How to Harness Your Mental Strength in Adversity, According to the Late Alpinist David Lama

David Lama, Austrian rock climber and alpinist
David Lama, Austrian rock climber and alpinistCourtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

It’s difficult to comprehend navigating a blistering Antarctic snowstorm without another living soul in sight. Or to journey into the unknown and make the first ascent of a rugged mountain in the Himalayas entirely alone. But for some brave souls, it’s what gives life its purpose. It also tests your mental strength on an entirely new level since it’s just you. If you’ve been spending more time isolated (at home or in the great outdoors) due to COVID-19, use these tips from the late Austrian rock climber and alpinist David Lama on harnessing your mental strength in adversity.

In 2015, he and his partner, Conrad Anker, made an unsuccessful attempt to claim the first ascent of Lunag Ri, a 22,660-foot mountain in the Himalayas. On a second bid the following year, Anker suffered a heart attack. After descending, he was airlifted to Kathmandu and survived. In 2018, Lama returned to Lunag Ri, alone. — as told to Wesley Grover

This feature was published as part of a bigger story, Inside the Minds of the World’s Greatest Solo Adventurers. To read the other features, see:

Editor’s note: Alpinist David Lama tragically died on April 16, 2019, due to an avalanche at Howes Peak in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

How to Harness Your Mental Strength in Adversity, According to the Late Alpinist David Lama

Mental preparation starts with asking yourself if you want to do it, if it feels right, and if it feels possible. I sometimes get the impression that it’s hard for people to understand how simple the process of it all is. In the end, it comes down to your confidence and knowing that it’s worth it because it’s a dream of yours. That was the case with Lunag Ri.

After attempting the climb twice with Conrad, and then his heart attack, I felt the need to finish the project for the two of us. I had the realization that I didn’t want to bring a new partner onto that climb because I started with Conrad and I felt confident that I could do it. It just seemed like the most beautiful way to finish it since Conrad wasn’t there.

Going by yourself, you digest information more intensely. For example, on the third day of the climb, I got up and saw a big, full moon high above Shishapangma, across the Tibetan Plateau, and it was this really beautiful image, but other than that I don’t have many beautiful memories of my surroundings. The focus was solely on the information that I needed to get up and back down. It’s not like you don’t see the sunrises and sunsets, but there are few moments when you can take them in and process them.

That same day was when things became kind of difficult from a mental aspect. I had breakfast at 5 a.m. and the moment I finished it, I threw it all back up. I knew I had to get out of the tent, nevertheless, because I didn’t want to lose time. Half an hour after I started climbing, I couldn’t feel my toes. I was really worried at one point that they would get such severe frostbite that I would lose them. There was a moment when I thought maybe I pushed things too far, and that feeling usually means you’re already too late to make it any better. It would have taken me a day to get off the mountain and it was just going to be two or three more hours to the summit. So that’s when I made a decision and knew I’d have to live with the consequences. I went for the summit and up there I saw the sun for the very first time that day. I stayed up there for a couple minutes, then started my descent. And I still have all of my toes!

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