I am 55 years old. Even though I started climbing when I was 14, for the vast majority of my life, I never did anything too strenuous, or big. I climbed Pocotapetl when I was 14, and Aconcagua when I was about 24; and I was always an outdoors enthusiast. But it wasn’t until 2011, a year after I left my corporate career at SAP (a global business software company), that I decided to take on climbing in a much more formal way.
In the three years following my departure from SAP, I was fortunate enough to make quite a few successful expeditions. I climbed Pisco, Huascaran, and Artesonraju in Peru; Pequeño Alpamayo, Huayna Potosí, and Ilimani in Bolivia; Ama Dablam in Nepal; and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania—a climb for which my wife and I raised awareness for breast cancer. In 2015 and 2016, I didn’t do any expeditions. So for 2017, finally facing my age and realizing I wasn’t getting any younger, I committed to doing an 8,000-meter peak. I chose Manaslu.
Unlike many of my other climbs, I decided to train for this one in a more structured way, since 8,000-meter peaks are a bit more serious of an undertaking. Per the recommendation of a good friend of mine, Hector Ponce de Leon (Mexico’s current top mountaineer), I went to Denali with two of my three sons to train at elevation and harsh conditions. We did not get to the actual summit because of bad weather and a lack of time. But I felt we had learned enough after three weeks on the mountain. The other thing I did when coming back from Denali was I called up Scott Johnston. I had been using his and Steve’s book Training for the New Alpinism for a few years at that time as the basis for my training, but I felt I needed a more formal push for Manaslu.
Scott and I had a 1-hour phone call. There wasn’t much time left before the trip to the Himalaya, but he helped me set up a Custom 8-Week Training Plan. He was also very keen on talking about my diet. Particularly, he introduced me to fasted climbs. In this, you get your body more used to consuming the calories you have in your fat than the carbs you have recently eaten. That was very new to my training, and very productive.
I was feeling very fit when I left for Manaslu in the beginning of September 2017. I trekked in with my wife over five days, then joined a commercial expedition led by Arnold Coster. I was surprised to find that Base Camp was tremendously comfy! I had a huge individual tent with a thick mattress. There was a dining tent with a heater, comfortable chairs, a separate cooking tent, another big tent for communications, and oxygen. There was running water. You could even get a hot shower!
On top of that, I also discovered that Sherpas do most of the work. You don’t carry fuel, a stove, or even food (except for your snacks), so they have twice the weight you carry. They do the work of setting up the camps, melting snow, making meals, washing the dishes. They even climb the route before you, fixing ropes! It was very different from my previous climbing experiences.
We only did two acclimatization rotations. On our second one there was absolutely no wind—it was dead calm. I was in just a long-sleeve baselayer, and I think I was close to having heat stroke! I drank something like 6 liters of water that day, and put snow on my head just to keep cool. We eventually cut our rotation short due to a big snowstorm coming in just above Camp 2, and returned to Base Camp.
On September 25 we began our summit push from Base Camp. Arnold had initially planned for us to make our final push from Camp 4, but he changed his mind, deciding to push from Camp 3 instead. This made me very nervous. The first day we made it to Camp 1, and the second day to Camp 2. The third day we left Camp 2 pretty early, arriving at Camp 3 before 10 a.m. We rested all day at Camp 3, and at 8 p.m. we left for the summit.
I was a bit anxious during that afternoon. I have been in the mountains for many years but this was something completely new. For the first time, I was going to climb with a down suit into the infamous 8,000-meter “Dead Zone.” The down suit was huge, and I couldn’t see my harness, or jumar, or safety carabiner. I felt like the Michelin Man. On top of that, you’re breathing into a mask, and it sounds like Darth Vader. I had 1 liter of hot water under the suit to keep it from freezing, but the bottle was so hot it was almost burning my chest! It’s not like freedom of the hills, you know? It’s all very odd, and artificial.
What happened next is really the heart of my experience. As I started walking and breathing, I went into this trance. I don’t know how to describe it—it was like a complete focus on what I was doing. I started walking, climbing, breathing, and that was all I did … Miguel transformed from whatever I am as a human being into a machine that breathes and walks. And that is all that I was. I was very conscious that I was doing only that. This gave me a positive feedback that I was doing OK, and I wasn’t tired, and that energized me further. Suddenly, I was walking very fast.
When I arrived at Camp 4, one of the Sherpas that was there said, “If you continue at this pace you’ll be at the summit at two in the morning!” It had only taken me 3 hours to get there—about half the time Arnold had budgeted. So I called Arnold, who stayed at Camp 3, and he advised me to rest until the other team members showed up. Otherwise, I would get to the summit in the middle of the night, and wouldn’t see anything!
So I stayed at Camp 4 an hour and a half just to let time go by. At 12:30 at night, I set off for the summit. As soon as I started walking, I went back into this mode of complete focus and started passing everybody, both from my expedition and other expeditions. It was crazy. I detached from the line to pass people in safe places. Arnold had told us that even though we were climbing with oxygen, we were going to feel “completely fucked.” To be totally honest, I never felt that! I felt completely conscious, and awake. I’m not known for being a fast climber at all. I certainly was not the fittest person in the group. But somehow, between the training, and this trance state, I was really moving quickly.
I had the mountain basically all to myself and my Sherpa for the majority of the summit push, as we had passed everybody and left them behind. Again, my Sherpa said we needed to slow down a bit, or we’d get to the summit before the sunrise. But even after slowing down, when we arrived at the summit, it was 4 a.m. and pitch black! I couldn’t see anything! But for me it was very very rewarding that I had done the climb so quickly and efficiently.
By 7 a.m. we were back to Camp 3. Arnold said, “Boy you’re fast!” I was very enthusiastic, very happy, and very, very thirsty. After a break and some water, I continued back down the mountain, and eventually stumbled into Base Camp, the same day I summited.
I want to stress two things: I was very fortunate for such good weather, my training with Scott, and all the help I received along the way from Arnold, my family, Hector, the Sherpas, and everyone else. It really is a team effort, and I am very lucky to have had such a great team. Second, I want to convey that mine was a humbling experience. In the end, I don’t think there was anything to show off or brag about. After all, it didn’t feel like it was me—Miguel—doing the climb at all. It was that machine I turned into, and I am in awe of the human body, and what it is capable of. It was a beautiful thing to do in a very beautiful place. And for that, I am very thankful.
-by Uphill Athlete Miguel Cruz y Celis