When you go on a climbing trip, everybody thinks it’s a vacation. And you can’t get PTSD from a vacation, right? Except that PTSD isn’t exclusively tied to any one event. Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world and notoriously difficult to climb. Some of the most experienced alpinists in the world have lost their lives trying to summit the “Killer Mountain”, and in 2012 Ian flew to Pakistan for his first winter expedition.
A winter in the Himalaya nearly destroyed him. Ian survived unroped crevasse falls, an avalanche, bivouacs in negative forty-degree weather, high altitude cerebral edema, Hepatitis A, an earthquake, oh—and also, nearly being eaten alive by fleas. When he returned to the states, he couldn’t cope with society and suffered from severe depression and PTSD. Our responses to the events of trauma are our brain’s way of helping us cope and survive. People experience PTSD for different reasons and healing looks different for everybody, but there is still hope and freedom on the other side of trauma.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Allez Outdoors, and Têra Kaia. Music by: “Southside” by Lee Rosevere, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Blue Highway”, “60’s Quiz Show”, “Well and Good”, “Knock Knock”, “Pives and Flarinet”, “Good Times”, “Cotton”, “Chimera”, “Soldier Story”, “Dark Water”, “Tollhouse”, “Arboles”, “Springtime”, and “Well and Good” by Podington Bear. Sound effects by Mike Koenig, “Rave lite”, and “ccdff2”. A HUGE thank you to Chad Crouch, aka Podington Bear, for the support and to Peter Darmi for all of his help.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
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(FEMALE VOICE): Today we’re going to talk about “allez”. “Allez” means “come on!” in a way, or to encourage. Ok! We are done with the simple and normal uses of “allez”, now let’s cut to the chase:
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(IAN OVERTON): This might not have been the best idea—and it was a bold idea. And it changed me, drastically. It forced me to question everything that I thought and believed about myself. Because every morning that you wake up and you’re going on to the mountain, there is this thing that sits in the back of your head that goes, “You might die today—you need to be ok with that.” And when I got home, that wasn’t there anymore.
Most people don’t try climbing in the Himalayas in winter. The idea is absurd. Shortly after my return, I went to go see Ed Viesturs speak, the first American to summit all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks without supplementary oxygen. And he got into an argument with a Polish man in the audience about how many 8,000 meter peaks had been climbed in the winter. Ed was certain that there were, you know, still, eight or nine of them that have yet to be summited and the Polish guy was saying, “Well, no. These ones haven’t been summited yet.” And I perked up and I go, “Actually it’s just Nanga Parbat and K2. The Polish took down Broad Peak.” And Ed looks up and he goes, “Excuse me?” I go, “I was on Nanga Parbat this past winter. The Polish took down Broad Peak. Nanga Parbat and K2 remain as the only 8,000 meter peaks to not be summited in the winter.”
Ed’s response was, “I think that climbing in the Himalayas in winter is insane.” To date, I am the only American to attempt to climb Nanga Parbat in the winter. I can’t say we sent our best and the brightest—but we sent somebody.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(IO): My name’s Ian Overton. I live in Denver, Colorado. I’ve been climbing, if you’ve listened to my dad’s side of the story: he hauled me up an icefall behind our house in Massachusetts when I was two. Put an ice ax in my hand, put me in a webbing swami belt and hauled me up it. I started climbing a bit more when I was actually twelve. First alpine experience when I was sixteen trying to do Gannett with my dad. Basically, he taught me everything I knew. He caught me on my first lead fall—I was placing nuts that he’d had since the mid-eighties up at Horsetooth and I whipped and he caught me on a hip belay. Um. So, that’s fun.
(KK): There are a lot of opinions on age, like “You’re too young for this” or maybe “you’re too old for that.” Most of us spent our childhood waiting for permission for things like second dessert and staying up late, or being tall enough to ride the rollercoaster or old enough for a driver’s license. And if you’re impatient like me, then you’ll just trick your high school boyfriend into indefinitely loaning you his car while he goes away to college. Who needs a piece of paper for validation, anyway?
But when it comes to climbers, the general rule of thumb seems to be: “Age is just a number,” and depending on things like having the right mentors and or the right attitude, you can start at any age. We do want to acknowledge that, of course, there are a lot of barriers that can prevent just any ol’ body from climbing—such as accessibility or financial status, and not to mention that the learning curve to climbing itself can be pretty steep. But unlike most mainstream sports, you can still become a rock climber at any age. I know climbers in their late sixties still swinging hard leads in the Gunks back home, and in June of 2019, the youngest recorded person in history climbed the Nose on El Cap. With a huge boom in popularity, the recommended age to start climbing is somewhere between four and seven.
But you don’t see as many alpine babies toddling around out there in the world. Crag babies, yeah. But to be inundated at such a young age in the world of—not just old school trad, but also high-altitude alpinism—it’s a far cry from comp kids today (even if their tendons are made of kevlar by the time they’re twelve.) Ian had a different introduction to the outdoors, and it dictated not just where he lived but how lived his life—and it shaped his entire existence.
(IO): I guess a lot of this stems from my father. He was with army special forces and his whole background was high altitude and cold weather mountaineering—and warfare. So, it wasn’t a matter of if I would climb, or be in the cold or ski or anything like that—it was when. I left climbing for a while in college. Got really involved in the punk scene. Very politically oriented for a long time—still am. After college, I just kinda hit the road. I didn’t really start moving for a long time. I started traveling and working weird jobs—I got a degree in political science and realized I wanted nothing to do with it. So, I took a job working on a hazmat site outside of Albuquerque. I wound up working with an artist collective in Down East Maine. At-risk youth programs in Vermont, ski instructor in Idaho, Colorado. EMT, butcher. I’ve taught cadaver labs for anatomy physiology. I’ve been all over the place.
After my stint in Albuquerque, I did whatever, you know, you do as a counter-culture youth and you go and you backpack Europe. What was supposed to be a trip around Ireland and maybe down to Germany or something like that turned into a six-month stint of hitchhiking around Ireland, and then all the way out to the Black Sea. Along the way, I met this guy named David Klein. David lived in a town outside of Budapest called Èrd and he allowed us to stay through the couch surfing network. It was either a magazine or newspaper in Hungary once referred to him as being a—I think the phrase was: “globetrotting, mountaineering, psychedelic playboy.” His response to that was, “Ah yes. This is about right.”
We became good friends. I based out of Hungary for a while. I’d hop out to Prague or out to Romania. I would up in Transylvania being bike mechanic for a while. And I came back to the states and after his, I want to say fifth attempt at Everest without oxygen, he called me up from Nepal and said it was about time that we had an adventure. And I thought, “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.”
(KK): Everybody has an adventure buddy—or at least knows one. And, you know the kind. If your thing is trying hard objectives in the mountains, occasionally known as “doing stupid, scary shit”, then you definitely need friends who are willing to do the stupid thing with you. These partners are otherwise known as “enablers”. Everybody has or knows one—Ian had two.
(IO): The other guy on the expedition—a man named Zoltan Acs, we call Zoli—perked up and said, “Well, fellas. Let’s do Nanga Parbat this winter.”
Nanga Parbat is an 8,126-meter peak that, at the time, was only one of two 8,000-meter peaks that had not been summited in the winter. It was that and K2. I knew about its reputation. The Germans call it “the Killer Mountain”. There’s no reason that I should be attempting this as my first real expedition, but David pitched it to me as, “Well, if you do this, then everything else is gonna seem easy.” I thought about it and I went back to my job as an EMT and I got a call for a frequent flyer—just somebody that you pick up on the regular—and I went, “I can’t just keep doing this. I’ve gotta do something else.” I gave my work a month’s notice saying, “Hey, I’m leaving to do this thing.” and our dispatch manager looked at me and he goes, “You’re gonna die in an avalanche.” And my response to him was, “Well, it’s better than all these places I keep on driving people to and from.” So, I left.
(KK): In alpinism, climbers are constantly pushing the envelope of conventional boundaries. The most important part is to be safe and return home, with or without a summit. And Ian was in tip-top shape—running constantly, training in the gym and spending a lot of time at altitude. In order to meet their objective, all three of them had to be ready for anything. Nanga Parbat was no joke—it had a twenty-eight percent death ratio and the summit-to kill-ratio historically was 3:1. To put that in perspective, Everest, at only ten, is the mountain that Nanga Parbat pushes down on the playground and steals its lunch money from. And at least sixty-eight people have died trying to reach the top.
Besides some of the physical barriers, logistically it was a nightmare. In 2012, there weren’t many people traveling to Pakistan for much more than mountaineering—and getting a visa into the country was tricky. Pakistan wasn’t exactly a huge tourist destination, especially where Nanga Parbat resides. And this was all just a year prior to Osama bin Laden’s death by gunshot wound in 2011. The area is known for its conservative—and in some cases, extremist—religious devotees. Needless to say, Ian received a lot of flak from family and friends about going. And ultimately, there was just a lot of confusion about what was really going on there.
Ian landed in Budapest to meet up with the team in early December and then flew into Islamabad on December 27th.
(IO): Having a giant Eddie Bauer First Ascent duffel bag tends to attract some attention—which wasn’t great because we smuggled an entire case of Johnnie Walker in with them.
Have I not told you this story? Johnnie Walker was one of the sponsors that came through. They gave us two cases of scotch, plus a little bit more. To get the scotch up to basecamp, we had to bring it into Pakistan. Pakistan is a Muslim country; alcohol is considered forbidden—“haram”. So, I’m dragging this bag around the customs area and finally, a man with a tight mustache and a beret and a chest full of badges walks up to me and goes, “Where are you from?” I went, “Uh, the United States.” He goes, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’ve come to climb Nanga Parbat.” and he looks at me and he goes, “Do you want tea?”
And he shouts something in Urdu at a kid, the kid takes off running. And he says, “Put down your bags. Sit down.” So, I put down my duffel bag and I sit down on top of it and he sits down next to me and he goes, “So, why are you here? We don’t see Americans.” And he starts to engage me in this really fun, polite conversation. We’re going back and forth and making some jokes. And eventually, the tea shows up and it’s not in a styrofoam cup like I thought it would be. It’s sterling silver tray, china cups, silver teapot. And we sit down, we have tea together, and we laugh and we tell some jokes and eventually he looks at me and goes, “You know, a lot of people come from the west and they try to bring in drugs and they try to bring in alcohol. So, I tell them that this is forbidden. This is a Muslim country. It is haram—and then, I take it from them. And then when we close, we have a party.”
He starts laughing. I stand up. The customs official stands up, picks up my bag and I’m certain it’s about to go away—hands it to me and says, “I hope you enjoy my country.” We walked under the microbus and we take off.
We arrived in Chilās December 30th. We had a couple of days in town before we headed out to basecamp. Chilās is in the area of Gilgit-Baltistan, but the Chilāsi themselves are known for having a much more conservative culture than much of the surrounding countryside. I immediately noticed that I didn’t see women anywhere. We’re at the hotel and a group of students come in. And they’re from Lahore, they’re from Karachi, from Islamabad, Rawalpindi. We’re all chatting about where we’re from and one guy leans over and goes, “I’m from where your drones are bombing.” I puckered up super tight and I looked over my shoulder and was like, “I’m…really sorry about that man. I…don’t have anything to do…” And he goes, “No, no, no. I know. And I’m just teasing you. I actually appreciate it because my family can go out to the market without having to worry about these warlords for the first time in a decade.” And that was a bit of a mind bender to me because I have major issues with the drone program in it of itself, but at the same time—we had a really good discussion about what these programs meant and his firsthand experience with them. We got to know each other really well that night: we played board games, we drank tea. I talked to one guy about Black Sabbath and Slayer and Iron Maiden for like an hour. We bonded over metal. Then I got violently ill—wretching, violently. Food poisoning, something. I am up until it’s time to get into the old Toyota to take us up to the trailhead to start the three day walk into basecamp.
We get up to Bunar Das and get into a rickety old Toyota TJ. Bald tires, shot suspension. I get into the front seat—everybody else kind of piles into the back. The driver starts going up these steep, narrow, winding trails.
(sound of car driving on road)
We encounter a goat herder
(sounds of bells ringing and goats bleating)
who’s got three goats going along the knife edge of this road and he stops off the side. The first goat steps off to the side.
(sounds of birds chirping)
The second goat steps off to the side. The third goat’s not going anywhere, so our driver hits the accelerator
(sound of car accelerating)
and that’s when the goat runs directly in front of the Toyota and just smashes right into it.
(sound of car impacting…something, I couldn’t find any “car-hitting-goat sounds”)
And I’d been yelling, “Stop, stop, stop! Enough, no, no no!” and hits the goat—my head goes out the window, I wretch again. I look back: there’s this old man wailing over his goat. David and our local guy, Fakir, go over and start talking to him. Zoli has been sitting on top of the Toyota this whole time and he leans over me and goes, “Hey, Ian.” I look up at him. He looks at me and just goes, “This is a bad omen. We are so fucked.”
and way out in the distance you can see Nanga Parbat.
Basecamp’s at nearly 15,000 feet, so we’ve got another almost 12,000 feet to go—through terrain I have no idea how to navigate. Because there’s nothing in the lower forty-eight that really gets you set to climb in the Himalaya—no matter how many times you do Rainier or Hood. The size and scope of these things is just mind-boggling.
(KK): The team had spent three days in total hiking into basecamp. When they got there, it immediately hit Ian that he was way in over his head, more than he could have ever imagined. While setting up camp, they quickly realized that their logistical team—the people responsible for their basecamp supplies—had left them with a stove without any of the working parts and summer tents—meaning no floors. Much to their dismay, several of the porters had actually stolen items from them as well.
(IO): My socks, my underwear. My 8,000-meter mitts. My balaclava. My American and my Colorado flag we were hoping to have at summit. The Hungarian flags, and several other important items.
(KK): So, you were pretty well set up.
(IO): Yeah, yeah. We’re—everything’s just going great. When you go out on an expedition, you hire a cook and you hire a kitchen boy—it shows good faith to the local community. “Kitchen boy” sounds a little diminutive, but that’s the term that’s used. The kitchen boy quit in two days. He didn’t want to be there—he went back down to his family in Bunar Das. And this guy named Abdul, he’s like, “I’ll stay.” Abdul and Fida, our cook, didn’t speak the same language. Abdul spoke the regional dialect and Fida spoke a little bit of English and some Spanish and my two climbing partners are Hungarian—so, nobody speaks the same native tongue.
(KK): The team waited for parts for the stove to come up from Bunar Das while they started to try and figure out how to even get to the foot of this thing. Nanga Parbat stands on the eastern edge of the Himalayas with steep, avalanche-prone faces that sometimes develop its own weather systems. And—hey, let’s not forget that it was the middle of winter.
(IO): Morning’s are clocking in around negative twenty Fahrenheit, between negative ten and negative twenty on the bad nights. And the snow just keeps coming. It’s deep. You’d break trail and the next day, your trail was gone and you’d have to do it again. So, we try to go up and over through a series of couloirs and realize that it just ends. We take several days trying to set this up and during the course of that, I wound up falling into the crevasse for a first time—unroped. We’d been setting up camp and thought it was a safe place to move and I was going to retrieve a piece of the tent that had blown away and I took two steps forward and just dropped. The whole world just shattered around me and I landed on an ice ledge in the middle—in the crevasse. I got lucky.
(KK): Ian described falling into the crevasse as the mountaineering equivalent of driving without a seat belt, or airbag, or…brakes: “Think 127 Hours, but replace the rock with a metric shit-ton of ice.” Fortunately, he was able to grab the rim and pull himself out. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning. During their attempt to establish a second basecamp, David and Ian got caught in an avalanche.
(IO): Navigating the icefall—it’s a labyrinth that we can’t seem to find the top of, or find a stable place to set up camp. We start making our way down, but we can’t see the landmarks that we’ve set for ourselves. These bamboo sticks with red flags on, we can’t find them. We’re going across a snowfield. David’s headlight is starting to dim out. I’m in the front, and I can just feel the world start to shake.
(heart beating rapidly)
I look up at this couloir and it just looks like smoke,
(wind gusts blowing loudly)
and I yell, “Incoming!” And we start running, knowing that there are crevasses in front of us and we could very well fall into them, but it’s either that or get hit by the brunt of the avalanche. We get up to the edge of this deep crevasse that we can’t find a way around, so David just tackles me onto the ground.
(heart beating rapidly)
Everything goes black. Can’t see my hand in front of my face. You can feel this intense wind pummel you and chunks of ice are battering at us. Coughing, and just lying on the ground, hoping not to get buried. Eventually, the noise stops. And I stand up. David pulls me back down. Says, “There might be a second one. Stay down.” He mutters something in Hungarian. I laugh kinda nervously, and we walk down to camp one.
He starts stomping around back and forth and I ask him, “What are you—what are you doing?” He says, “Well, I’m making a bed.” The nights have been getting down around negative forty or so, and so I think, “Ok. I guess this is what we’re doing.” So, we stomp out a platform. We call Zoli on the radio and like, “What time is the moon going to get up above the ridge?” And it’s quiet, and he says, “I don’t think that’s happening tonight. There’s no moon.” So, we just decided to hunker down there for the night and wait until morning. It’s too cold to sleep. The thermometer bottoms out between negative thirty, negative forty—so, somewhere below there. And all I can do is sit in my bag and shiver, and David recites part of The Ramayana—this ancient Hindu poem—while we sit there and shiver in the dark and watch the Milky Way spin overhead. It was beautiful. And—after a while, you just kinda go numb to it. The inside of my foot started developing some frostbite.
We get down to basecamp. We have a talk with Zoli. Bad weather’s coming in, so we decide that while the storm comes in, we’ll go back down to Chilās.
We dip down to Chilās. A day later, we go into town and we’d made friends with a guy named Aziz that had offered to give us a ride somewhere. Three police officers come out of nowhere and yank him out of the car and start questioning him. We find out that we’ve had secret police that have been following us for the past few days. He won’t drive us anywhere because of this, so we get out. A white Toyota Corolla pulls up next to us, and an older gentleman steps out with a double-barrel shotgun and points it at both David and I. David says to him in Urdu—something. Later, it comes to light that he’s with the police. And the guy waves the gun and says, “No, you’re coming with me.” situation. And then we’re marched through town, with everybody watching us, to the police station.
(KK): The police station they were brought to was set up as courtyard. Think, old school jail cells, with the bars and everything. And, in the middle of the courtyard is a wooden desk. Sitting at this desk is a man.
(IO): He’s got a book and a telephone, and I don’t think the telephone was plugged into anything.
(KK): David and Ian sit down, and the man stares at them—hard. He demands to see their paperwork.
(IO): He looks us up and down. Tells us, “You could be spies. What are you doing here? You’re causing very much trouble in town. People are very concerned.” And he points at David and goes, “What is your name? Where are you from? What is your job?” And he says, “My name’s David Klein. From Budapest, Hungary. I’m a climber.” And he points at Zoli, same thing. “My name is Zoltan Acs. I’m from Budapest, Hungary. I’m a climber.” And he points at me, and I don’t have that Eastern European stoicism—so I go, “Uh, my name’s Ian Overton. I’m from the United States,” and I was just gonna say climber, but David points at me and goes, “Doctor.”
(KK): Except that, Ian isn’t exactly a doctor—
(IO): But I got a bag full of doctor feel good back at the hotel, so—maybe we can make this work. The guy looks at me and says, “You’re a doctor?” I say, “Yeah?” All the world’s a stage dive right? Let’s do this.
Well, he shouts out something and three officers come over. And one of them looks at me and pulls up his shirt and says, “This hurts.” So, I look at David and I go, “Well, if we don’t go to jail, I’ll do a physical exam on each of your men.” And right there in the lobby, I do a full physical workup on all three of these guys, just like I would any field patient. “Ok, here. B vitamins and some Imodium for the guys with diarrhea. And then, uh, it’s Percocet—here you go.”
(KK): And—it all works out. Ian, David, and Zoli didn’t get buried in an avalanche, didn’t go to jail—and apparently, now Ian is a doctor. They get Zoli on a bus to go back home—he had suffered severe frostbite and wouldn’t be joining them for the rest of the expedition. And then David and Ian head back to Bunar Das, jump into the same beat-up TJ and arrive at Halal bridge. They grind out a four-day hike in two days. And on the last day, they do a twenty-two-hour push through waist-deep snow.
(IO): We check our weather window. We’ve got less than a week until the next big storm moves in, so we need to make time. We take one day to rest and punch up to camp one. Wake up the next morning, stoke is high. Ready to go. Camp two, let’s get this. And somewhere up a couloir, I just lose all my energy and I get this massive headache. Start feeling really sick to my stomach and kinda blurry, so I shout down to David that he needs to finish the pitch. Build an anchor, he comes up. Checks in: “You ok?” I’m like, “Just finish.” Keep on pushing. We get into the icefall. Go up, up, up, and we hit our high point. And I look around, take three steps and hit my knees. I can’t walk straight. And David looks at me and he goes, “Ok, we’re done.”
So, we back up to the icefall and he puts in one old Russian titanium screw. Wraps a little bit of three mill accessory cord through it. Sets up a really sketchy minimal rappel—looking back on it, didn’t care about it at the time. He raps off into the icefall. I go to do the same thing, but I can’t figure out how to load my belay device—which is something I’ve done, you know, thousands of times in my life, at this point? And I can’t figure it out. It’s on backwards, ropes are getting crossed. I can only get one rope to clip in. Eventually, I get to the bottom and he said, “What took so long?” And I tried to explain it to him and my words didn’t feel like they were making sense, but he kinda figures it out and he goes, “Yeah, we’re done. We’re done. We’re done.” He just keeps on saying that. We walk down to the base of the icefall and we made a short video announcing the end of the expedition—because I’d developed high altitude cerebral edema.
(KK): High altitude cerebral edema is caused by changes in altitude. The vessels in your brain become extremely permeable and can leak fluid into the cerebral cavity. Essentially, what happens is: when the pressure inside your skull increases, so does brain tissue and cerebrospinal fluid. So, it squeezes the brain inside of its own head—which is where the headaches, nausea, and vomiting come from. Your body is actively trying to get rid of the fluid in order to decrease pressure. And if the swelling goes untreated, it can cause death by brain herniation.
(IO): We make this video announcing the end of the expedition and it ends with David saying, “So, we’re going back to Islamabad to eat chapatis?” And I kinda laugh a little nervously and I throw my hat on the ground and say, “I guess.” and motion for David to cut the camera, ‘cause I’m about to start just bawling.
For the next five days, David would describe my behavior as irregular and aggressive. Extremely agitated. When I’d go to sleep at night, I’d have these dreams that I would act out—I’d hallucinate that I was a mercenary in a science fiction book that I was reading and that I had a contact I had to meet up with on an ice planet. I’d go wander out onto the glacier in my long underwear and my socks before I’d figured out what’s going on and run back into the tent. At that point, we had commandeered a shepherd’s hut that’s up there for the summertime and turned it into a camp. We go back down to Chilās. And that first night, we’re lying in the same hotel room. And I wake up in the middle of the night and the whole world is shaking around me and I think—I thought that when you drop altitude, this would all be over. I’d be done with the hallucinations and I’m starting to freak out that maybe I have brain damage, and I look over at David and he’s sitting up in bed, too, looking around and goes, “Earthquake!” I went, “Oh!” So, I just went back to bed while the world was still shaking.
(KK): Ian and David made it back down without incident—other than the hallucinations. Ian was running out of antibiotics and taking care of an infection that had developed from his frostbite. But, they got showers and Wifi and got in touch with family and friends back home. The expedition was over. But then, something interesting happened. At some point, Ian and David ventured out to get food and wound up getting caught up in the middle of a town protest.
(IO): The protest comes by and sets up directly across from us—a big stage, and people are shouting in the megaphone and you’re hearing all these catchwords that the news media in the US tells you to be afraid of. Things like “jihad” and “fatwā”. And I look at David and I go, “They’re talking about an internal struggle, like something to overcome within themselves?” And he goes, “Well, no. That’s the traditional meaning of the word. But he’s talking about killing people.”
(KK): When the protest ended, the protesters then came into the restaurant that Ian and David were sitting in.
(IO): And a man looks at me really hard and says something in Urdu. I look at David and David responds, “Oh, Hungary and America.” And he says, “Oh! Nokia phones. You make Nokia phones.” And David goes, “Yeah.” And all of a sudden, all these people crowd around and they gave us food and tea and gave us email addresses so the next time we were in Pakistan, we would have a safe place to stay and we could meet their family. We had this very beautiful moment with all these strangers that wanted to make sure that we were taken care of in their country. And the man said, “Because we’re Pakistani, we have to be cautious about outsiders. But we’re Muslim, and we’re told to be kind to the traveler.”
While I was laid out on that bed, I put myself on a really strict regimen of amoxicillin for ten days. And eventually, it cleared everything up, but I was worried I was going to lose my foot or a hand or an arm and I can’t stop shitting everywhere.
I take enough Imodium to choke a horse and get onto a plane. For two weeks, I didn’t talk to anybody but David. I’d gone out there at a hundred and seventy-five pounds and I came back around one forty-five, one-fifty. I’m six foot two so, I already look kinda scrawny, but I could see my ribs. Eventually, my stomach healed up enough and my lesions were fading away, so I went to go see a friend in Berlin for a week. Met up with two very bizarre Auzzie guys and went on a four-day bender before getting on a plane and heading home.
(KK): And just like that, the expedition was…over. Ian came back to the states with almost no money. He was in debt, he was depressed. And he didn’t know who to turn to.
(IO): And so, I told them all the exciting bits and pieces, but what I wasn’t telling them is that I wasn’t handling being home well. I didn’t feel like I had people to talk to. I was staying with my family. I lost a girlfriend over this—let’s be honest, it was a catalyst for losing the girlfriend. I had no money, I couldn’t go back to EMS, ‘cause mentally I couldn’t handle it. It’s so hard to look at people and go, “Look. I just had the adventure of a lifetime. And I should have everything going for me right now, but it really doesn’t feel like it and I’m really depressed and I don’t know how to talk about it.” Because when you tell people that you went on a mountain climbing trip, everybody thinks it’s a vacation. Like, it’s a beautiful place and it’s mind-bending and it’s altering and it makes you appreciate just the insane severe beauty in life, but at the same time, there’s something about it that can be utterly terrifying.
(KK): Ian had a really hard time acclimating back to normal life. He eventually took a job as a medic and crew lead for a youth empowerment group. They took eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds that needed some sort of life experience out and taught them how to do things, like build trail and, I don’t know, use a chainsaw. If you’ve worked in wilderness therapy, or know someone who does, then you’re probably familiar with the kind of schedule and emotional capacity required.
(IO): And what I’m not telling people is at night, I’m having this horrific nightmare—that I can’t breathe and that I’m getting hit by this avalanche, over and over again. And I can’t see it, but I can feel it and I can hear it. I can taste it. And I’d wake up and have to stifle my own screams in my tent and try to get out of the tent ‘cause I thought I was getting buried. I’d go home from a ten-day hitch and just get into a bottle. Drink heavily. I was sad all the time. I’d get angry with my family. And finally, I went and I got therapy. I had a clear moment and was like, “Ok, you’re feeling good right now, but if you don’t do something soon, it’s gonna come back.” So, I found a therapist that was willing to see me and we talked about why I was there.—that I felt like I had no control over my emotions, and I felt completely out of place. And I didn’t have people to talk to—it didn’t make sense, because I should have everything going for me.
We did what’s called EMDR: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. The way that EMDR works is a therapist will give you a device and it’s got a paddle for each hand that lights up and vibrates, from one hand to the other. And you track that with your eyes while telling a story of something that’s happened to you. Supposedly, the science behind this is that when you have something that kicks off your sympathetic nervous system, your adrenal glands right? You
dump that adrenaline, and it’s “go!” That is processed in your amygdala. It processes that primal emotional fear. However, with post-traumatic stress disorder, which I’d developed because of this whole thing, it gets locked in there. And it doesn’t get processed into the hippocampus, where rational memory is stored—developed and stored. EMDR simulates REM sleep that you’re not getting by doing this cross hemispheric synchronization in your brain and allows that rational memory to develop. So, it’s almost—I don’t like using the term “desensitize”, even though that’s the term—because “desensitized” means you don’t care about it—I still care about it deeply. But I’m able to think about it rationally now. So, she kinda did the thing where you’re like, “Tell me about your happy place. What’s a safe place for you?” I could think of Dinwoody Pass in the Wind Rivers where my dad and I had gone for my first alpine trip.
Coming up from Titcomb Basin, over to Gannett. I can remember the shapes of rocks while she talked me through it. I can remember a crow or a raven playing on thermals—big black birds. And Gannett out in the distance—and being happy. And connected, and with my dad. So, once we’d established that, we started talking about other things. Not just the expedition, but other things that she had found that were kind of joined to that. About relationships. And eventually, about the expedition. And much like Dinwoody, remembering all those small details, I had this almost psychedelic experience of re-living avalanches and crevasse falls and the texture of the snow and the ice, and the cold. And I’d leave the sessions completely emotionally drained. Not really wanting to cry, but feeling pretty dead, but I’d go home and I’d sleep deeper than I’d ever slept. It was like lost in eons of sleep. And in about eight sessions, I finally started feeling good again. I still have dreams when I get really stressed out and I’m not sleeping well—occasionally the avalanche dream will come back. But it’s only for a night or two, because I know to go and talk to somebody.
I think about it every day and I know I talk about it every day. I’m sure that there are several of my friends who are like, “Could you…stop?”
It’s hard when it’s something that’s ingrained in your head! There’s a picture behind you, actually. And that’s me, walking down to camp one, with my mind reeling. And I think about that moment daily. PTSD—you always hear about, it’s something that happens in the military, right? It’s something that happens to people that have been in war. And I went, “I hadn’t been in war.” I’d gone on a vacation. What had turned into a four-month-long vacation, where I quit my job and I was, you know, traveling the world. You don’t get PTSD from that. Well, it turns out, after gettin’ your ass handed to you for two months and being held at gunpoint and doing everything else that—yeah, it turns out you can get PTSD from that!
So, after the expedition, I had come back with almost no money. And I didn’t really know who to turn to. I’d been spending a lot of time running around with the radical environmental community, but because of a recent break-up and a lack of commonality, I didn’t really feel like I could turn to anybody there. My family took me in, but I realized I needed to get out Colorado Springs because there wasn’t anything for me there. And I knew I needed to start working towards something else. I’d liked the idea behind being an EMT, but emergent responders get the short end of the stick when it comes to things like pay. Most EMS services now, at least private EMS services, start their drivers and EMTs off at nearly minimum wage, and it’s no way to make a living. Especially with what you go through—the toll it takes on your body is pretty insane. But I knew I wanted to be in medicine, and there was something cool about doing some of the medical work I had done on the mountain. I’d done everything from, you know, splint hands, treat frostbite—just the daily routine of following up with medications and everything at basecamp. Treating myself for the infections—all of it was really fascinating. So, when I came home, I figured I’d follow up on that. So, I started taking prerequisites. After, I moved to Fort Collins for nursing school and I actually just finished in May. I’ve been hired onto a burn ICU here in Denver, and I plan on pursuing it further and want to take my profession back out into the high mountains.
I didn’t know what I was getting into. And there’s something beautiful about doing that—about biting off more than you can chew, and getting out alive. It made me question who I am and what am I doing. Who I would spend my time with. How I wanna interact with relationships and show that I appreciate those people in my life. We don’t get that from comfort. We don’t get those stark moments of change by living in comfort. This is the experience we get. And I think that this whole thing has taught me to appreciate that. It’s when we choose to be uncomfortable—and that’s a choice we get in the developed world. We have this, like, “Oh. I want to go climb the Diamond on Long’s Peak in the winter. I want to go and run off to Alaska and get my ass kicked on Huntington,” or whatever. We can choose those things—but we have to actively make that choice to create change in ourselves.
– So, the expedition comes and goes. And I got this distinct feeling that no one really gave a shit. And I wasn’t going to write anything about it; I did this weird thing, and I got my ass kicked. But after work one night, I read an article on eight things you learn as a professional adventurer, and it was all just kinda generic stuff: “the little things are what’ll kill ya” and “getting in and out of countries is hard”. And at the end of it, it said: “If you have an adventure story you think we should hear, write us an article. So, I cracked a beer, I did. I kicked it out in about half an hour. Sent it off to their editors. Got a phone call the next day, and a few weeks later, this thing goes live on Cracked. And the editor writes me up and says, “Hey, whatever you do—don’t read the comments.” So, sure enough, that’s the first thing I did and I’m going to give you a taste of ‘em now.
Quote. Important! Do not climb intoxicateheh—
Quote. Important! Do not climb killer mountains while intoxicated. End quote. Well, I’m certainly not going to do it sober.
When has anything proposed by a couple of drunk Hungarians been a quote, good idea?
Oh, great. Another jackass who can’t stop talking about how he climbed some—
I love this shit.
Another jackass who can’t stop talking about how he climbed a mountain. No one cares, man. Mountain climbing is for fucking losers! Seriously. It’s some bitch shit. These guys need to get a life.
I have no idea why the fuck people keep climbing the most dangerous ones, and I run out of sympathy for people who know it’s dangerous as fuck and they still depri–eh—
Why is that one so fucking hard to say? Mostly ‘cause this fucking person doesn’t know how to use punctuation.
(ROOMMATE JOE): Mostly beer, though.
To be fair.
(RJ): To be fair.
(IO): To be fair!
I have no idea why the fuck people keep climbing the most dangerous ones, and I run out of sympathy for people who know it’s dangerous as fuck and still try to prove something to themselves or to others. It’s like saying, ‘I petted a shark! Twenty-eight percent of people who petted that shark died.’ Yeah? Well, good for you, idiot.
I hope there’s outtakes on this.
(IO): I hope so, too. It’s definitely not like the Avenger’s end roll. This is just us realizing we’re fucking stupid. I need to get on a new adventure that proves I’m stupid.
(RJ): I would agree with that.
(IO): So, when we doing something stupid, Joe?
(RJ): My family would kill me if I died on a winter ascent of something in the Himalayas.
(IO): Wait. Hold up. Say that one more time.
(RJ): I said it right.
Here’s another one: I climbed the Agrocrag in ’96 at the Civic Center. Got lost in so much glitter…so much glitter and confetti coming off the summit. I came down and went to another exhibit or something. Anyway, I didn’t go up there to die, I went up there to live.
(KK): How’s it going?
(IO): I don’t know, we’re just fucking around at this point ‘cause it’s still recording things ‘cause I don’t know how to turn off your shit. That’s recording.
(RJ): There’s no way any of this sees the light of day.
Sorry, Kathy. But also, you left it on, soo.
(bumping/typing? Ian hitting buttons)
(RJ): I bet if you just unplug that cord.
(IO): Yeah, probably.
(sound of cord being unplugged)
(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.
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