Grant Maughan is an experienced ultramarathon runner and adventure racer. Hailing from Australia, he is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. He has participated in many ultramarathons including some of the world’s toughest. In India, he is remembered for his 2016 joint win – with Jovica Spajic – in the 333 kilometer category of La Ultra The High. In May 2018, Grant climbed Mt Everest successfully. In this interview done by email, he shares his thoughts about Everest, altitude, ultramarathon and plans he has around the theme of endurance and adventure.
Everest ascents happen from the Nepal (south) side and the Tibet (north) side. Was there any reason why you chose to climb from the north side? Did you want to be on that face or was that natural fall out of the group you chose to go with and their choice of route?
I chose the north side because inherently there are less people doing that route. I also find the history of Mallory and Irvine disappearing there in 1924 very interesting.
Can you briefly describe the climb? What were your testing moments therein?
Everything about the climb is difficult: the time it takes to acclimate, establishing camps and equipment at different levels, technical impediments, oxygen deprivation and fatigue. Your body and mind get worn down after weeks and weeks of ascending and descending. It becomes a real chore just to be there and accomplish some for the daily tasks. As you get higher on the mountain some of the technical sections become more difficult and your energy and focus at overcoming the tasks become harder to manage.
One measure often used to describe the challenge involved in an ultramarathon is cumulative elevation gain. Many ultramarathons have cumulative elevation gain exceeding the altitude of Everest. That is further complemented by the act of running and moving, often with little rest, to meet cut off times. Obviously you had a fascination for Everest despite the challenges in ultramarathons and adventure races. Can you describe the specific attraction / motivation you had for climbing Everest? Had you been thinking of it for long?
After some years of mountain running it became a natural segue to start climbing bigger mountains. It was a real fascination for me to get up some of the mountains. I spent years reading climbing books but never thought I would be able to achieve such things because I have a natural fear of heights. Even though I had flown hang gliders, tried free-fall parachuting and bungee jumping when I was younger I just figured high altitude mountaineering was for elite athletes and people much braver than I. My first big climb was Mount Rainier in the US and after that trip where I learnt some new skills and equipment selection, I was keen to try other mountains. I climbed Aconcagua in Argentina; then headed to Denali in Alaska where unfortunately we couldn’t make the summit because of a nine day storm that trapped us at almost 15,000 feet before we retreated due to lack of food and our permit, close to expiring. I have climbed Mt Shasta in California a number of times solo; Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalaya solo plus Mera peak and Imja Sja in the Nepal Himalaya. I really wanted to try an 8000 meter peak like Cho Oyu or Manaslu before considering Everest but this year after talking with a team leader I decided to just go for Everest and see how it turned out. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the chance due to expense and the time required but everything fell in place and I only decided three weeks in advance to go on the expedition. Sometimes it is better that way so you don’t have much time to think about it and talk yourself out of it.
How would you describe your relation with altitude? How well do you cope with it? Does the reservoir of endurance, distance runners have, make them better at tackling it or is altitude, the great unknown that even the best of runners must approach respectfully? What was your experience on Everest?
I definitely think that endurance athletes have a bit of an advantage when climbing big mountains. Endurance and fitness are part and parcel of some of the most important aspects of getting to the top. I seem to be able to acclimate fairly well and without too much trouble. I have developed breathing techniques for distance running that I cobbled together from the sport of free-diving and by just thinking about the mechanics of gas exchange that have worked for me really well. I did notice that at about 7000 meters the breathing techniques still helped but were not as efficient as at lower altitudes. Above that height everything just becomes harder. We started to breathe bottled oxygen above 7000 meters using different volumes of gas per minute compared to height and difficulty of climbing at the time. It definitely made things easier but never the same as lower down. It was always an extra worry about running out of gas or having a regulator or mask fail. So it actually added to the stress.
Distance runners and adventure racers are used to getting pushed to their limits. How extreme is this in the combination of strain and altitude that is mountaineering? In your Facebook post, you have described what you experienced on Everest as quite challenging. What made it so?
The limits are a little different. Sometimes you are struggling carrying a large, heavy backpack on steep terrain or trying to focus on getting over a technical section using hardware, both of which are not common in distance running or mountain ultras. The physical aspects can be very similar though: being on your feet for days on end, sleep deprivation, fatigue. I also found the danger aspect to be way higher than anything I have done before in the sport. A combination of the terrain, altitude, weather and support; there was always stress in the back of my mind of what could go wrong and how I would deal with it.
Aside from the busy calendar of ultramarathons and adventure racing you maintain, did you indulge in any training that was specific to your attempt of Everest?
No. I didn’t have time beforehand. I spent four months working on a ship in Antarctica with no training over Christmas; then went straight to Alaska to do the Iditarod 350 mile and then straight to Tennessee for the Barkley. One week later I was in Tibet at Everest Base Camp. Some would say this is crazy but I seem to have the capacity to do things like this with no training and hardly any preparation of any sorts. Next month I have the 315 mile Vol State race across Tennessee and then straight to Death Valley for my sixth Badwater 135 race.
Personally, what was it like for you to be on the summit of Everest? What did you feel right then or at the first instance you had to reflect on it?
I spent 14 minutes on the summit. It was blowing around 40 knots of wind and bitterly cold though the sky was a beautiful deep azure color. I was scared. It had taken 10 hard hours of climbing through the night to get there (we arrived at 8:50 AM on May 19th). I remember looking back down at the ridge line we had traversed in the dark and knowing how long it would take me to get back to any sort of safety at high camp number three and feeling the dread. I really just wanted to get started down to find out if I could make it back safely and get far enough down the mountain to get out of the death zone. My three cameras were all frozen as well as all my water. I didn’t know if my oxygen bottle would last and how hard it would be to descend the technical sections while being extremely tired. It was very stressful. Just after leaving the summit one of our team members got snow blindness and had to be helped all the way down. It was very difficult to manage to overtake this group on the narrow section we were on. So I lost a lot of time waiting and getting cold.
Do you have any other dreams similar to Everest and away from the world of ultramarathons and adventure races you are regularly associated with? By profession you are a seafarer. The sea is a magnificent medium; it too is wilderness. Do you have any projects on that front?
I plan to row solo across the Atlantic as well as climb some other 8000 meter mountains in the future. Lots of things to think about and plan…
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai For more on Grant Maughan please try the following links: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/04/05/barkley-2018/ https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/ https://shyamgopan.com/2016/10/13/living-the-interesting-life/)