What is it like to be an Antarctic Mountaineer? How do you become one? Is climbing Everest an achievement or an act of selfishness? WAE’s Explorer Hugh Brassil shares a drink with legendary Antarctic Mountaineer Damien Gildea, to catch a glimpse into the extraordinary world of mountaineering.
“If you go into it (mountaineering) seeking danger, you’re an idiot and you’ll probably get it… what makes mountaineering different from other adventure sports is that you’ll probably die. It’s really fucking dangerous.”
No Damien is not blowing his own trumpet. No, he is not dramatising mountaineering. In fact, after meeting Damien, I would describe him as brutally honest and humble. So for all aspiring mountaineers out there, listen up, because Damien Gildea’s mountaineering career has spanned decades, and his policy is caution.
How else does a man, who has spent a decade climbing in the most perilous and isolated region of the world, live to tell the tale with only a minor case of frostbite on the nose, to which he jokes, “I can afford to lose some length”.
And it’s not like he was down there, in Antarctica, sitting on his arse. No he was busy making dozens of summits, many being first ascents (i.e. he’s the first to climb it), all the while documenting everything for science and filling in blank areas of the map.
The Antarctic Mountaineer
This impressive resume has made Damien Gildea the Antarctic Mountaineer, with unrivalled knowledge and experience climbing the mountains of the frozen south.
“I’m glad I’ve never had any epics I can write a book about”, he says with a smile. But how? You just read his words on how dangerous mountaineering can be.
The key to his success? Time… he makes sure he has plenty of it. He says, “many commercial expeditions are on tight time frames, where you only have a narrow window to summit, a window that has cost you over $50,000 by the way…when I make expeditions, I go independent and I allow myself more time, so I can wait for good weather and not force the issue.”
Damien reveals his philosophy for weather-based decision-making, viewing it as a ‘dance not a fight’, where a smart climber knows when to turn around, and can accept failure.
This being said, he’s had his fair share of near misses. On one of his many summit attempts in Yunnan, China, Damien and his team made an early morning start, in pitch-black conditions. Their route took them across a snow-laden face. Damien was in the lead and noticed patches of snow were grouped in massive blocks, whilst other areas were quite soft and warm. He soon realised they were walking Avalanche debris. So, of course, they turned back to high camp to rest.
Around 9am they were woken by the unmistakable rumble of a massive avalanche right where they decided to retreat. Good call? He certainly thinks so.
When asked what advice he has for any aspiring mountaineers, Damien suggests (well, strongly advocates really) thoroughly learning the craft, for your sake and others around you.
This is for two reasons. The first being reward. Simply put, if you outsource the process of climbing to guides and Sherpas, it will be a hollow victory. To Damien, the reward and sense of accomplishment lies in the process, in the climb, not at the peak.
Safety First, Summit Second
Damien’s second reason to learn the craft is safety. The logic goes that competent climbers are an asset, not burden, to climbing partners, which include Sherpas. He laments that the commercialisation of popular summits has attracted less experienced and less skilled climbers (aka. Trophy Climbers), and in response, guides and Sherpas can only take more gradual and easier routes up snow-laden faces.