Thursday, October 26, 2006

What, Me Worry?

An industry leader explains how a climbing mishap helps him keep fear in check.

Paul Gagner, president of Sierra Designs and Ultimate Direction, wasn't always a corporate honcho obsessing over sales figures and marketing schemes. In July 1995, deep in the Canadian Arctic, he had more elemental concerns: He wondered if his climbing partner, Rick Lovelace, would eat him if he happened to die first.

They had just put up a first ascent on Walker Citadel, a 4,000-foot granite wall on Baffin Island. They called their 26-pitch climb Superunknown, which is exactly what they got into upon their descent. To their dismay, they found that the sea ice had broken up, blocking their intended over-ice hiking route back to the nearest settlement 70 miles away. stranded with antiquated maps and no radio, their survival was both a waiting game and a race against starvation.

BP How did you find yourself in such dire straits?

PG On all my other trips--the Himalaya, Alaska, Patagonia--there was always someone I could call for beta. For Baffin, there was nobody. I got some broad info from Conrad Anker, and that was it. Locals said it had been a warm spring and that the sea ice was melting, which shortened the window for our climb. Then with high winds, our climb took a week longer than expected. Our plan for returning to Clyde River was to ditch our climbing gear and hike across the frozen fjord. Our outfitter would pick up our gear after breakup, so no one was scheduled to come get us. Our plan B was to traverse the edge of the fjord, but the terrain was a minefield of crevasses. Our maps weren't accurate, and while we had a compass, we were so close to magnetic north that it didn't give us precise info. We had no GPS and no radio. We returned to basecamp hoping that when we missed our flights home, people would come looking.

BP Did you think you were going to die?

PG We waited for rescue for 2 weeks; one without food. I lost 20 pounds and felt like I was floating out of my body. We got pretty weak--it took all my energy just to pee. We took a photo of ourselves in front of our climb (see above) and joked it might be our last. Rick is stockier than me, and I asked "Hey, are you going to eat me if I go first?" We made light of it, but sitting there for 2 weeks, going through scenario after scenario, it could get grim very quickly if you let it. But we never really felt we wouldn't make it.

BP What did it feel like to hear the boat that finally rescued you?

PG A river near us made noise, which sounded to us like a boat engine. That was frustrating as hell. But this one time, the pitch was different, and it clicked: This is a boat. We bolted up, looked out the tent door, and saw three angels on a boat coming toward us. Relief. It made everything we'd been through feel worthwhile. The guys were hunters who spoke no English, but it was easy to communicate our gratitude--and our hunger. I'd been a vegetarian for about 6 years, and I was ravenously hungry. We had caribou stew.

BP What did you learn from this epic?

PG Be confident that there will be successful conclusions and make smart decisions toward that end. No freaking out! I tell my employees, "Look at El Cap; know that the goal is to stand on top of it. But break that down into stages you can attain." Right now, I'm working on restructuring our business in Japan, which I could really thrash around about--it's a big job. But you've got to look at a bite-sized goal first, like who our partners will be. Intense situations build character and stock your toolbox for real life.

By Shannon Davis, Backpacker

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