“What are you going to do next?”
That is the most common question I have been asked since returning home in May.
The year 2018 has come and gone in a blur.
Years of training and preparation led up to this one year and now it has disappeared in what seems like a dream.
Back home in Perth, back at my day job, the joys (and suffering) of the mountains are just a distant memory.
Left lingering is that one burning question which I’ve frequently been asked but am still struggling to answer.
This time last year I was filled with nervous excitement as I undertook final preparations for the biggest challenge I had ever set myself, Project 7in4.
My goal was to climb the 7 Summits, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, in under four months.
If successful, it would be a world record.
It was an idea I concocted while lying in hospital in 2014 with a broken neck from an accident and had turned into an obsession.
Leaving Sydney in January, laden with two big expedition duffels, I said an emotional farewell to my family before boarding my flight for South America and on to Antarctica for the first of the 7 Summits, Mt Vinson.
Summiting Mt Vinson on January 16 marked the start of my 7 Summits attempt. From there on, I was racing the clock.
Returning to South America, I met my friend and climbing partner Jon Gupta in Mendoza, who was joining me for the remaining climbs.
In the next five weeks we climbed Aconcagua in Argentina; Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua; Kosciuszko in Australia; and Elbrus in Russia. We were well on track but the hardest was yet to come.
Denali, in Alaska, is North America’s highest mountain. It is a cold, tough mountain at the best of times but we weren’t doing it at the best of times.
To complete the 7 Summits in under four months, we were attempting it out of season in late winter.
After a week of pack hauling and dragging sleds through deep snow on the lower glaciers, we made it to 14K Camp, midway up the mountain.
It was there that our luck of good weather ran out.
Hit by a storm with temperatures below minus 30C and winds gusting above 100km/h, we were tent bound for three days.
The gusts sounded like a freight train roaring down from the ridge above. Even encased with our snow protection walls our tent was taking a battering.
With a small break in the storm, we pushed for the summit from 14K Camp, skipping the normal high camp. What ensued was the longest, toughest day of the entire expedition.
As we pushed higher and higher, in the back of my mind was the waiver we signed with the National Parks ranger when applying for our permit, acknowledging that we would be the only team on the mountain and that rescue services weren’t available at that time. If we went in, we had to get ourselves out.
We reached the summit just before 10pm. From our vantage point we could see a faint glow from the sun below the horizon.
The rest of the sky was black. The temperature by that stage had fallen below minus 45C. It is hard to describe just how cold that is. Even the water bottles inside my down suit had frozen.
After a long descent through the night, we made it back to camp at 5am. A gruelling 20 hours after we set off. We were exhausted but elated. It was then that Jon said to me, “Congratulations, the 7 Summits world record is yours”. After all, we had only the simple matter of Everest to go.
After what we’d endured on Denali, Everest was comparatively easier. We acclimatised early and then it was just a game of patience, waiting for the right weather window. We took the first opportunity, summiting on May 14 and stopping the clock on our 7 Summits attempt at 117 days, beating the previous record by nine days.
It was important to me to give back to those who helped me in 2014 after my accident. With incredible generosity from everyone who supported Project 7in4, we raised more than $45,000 for Surf Live Saving WA and SpinalCure Australia.
After my expedition I was honoured to be named Australian Geographic Society’s Adventurer of the Year, and had the chance to meet the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan.
However, returning home after such an amazing journey has been difficult.
People often talk about “post-expedition blues”. The come down and return to normality after a long expedition. It is an adjustment to fit back into society. But I’m not sure if that is it. For me, I feel an emptiness, a void, a lack of direction.
For four years I had worked towards a single goal. Summiting Everest, and completing the 7 Summits, was not the euphoric moment I thought it would be. It was a solemn moment of reflection. I was left asking myself the question everyone else has been asking me since, “what is next”.
Part of the reason I set myself the goal was that I wanted to test myself physically and mentally. I wanted to see what I was truly capable of. The 7 Summits was an amazing journey, one I’ll look back on for years to come.
However I don’t feel like I was tested to my limit.
So what am I going to do next? I’ll let you know when I know.