor who died on the mountain in 1996 at the age of 28. We reflect for a minute on the thought that this young man’s family are aware of his location but will never be able to bring his remains home, even though he lies in full view of the endless Everest trekkers. Green Boots has become a landmark on the way up and down the mountain and while some climbers have expressed the ambition to give the young man a more dignified resting place, no one has so far succeeded.
What about the more mundane, day-to-day things?
Why, for example, is Camp Three only 580 metres from the top? Simple. Even though it might seem to be only a stone’s throw from the summit, this is as high as any human can go without stopping. The last trudging steps are one foot in front of the other. Every single step is hard work. Before you set off on the final assault, you have to crawl out of the tent. That’s hard work. You have to pull on your crampons. That’s a huge job. You look at your ropes and lines twenty feet away and you can’t figure out how you’ll ever manage to walk over there and collect them.
You are shagged. You’re at the absolute limit of your endurance. One footstep is murder, and yet you’re now facing another six or seven hundred, but not in a straight horizontal line, hard enough though that might be. You’re going up, and with every step the air gets thinner and the oxygen gets rarer. You are at the outer limits of what a human being can achieve. You might easily die right now from pulmonary oedema or stroke. It’s no accident that there are no human habitations above 18,000 feet. We are not built to survive at this altitude.
When you get near the top of Everest, there are three steps.
The First Step is a field of huge boulders. You climb over them, even though you have not a gasp of breath left in your body.
The Second Step is a forty-metre climb. That’s 330 feet with the last sixteen or so vertical.
You get on the ladder, Mark says.
Ladder. Is that a mountaineering term? I ask.
No, he says. That’s a ladder. Some Chinese guys put a ladder on the wall.
A ladder, I’m thinking. On the side of a cliff at the top of Mount Everest.
You pull yourself over the top, Mark says, and you’re looking down a sheer drop of sixteen thousand feet.
I’m fully focussed. As someone who won’t climb a wall without good reason, I can see the problem here, and then he describes how he meets a descending team. He waves them through and they do nothing. He waves them through again and still they do nothing. Eventually, through Irish politeness, he unclips from the ladder and lets them past, which seems like an utterly insane act, but what can he do? Later he gets talking to an extremely experienced climber who unclips all the time.
Why not? There’s no way you’re letting go of that ladder.
The Third Step is an easy 10-metre climb, after which you’re on the summit, at the very top of the Himalayas, looking out over the whole world. You have twenty minutes to record your experience before you have to get back down, and you’d better be quick.
This is a harsh activity, not something to be undertaken lightly. This mountain, and all the others above 18,000 feet, are places where you will die. Nothing would persuade me to go up there and anyone who does is both a madman and a hero in my eyes. What the hell is that? Why did you climb the mountain? In Mark Quinn’s case, the answer is the ancient one: because it was there.
I love it. I love the talk, the explanation and the passion exuded by this lad who stood right on top of the biggest bastard of a mountain in the world. There he is, standing on the summit of the world’s highest mountain and he’s looking around at all the other countries spread out before him. Nepal. India.. China. He tries to take in as much as he can in the few minutes allotted to him before he has to descend again. He has a camera and he does his best to take a few shots while someone is screaming at him to get moving. He switches to video and does a quick panorama of a scene that he’ll never see again, and then he begins the long, hard descent, with no certainty of survival.
What happens when you get back down to Base camp? You celebrate, of course, and you contact your loved ones. You remind yourself not only that you made it, but also that others did not.
In Mark’s case, you remind yourself that his charity, the Shane Geoghegan Foundation, has made another stride forward, but strangely, there remains an enigma. When you review the video, you notice there, right at the summit of Mount Everest, a beautifully-made casket, and you ask yourself a question that will forever remain unanswered. What’s in the box at the top of the world’s highest mountain? Who made it and what did they put in it? Who carried it to the summit and why did they do that? It’s up there now.
Will we ever find out? Who knows? Maybe it was never meant to be.
Later, Mark finds out why he had to unclip on the ladder. The climbers are returning after losing another team member — an Irish guy too, as it turns out. There are no certainties on the mountain. You live or you die. That’s the deal.