Echoes from Mt Everest
Michelle Nic Phaidin
Mountaineer Jason Black was oblivious to the shadows that followed his tall stature on his mammoth journey to the peak of earth’s highest mountain. His footsteps dug deep into the snowy terrain that covers Everest like a patchwork blanket as he battled his demons, fear, resignation, self-doubt – these emotions ran through his mind and were magnified and mirrored in the snow which created an idyllic, but treacherous, stairway to his destination.
The father of four was keeping a log. He sent his sentiments home in a daily blog and the community at large felt an affiliation. The sentiment of good-will and warmth that enveloped Jason on his return shocked him. He realised that his family, friends, colleagues and community had been one step behind him nurturing him in their hearts and praying for his safe return. He stepped into the Irish history books at 7.00am on May 19th 2013 by being the first Donegal person to summit Mt. Everest.
However, the athlete was stunned to discover the impact his expedition was having back in Ireland, people who struggling on a daily bases from depression, suicidal thoughts and mental health issues had taken the journey with him. His battle became their battle. His journey, not his destination, had given them a lifeline and they have since thanked him.
“Post Everest has been so humbling. Individuals who have been dealing with challenges on an everyday basis has contacted me privately. To hear that my climbing expedition inspired people to look at their own challenges and to discover a way of dealing with it, to find that someone sends you a message to say that he climbed every day with you and fought their demons on that journey, it’s incredibly humbling. It may have been depression, suicide, physical disability, financial pressures or simply not being physically able to get out of bed and face the day ahead, they were there with me,” he said.
His climb had a core impact on Donegal. “Another wonderful aspect to the journey was bringing hope and inspiration into the classroom on a daily basis through teachers. The children were very much in tune with it. Mt. Everest has such a powerful message in itself that with the right preparation and focus there’s nothing in this world that can’t be achieved, you must believe,” he said.
With every great achievement comes a sense of relief on fulfilment. However, Jason’s relief was more than one dimensional – he was also relieved to be alive, home safe and well after his achievement. During the higher echelons of the climb he felt that he had stared death in the face.
He recalled how he had to tell himself to breath for fear of suffocating due to the sheer lack of oxygen during the more extreme parts of his climb. Step after step his fears grew stronger knowing that there was absolutely no rescue off this mountain from this altitude, a sick sense of suffocation came over him.
“My breathing became erratic and I was sucking whatever little amount of oxygen was available. I felt that there was not enough oxygen to satisfy my body’s demands. I was asking myself if it was all going to end here, I was looking around desperately for any glimmer of hope or sanctuary,” he said.
Finally slowly filling his diaphragm with the available oxygen, instead of being the spectator, he took control of his body again.
Nights at high altitude were really tough again due to the extreme conditions, sleeping proved difficult. “I had developed a new demon, “Obstructive Sleep Apnea” and what a demon it was. It happens because the muscles in your throat relax, blocking the flow of air to your lungs. Your airway might be completely blocked or only partly blocked. When you stop breathing, the amount of oxygen in your blood drops. Your brain recognises this and makes your body start breathing again, it’s a terrifying experience. I needed sleep to climb and had to turn to sleeping pills. But I was afraid if I did I wouldn’t be able to tell my lungs to breath – that I may not wake up. These were the tangible demons that effected you as the summit loomed closer and there was more, so much more,” he said.
On reaching ground level, Jason’s need and instinct
to be with his wife, Sharon, and his four children became so immense that he risked almost certain seizure as he tried to escape the strict restrictions governing the border which threatened to make him remain in the country longer than he had anticipated due to bureaucracy and red-tape.
“They wouldn’t allow me to move until the 28th of May. I had a flight booked on Saturday, 25th. Tibet is a region that is greatly suppressed and the Chinese authorities have these people tied down and they can’t move freely – they’re deprived of the liberty of life. I wasn’t going to accept that they were going to tell me, as an Irish citizen, that I wasn’t allowed to move around freely in their country. So, under the cover of darkness I left base camp, with an American climber and hired the services of a local Tibetan guy to smuggle us out of China. We got into the back of their van and pulled the blanket over our heads and spent the next day and a half avoiding the Chinese authorities. We got as far as the last village, before the Chinese border, where they apprehended us and took us from the vehicle. These guys looked typically young 16-year-old flint faced Chinese soldiers. They found that it was easier to throw us out over the border which was only thirty five minutes away as opposed to send us back to base camp which would have been a day and a half,” he said.
From there they hired a Nepalese man who took them via jeep through rough and tough terrain for four hours and eventually resulted in their return to Kathmandu.
His return home sees Jason cast a different value and perspective on life. The energy, enthusiasm and drive that he encapsulated during his epic journey is one that is still very much within him. He approached the mountain with respect and civility and on ascent cultivated a new and deeper understanding and appreciation of life and the intricacies that greet us with each new dawn.
His greatest challenge at present are simple things like being able to sleep at night. “I get up at night and try to climb the walls. I think that I am still climbing. I put my shoes on and go outside, for nights I thought I was still living life inside a two man tent. The experience is one that is wonderful and one that I can never forget. Summit morning was just wonderful, I took pictures from the summit to help share the experience with the people back home, those memories are permanently engraved in my mind. I can still feel the air swirling the euphoria, I can still smell it, feel it, taste it, I can still hear my boots cracking through the snow, feel the sense of silence around me as I stood there alone. I found myself thinking a lot. I haven’t changed but my values and perspective have. To appreciate the simple things like switching on a light, boiling a kettle, on Mount Everest due to the altitude it took an hour and a half to make tea or coffee but then you appreciated it more. I slept on a bed of stones due to the exhaustion on my ascent, as the tent had been destroyed in a hundred mile per hour winds. My body struggled in the freezing temperature, my digestive system shut down as the body supplied only the vital organs, dehydration caused me to have a super dry throat – it’s simple the human body is not designed to be up there but that’s the wonderful physical and mental challenge that gives mountains like Mt. Everest the extreme titles,” he said.
Jason is now languishing in the simplicity of life. Walking through the Voodoo lounge he stands and talks to people who congratulate him on his huge achievement. He never tires of telling the story and each time you hear another line from a life changing story that rings true to your very core.
Admiration and appreciation for what Jason has lifted the spirits of a community.
A motion by Town & County Council proposed that a corner next to the garden of remembrance in the Town Park be dedicated to honour an achievement, and that Letterkenny man Jason Black be the first to be honoured. His achievement will be marked with a civic ceremony, a plaque on Market Square and a plaque at the foot of Mt. Errigal where the dream first took root.
The plaque at the foot of Mt. Errigal will resonant deeply with Jason: “As a young boy I remember my first climb up this wonderful Alpine mountain that looked so out off place in Donegal. I remember the views overlooking Bloody Foreland, Tory and Arranmore in the distance, I could see for miles, as a kid I thought I was on top of the world.”
Mt. Errigal has played a really important role as have all the Derrveagh mountains in preparation for Jason’s journey to Mt. Everest. “To have the mountain recognised for these reasons and linking it directly to the might of Mt. Everest will attract curious tourists and climbers to our beautiful county.”
Jason is urging everyone of all ages to accompany him as he climbs Mount Errigal on June 30. “I want all types mums dads & children and especially people whos never climbed Mt Errigal or felt they never could,well guess what now you can and will slowly and surely so id be so proud if you could join me on this journey as it will be a very sentimental and meaningful one.”