Climbing the tallest mountain on Earth has been described by Tasmanian John Zeckendorf as like playing a two-month game of chess with an inanimate object.
The 47-year-old became the first recorded Tasmanian to reach Mount Everest’s summit in June last year.
After an 11-hour day scaling to the summit, months of preparation climbing and living on the mountain’s ridges, several months of hard-training, and years of mountaineering experiences, he made it to the top.
But at one stage it was a near check-mate for the father of four.
Like all who have scaled Everest’s heights, there were costs and personal challenges.
He had gastro for one.
The climb to the summit is broken down into stages, from base camp to camps two, three and four, and then the final trek to the summit.
Mr Zeckendorf was struck down with the dreaded stomach bug at camp two, at more than 6400 metres above sea level, wearing layers of clothing, and battling extreme elements.
He believed he was physically unable to reach the top.
“I was struggling the whole way up, but as with previous mountain climbs I was thinking ‘one step’, ‘one step’, ‘one step’,” he said.
“You don’t think about the bigger picture, you just take the next step.”
Mr Zeckendorf said the body requires up to 20,000 calories for a climb as arduous as the summit, but that climbers are lucky if they consume 1500 calories.
He said he lost about four kilos of muscle on summit day.
“I had no energy left but I had trained that way,’’ he said.
“I knew what it was like to use all your energy, and for your body to start eating your muscles. You are like ‘yes this hurts, but I know I can do it’.”
Mr Zeckendorf had already climbed six of the highest mountains on Earth.
He started climbing about seven years ago after he found himself staring up at base of Mount Kanchenjunga – the tallest peak in India - while delivering medical supplies to mountain communities.
He was so moved by the experience that he completed an alpine skills course, before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – the tallest peak in Africa – with his then 11-year-old son.
Mount Everest was the final step to tick off the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each of the seven continents.
But the views at the summit were not that memorable for Mr Zeckendorf, who arrived in cloudy conditions.
He said the best part of his climb had come hours earlier, when he felt as though he was climbing through the stars.
“You are at the curvature of the Earth and the stars are beside you, not above you, and that is stunningly beautiful.’’
He also remembers receiving a memorable thwack to the head from his Sherpa.
“It got my attention. It was a way of telling me to stop celebrating. That I wasn’t paying him to get me to the summit; I was paying him to get me back home safely.’’
The most dangerous part of the climb is on the way down, where 80 per cent of people get hurt, or die. The numbers matter.
Mr Zeckendorf said the first thing he did when he started climbing was to check Everest mortality rates.
“One thousand people tried to climb Everest this year, half of them made it, less than 1 per cent died,” he said.
“This is normal. Out of the 10 who died, nine of them were preventable. People made mistakes, resources weren’t there, or things would of gone bang anyway, for instance one guy died of a heart attack,’’ he said.
“You take all these factors out, and it is actually pretty safe.’’
Mr Zeckendorf uses the same rational logic when training.
Goals are broken down into manageable bits, and all problems can be solved as they arise.
Once this attitude is gained, an acceptance of pain and hard work must be applied.
He said any physically able-bodied person is capable of climbing Everest provided they master these traits, but that mostly type-A personalities, who are goal-focused and naturally hard-working, take on the challenge.
“Everest has unique problems and you train for things that you don’t train for other mountains,’’ he said.
“It is about lungs, long-term body decay, and pain management. It is more of a mental battle than a physical one.’’
Mr Zeckendorf said during his six months of training for Everest, he constantly pushed himself outside of his comfort zone.
Three times a week, he would take training trips across Tasmania.
He said he ran many Tasmanian walks in a day, such as the Overland Track, Frenchmans Cap and both Arthur Ranges, and used Mount Wellington for training, where he started by walking up and down the mountain, to jogging it, to jogging it up and back two times in a day, and then three, and so on.
“Different things will hurt at different times, because of the physicality of it, or the lack of oxygen, or because you are sick, coughing up your lungs, but you just deal with it.’’
He also trained for Everest’s crevasses by rigging up ladders in his lounge room.
Some of his mental preparation involved training sessions on Denali – the highest peak in North America - which he said is actually a harder climb than Mount Everest.
“You are carrying up to 65 kilograms on your own, including a backpack and sled. The weather is often the worst in the world, because you are on the Arctic circle with brutal winds, and every night you have to dig up ice blocks to build a wall around your tent,’’ he said.
‘’On Denali I would train for three to five hours, and then roll a dice. If the dice came up six I would have to do the session again. You can’t prepare mentally for that. You just have to readjust the mentals.’’
Since returning from Everest, Mr Zeckendorf is back at work as an entrepreneur, and is planning a future climb in Ecuador with his son.
He has no intentions to scale Everest’s heights again.
“It is a spectacular drain of time, resources and opportunities. Is that a good thing to invest your time in? That is the decision,’’ he said.
“I did it, but it came at a cost. You have to carve out the time, and the focus required means there is a whole bunch of things you are not paying attention to, and that is the real cost.”
John Zeckendorf was the Northern Midlands Australian Day Ambassador in 2018. His Mount Everest climb helped raise funds for Pathways Tasmania, an organisation that helps homeless youth battling addictions.