For many, climbing is about the challenge. It is born in the festering desire of man to conquer the almighty mountain. However with each arduous step closer to the summit, the external challenge often evolves to an internal one; man versus himself. No climb is the same, offering ever-changing landscapes and lessons that see people transform and return altered, perhaps weakened from the journey yet stronger in spirit. With high-altitude areas ominously named “The Death Zone,” the physicality required is obvious and unequivocal, but it is mental strength that can be the distinction between life and death.
This is a reality Gabriel Filippi, one of Canada’s foremost mountaineers, knows all too well. When death is not only a looming possibility but something he has faced many times, it begs the question: What pulls him back to the mountain where so many others have been lost — or fear ever to go?
The North Face athlete did not always live a life of expedition. Born in Lac-Mégantic, Québec as the third of 10 children, Filippi grew up and worked in air-traffic control for many years before finding his love for the mountain. Since then, he has become the second Canadian to have climbed Everest from both sides and has scaled six of the highest peaks in the world. Some think of climbers as part of the fringe, a subsection of society with either a death wish or egos to feed, but for Filippi it’s about the community. “I call it taking a vacation,” he laughs. “You have to see it as fun. If it’s competition or ego, you will never make it back,” he says. While the possibilities of exploration are exciting, the dangers are real. He knows this.
The mountain has been his greatest teacher. “It teaches you mental and physical perseverance, and how to trust yourself. We are all animals that have an instinct that tells us when something doesn’t feel right. We have to listen and let that guide us,” he explains. It is that very instinct that would lead him to quit an 11-man expedition on Nanga Parbat in Pakistan in 2013 — a choice that would ultimately save his life.
After almost two weeks of being unable to move past base camp due to weather conditions, Filippi and his climbing partner, Ernestas Marksaitis, finally reached Camp 1 only to find it buried in snow. It would be hours of digging out the site to have momentarily relief before another avalanche would sweep through and bury every tent except Filippi’s. It was not the mountains notorious nicknames of “Man-Eater” or “Killer Mountain” that led to his change of heart, but rather visions that came later that night of what would happen to his daughter if he did not survive. “When you are wondering if you should turn around or not, if you have doubts, you think about those that you love. You come home for them,” he explains.
An integral quality of mental strength and emotional intelligence is knowing when to implement restraint and make difficult choices. He decided to leave. Only hours after he left to begin his journey home, a group of Taliban gunmen disguised as police arrived in the meadow and massacred a guide and 10 climbers, including Marksaitis. The loss was incredible, the pain unfathomable. But this would not be the only tragedy Filippi would encounter on a mountain.
In April 2015, only two years after the attack, Everest would see the deadliest disaster in its history. And Filippi was at its base. An earthquake sent waves of tremors through Nepal, killing more than 5,000 people in surrounding villages. Some miles away, the effects were climbing through the mountains as an avalanche rushed towards base camp. Death and destruction were everywhere. What once was powdery white snow was now laced in crimson, as the injured wandered in a daze.
For some it was too late, for others their last breath was taken in the arms of Filippi or other survivors. Reminiscent of that night on Nanga Parbat — amongst the devastation on Everest — his tent sat untouched. His body was intact and uninjured as if a fossil preserving the peace of only moments before. But those that live know surviving is only half the battle.
Feelings of both gratitude and guilt spread. The questions began to permeate, “Why did I live and they did not?” — He had felt the effects of The Death Zone, what it was like to be storm-lashed with lungs starved of oxygen, and still, nothing in Mother Nature’s beautifully weaponized landscape bore the weight quite like survivor’s guilt.
These experiences led him to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. “I’ve had PTSD three times and now have the tools to cope. You have to talk about it, or it will kill you,” explains Filippi, pointing to the importance of breaking the stigma and seeking professional help. “Learn to overcome your fears and don’t let them control you. People put labels on you as a hero or an athlete, but I am just a human like everyone else. Mental strength has gotten me through,” he explains.
Just as the mountain has taught him many things, loss has offered lessons of its own. His outlook on life is simple: practice gratitude, stay curious, and do what you love. “Before I even get to the top, every step I take I think about who has helped me get here. With each step I say thank you.” Unlike other sports, there is no finish line or trophy to thrust in glory. “When you reach the top you’re happy. But you can’t let your guard down, you still have to get down safely,” he explains.
Climbing requires immense preparation and patience. Once on site, it can take weeks to months to acclimatize and complete the climb. “Prepare for the unexpected. You have to imagine every possible scenario and think of how to handle it,” he says. “But when would I have ever thought that I would encounter terrorism or an earthquake? The unexpected is always possible.”
For the unexpected moments, Filippi still doesn’t have any answers as to why he lived when others did not; luck, spirituality, a higher power — only the mountain knows. But if his career in air traffic control taught him anything it’s that not all accidents are perplexing. When a plane crash occurs, a black box records data, essentially pointing to the cause, he explains. “Black boxes taught me that many accidents are simple human error,” he says. “Climbing is the same. It’s often poor planning or someone trying to cut corners.” Looking at a situation logically, understanding what went wrong and why has helped Filippi cope with loss. “If I can understand it, I can accept it.”
As for when he will stop climbing, he does not know. “If im safe, if my mind is alert and strong, I can climb till I’m 100,” he laughs. Like the first rays of sun peaking over shadowed mountain tops, against all odds in the face of darkness, Filippi chooses to see the beauty in life. “People have walked on the moon and explored Mars, but there’s places right here that we have yet to discover. We still have so much to explore.”
Gabriel Filippi is a North Face athlete and supporter of the Walls Are Meant For Climbing initiative that views walls as opportunities rather than obstacles and helps bring people together through climbing. He’s also a motivational speaker, and author of The Escapist.