Published in Beyond Limits magazine on 10 January 2010
There is a niche of people in this world, albeit a small one, who are rising up against conformity and taking their lives into their own steady hands. Jon Gupta, Nick Valentine and photographer Alexandre Buisse are a trio who have adopted this stance.
In July of 2012, these three mountaineers will attempt to win the prestigious Snow Leopard Award, which dares climbers to combat five 7,000 meter peaks.
The current record, made by Denis Urbeko, sits at 42 days. Gupta, Valentine and Buisse want to beat it, which would add the impressive tagline; “World’s fastest completion of SLA” to their already glistening title of “British first.”
Feeling like an amateur, I was forced to pose an obvious question, why not choose the easy life?
Gupta took the reins and answered, “Because that would be boring, and I would be like everyone else, taking the easy road. Mountains make me feel alive. I want to inspire people to believe in themselves.”
Gupta and Valentine met on a climbing trip in 2009 and have been fast friends ever since.
“We climbed together on a few ice routes and enjoyed each other’s company,” Gupta said, “We climb well together, almost telepathically and have good banter which is always important when times get tough. ”
On a search for the next big thing, Gupta fell across an article on Peak Lenin, one of the 5 peaks and the idea was planted. Immediately the two realized there would be no reneging.
“As soon as I realized not a single British person has achieved it that was it, this was my expedition for 2012,” Gupta explained.
Their lives reads like a graphic novel, always scaling a cliff edge, or head down pushing through a blizzard, an almost permanent red siren screaming danger in the background while they look past it and continue to succeed in the face of adversity.
“I like SLA because it is very ambitious, five 7000m peaks back to back is tough, and only 14 people in the world have ever achieved it,” Gupta said, “My life, my work and my play revolves around mountains and I wanted to do something that would stand out and that people would enjoy following and reading about and ultimately inspiring them to get out and do something.”
The lifestyle the three climbers lead is the perfect training for their expedition. Valentine currently resides in the Alps and is in the process of taking his Level 1 and 2 BASI Ski Qualifications. Gupta on the other hand has just returned from two months leading and climbing in Nepal and before the Snow Leopard departure date he expects to have climbed Kilimanjaro and Everest.
In short, Gupta says, “We don’t train. We are constantly in the mountains and are both young, strong and fit!”
To the outside world, Kilimanjaro and Everest are everything, but to the climbing world, they are just two rides in a whole carnival of peaks.
As with many expeditions these days, the team will climb not just for themselves but for a charity. Each team member will be raising money for a cause that is important to them.
Gupta is collecting for Dyslexia Action.
“My choice to raise money for Dyslexia Action was simple,” Gupta said, “I am dyslexic. Supporting it will help with my aim of inspiring people, particularly those who do find academia difficult and to install confidence and self belief into them, that they can achieve.”
While Valentine climbs in aid of Multiple Sclerosis, the choice is again a personal one after seeing firsthand the effects of MS on a relative.
But all of this, the PR, the fancy title, even the charity, is not the whole picture. In the end this is a challenge beyond anything most of us can imagine.
“Our kit will need to keep us warm and dry on the glacier and high up at over 7000m where temperatures can drop below -30 degrees Celsius,” Gupta said, “For this time we will need to melt snow and ice for water and cook high calorie food to keep our energy levels up. I think the hardest part will be remaining positive and keeping moral up for five weeks in an expedition environment. Everyone has down days and in a tent environment it is quite intense.”
This is an extreme sport. The few that pursue it have committed their whole world to the mountains. It is not a hobby. It is an obsession.
Gupta brings the interview to a close with these final lines, “I’m not sure if I chose mountaineering or mountaineering chose me. I have been climbing in the mountains for nearly eight years and have never had a day where I wished I wasn’t there. The thought of going to an office and sitting at a desk all day makes me squirm, I simply couldn’t do it. I have worked hard to get where I have and now I can call my office the world, one week in Africa, the next in Greenland – I have the best office and the best job in the world. I gain huge satisfaction from leading groups in the mountains, introducing them to another world that they had only heard about in writing. I feel alive in the mountains, and this means I’m happy almost all the time.”