The idea of the Eiger Paraclimb was created from a need for something really authentic that could change my life and as it transpired the lives of some of the GB paraclimbers who had become my friends: John Churcher, Al Taylor and Jamie Owen.
By Mark McGowan
The Eiger Paraclimb seemed preposterous on paper: A blind and deaf climber, a climber with MS, and a young autistic lad with no Alpine experience.
I was John’s sight guide in competition across Europe and I had coached Al in the GB team whilst also working weekly with Jay, who is on the autistic spectrum, in North Wales as his climbing coach and laterally as his support. Colin Gourlay, a climber and friend assisted, working closely with Al and Jay on the mountain.
We needed to understand what the significance was of paraclimbing the Eiger and over time it unfolded that diversity in adventure is about having the choice to take ‘individual’ risk, disabled or not!
Often a team requires inspiration to bring focus to the objective, but on this occasion, each paraclimber was carrying a profound personal challenge, not really to show the world what they could do, but more to understand themselves and what they were capable of if enabled to take the biggest of risks.
There was no lack of inspiration and depth of commitment in the team, just the expected tensions of managing fear as an individual and the group dynamics that brings.
We also had to inspire the public to support our crowdfunding to make it all happen. We had to inspire manufacturers of our much needed equipment to enable five climbers to survive the three days and two nights on the Eiger – but how do you inspire others? The answer is to just tell them the truth – so that’s what we did, by writing about our preparations in the months that led up to the climb, honestly and openly sharing our anxieties, fears and passions at the time.
We managed to attract the young adventure filmmaker from Finalcrux Films to record our story which was to become the film ‘Defiance – The Eiger Paraclimb’. I felt that the film crew’s involvement would bring further credibility and exposure to help us spread our message beyond the climbing community.
Climbing was just a metaphor, sight guiding a blind man on one of the Alps’ most dangerous mountains was an image that people could begin to understand the challenges that we, as a society, put in front of others through our lack of consideration around diversity.
Even British Mountaineering failed to understand us; instead of supporting the Eiger Paraclimb, they wrote to us suggesting that the project was too dangerous and that we might want to reconsider. So ‘Defiance’ came to life.
The technical issues unfolded over several training weekends, one in North Wales on Tryfan and in Glencoe, Scotland. Ironing out the ‘operations’ of the paraclimb allowed us to concentrate on the more strategic aspects of succeeding on the Eiger: commitment to the summit on the way up and ‘fluidity’ surrounding our more dangerous descent.
When we eventually para-climbed the Eiger, the outcome was all about inspiration and success. Of course we should celebrate such things but the real stuff is in the journey. For me, with Colin reminding himself that he is actually brilliant in the mountains, Jay and John in that the project demanded a new level of commitment and finally, Al in that she also committed massively – and in the end and it showed in the dark, in the storm on the descent, cold, hypothermic but still smiling.