Meeting Luck Halfway: Kenton Cool
There are few civilian pursuits in the world so dependent on the underpinnings of preparation as the two contrasting and extreme modalities of professional cycling and mountaineering. Cycling, while physically exhausting, emotionally devastating, and often dangerous, takes place in a relatively controlled, sedate environ. Sedate relative to climbing 8000m mountains, where tiny mistakes can cascade into devastating, deadly consequences. But both are principally reliant on a tenet former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh described as “...enabling us to establish a near-permanent ‘base camp’ near the summit, consistently close to the top, within striking distance, never falling to the bottom of the mountain and having to start all over again.”
Tenacious preparation. Four months of slogging through relentless winter training to shine come March. Leaving nothing to chance. Planning expeditions years in advance. Meeting luck halfway. Building “basecamp”, whatever it may be, as high as possible. To achieve success in mountaineering, the Boy Scout mantra of “Be Prepared” rings brutally true, and the same can be said for so many other facets of our lives. But what does that success actually entail?
Meet Kenton Cool, arguably one of the greatest British alpinists alive. He’s climbed Everest 12 times, was the first climber to ascend the mountain’s storied “Triple Crown” in one push, and is recognized as one of the foremost professional mountain guides in the world. At 44 years of age, he’s been climbing since university, and the sport has defined his life. He’s lost count of how many friends the mountains have claimed, and his view of mountaineering has shifted as he’s entered the third chapter of his life, one fraught with paradox around his two primary loves: His family, and Everest. Kenton is also a cyclist, and a runner, places where he finds a semblance of the same space as he finds on the mountain. As he astutely puts it, “I call myself a cyclist, but I’m not a cyclist. I’m a multi-faceted individual of whom cycling is an important part.”
His mentality about success, and achieving it through preparation, rings true. “I think luck has a slightly lower percentage impact on what I do...I try to honor what I do, so when we do launch for the top we’re in a strong position, and our journey from our personal basecamp to our personal summit is a journey less fraught with danger and obstacles. You get that through preparation, by having the right equipment, by employing the right sherpa team…” he says. “That means getting out of bed in the morning, putting the miles in on the bike, going to the gym, making sure that not only myself, but those around me are in the right physical, and arguably more importantly, mental place. If our basecamp isn’t high enough we’ve left ourselves too much to do - that’s a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, disaster in my environment means people start losing fingers and toes from frostbite, or god forbid, something worse. I use this term loosely, I don’t like this term. ‘Failure’. That fear of failure, knowing what the consequences are [if I fail], that is my biggest driving force. That’s what spurs me to do these things, and to do them to the very best of my ability. Anything less than the very best is not going to be good enough.”
By minimizing the ingress of luck into his expeditions, Kenton can focus on the other half of the puzzle, which as it seems, is his definition of execution and success all at once: “It’s so easy in climbing to get fixated on getting to the top, a little bit like cycling or the gym. You get fixated on trying to hit your personal best on your deadlift, or you’re trying to hit your numbers on the bike, and it’s not about the numbers. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about having enjoyment out of this thing that we call life.”
THE CHPT3 LSWBL, EVEREST BASECAMP
He sees it not as getting to the top of the mountain, but as giving it everything he has, and achieving serene moments on the very edge of existence, and living in those moments. “...you sit down, and you’re still tired, exhausted, covered in dirt, shit, whatever it is. It hasn’t really sunk in. You haven’t had the opportunity to digest the feedback from what you’ve just done. You’re still very much in that moment, and I find that is a moment of utter calm. In many ways, it’s the Holy Grail of what I seek out.” He even likened it to the state a cyclist might be in after utterly obliterating themselves in a race, “...the rider, falling off the bike after having just nailed a time trial and having given it everything, just sitting on the tarmac. For a brief moment, he knows that something that he’s done is something really special, and he may not repeat that. We finish these things, and we’re uncertain of what’s next. Because of that uncertainty, we can only live in the now. We forget about that in western society. We’re always thinking about what’s next. How can we be faster, how can we be richer. We forget about serenity, we forget about what we’ve just achieved - and that’s something to be celebrated. Too quickly we start to look forward again.“ In a beautiful, poetic way, Kenton’s personal success is rooted in the present, and in presence. He prefers to linger on the moments on the ragged edge, to look in rather than out. Many would perceive it an outmoded mentality, one spent reflecting instead of chasing the next accomplishment. Instead, it bears fruit in his accomplishments. His intentional living, where he chases the space, the journey, and the freedom the mountains afford is the end result. His palmares and objective success? A byproduct.
Diving headfirst into an absolute flow state in such peril, leaving everything on the table, gives him a deeper understanding of life and of purpose in a very Tyler Durden-esque way, where risking absolutely everything forces him to realize how much he really has: “It’s only when we look into the black abyss, when we push ourselves to the very edge of existence, when we dance with death, when we realize we’re risking everything up to that point...It’s only then do we appreciate what we really have...to dance the dance on the edge is absolutely important. Without it, we are nothing, meandering through life with no real purpose. I’m a true believer that each one of us needs a purpose, otherwise we’re wasting what we have.”
THE RAGGED, ICY EDGE
The edge - the blessed edge can cut, especially if pushed too far. A dark, inky, monstrous void escapes from past the brink, hurtling the mountaineer out of his serene cocoon of execution into the reality of the precarious situation, where fear can override the senses: “One time during the Annapurna Three ascent back in 2003, I found myself looking into the blackness, like looking down a deep well. To start, there’s a little bit of definition, where I can just barely see the brickwork at either side of the well, but very quickly it’s a slate black, a really dark, deep black. I remember looking into this abyss, looking into the darkness, and being utterly petrified by what I was looking at, even though there was nothing there. And it was a blackness like I’d never experienced. It scared the shit out of me. It threw me back into reality.”
The only answer to the darkness? Rebellion in the most primal sense, a creative revolt that reopens possibility at 8000m above sea level. “I fought back against it, and found myself really high again on Annapurna 3 with my climbing partners. I think on reflection, we had pushed ourselves so much mentally and physically, I subconsciously began to give up. The darkness represented the other side of life, and the wake up call was realizing that I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t ready to be there yet. I had to push back to now...when I pushed back, I found the serenity again. To me, that calm is a feeling of perfection. Everything is aligned - the world is aligned. In that moment, there is no hardship. There is no cruelty, or any of the wicked things that happen on the planet. It’s ridiculous to say that, but in that moment it is utter calm. It feels like I’m floating on a cloud at 30,000 feet, like the ones you see when you look out your airplane window, that you feel like could envelope you and hold you tight with a feeling of weightlessness. There is no stress or pressure pushing down on you, it’s a moment of utter calm, clarity, and perfection. And it only lasts momentarily, and it’s gone.”
As he traverses his current chapter in life - one of fatherhood, of being a husband, and a man in love with Everest, he sees his own evolution manifest itself. “Everybody moves forward, and the younger version of me was a very bold young man. I thought I was indestructible, that I was unkillable in many ways. I think most young men do that. We all think that we’re going to make a big impact on the world in some sense. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that perhaps my impact isn’t quite as big as I once thought it was going to be, then along come my children, and that tempers what I’m willing to undertake. My parameters for what I once deemed acceptable are probably not acceptable anymore. I see this on bikes. I see people with pictures of their children on their handlebars. When you speak to them, they say ‘They help me go fast on the uphills, and they temper my descents’, and you realize what’s important.”
His evolution and temperance, though, is met with what can only be described as a deadly paradox. “I’ve lost 42 or 43 friends through climbing. My family is astute enough to know there is a danger. About five, six years ago, I had the horror of breaking the news right before Christmas to a family that their dad wasn’t coming home. I remember the wife saying to me, ‘Would you mind telling the children?’, and I think that the firsthand knowledge of seeing their reaction is scarred on my mind. There’s no way I could put my family through that. The layman, the logical person would say, ‘For fuck’s sake Kenton, stop what you’re doing and go to the city, get a job as a management whatever, just give up what you do.’ It’s not as easy as that. For me, an integral part of my life is climbing. When you realize what life really is, you can’t hang it up...for me, the mountains give me the space that I need to have an understanding about what reality and normality is. I get that from my bike. It’s why I tend to cycle on my own, looking for this space. Translate that into the mountains, they’re such a vast void...you can lose your soul there. It gives you perspective on reality, whatever the fuck reality is. For me, it resets life, and I’ll come back from an expedition energized, invigorated with a vision of passion and love. There’s no harsh words in there, there’s no hate, there’s no stress. None of the words that normally build up in life. I come back from an expedition, and there’s serenity.”
He cannot accept the consequences of the risk he undertakes with regularity. He does not want to leave his family. He can’t leave his family. He’s seen the pain, firsthand. But he also loves the Mountain, and the Mountain is part of his life - of his understanding of life. Much like a professional cyclist climbing off the bike for the last time, or a fighter pilot who’s hanging up their flight suit after their final sortie, his existence predicated by the very brink of human experience is structured around the moments it affords him. How can that be replaced? Can one even deign to replicate it? He doesn’t know: “You’re responsible for your own actions. Yes, take the risk, be bold in life, but know the consequences, and if you’re not willing to accept the consequences, don’t take the risk in the first place. Don’t even be there. Of course, flip that around on what I said: I’m not prepared to leave my family. I’m not prepared to step through into the abyss and leave Jazz and the children without me, yet I’m willing to accept the risk. It’s an oxymoron that I don’t have an answer to. It’s an endless knot, there’s no beginning, no end.”
Finally though, he offers some solace. “My wife often calls Everest my mistress - this other woman that I go to once a year to climb. But, Everest is whatever you want Everest to be. It can be skiing, it can be climbing Ben Nevis. It can be whatever, but I need that, I need my mistress. Otherwise I’m a shell of what people believe I am.” Buried there, there’s a phrase - “It can be whatever”, followed by waxing poetic about the Stone Roses: “There’s a line [from 'She Bangs the Drums'], 'The past was yours, but the future’s mine, you’re all out of time”. When I look at it, 'yours' is an earlier incarnation of myself. The future? The future is right now. The future lays in my own hands. And the final line - that’s pretty self-explanatory, time is our most precious commodity, and wasting it is a cardinal sin. When I reflect on that, the previous version of myself was a very selfish individual who was craving self-fulfillment. That’s gone. The past was yours. On the journey of self-discovery, I’m trying to work out who I am, and what I stand for. And that’s what the future is. Finally, the only certainty we have is that time is going to run out for us. That’s really an evocative line, it holds as true now as it did 30 years ago...it makes a lot of sense, with where I am in life now with my family, and what I’m trying to do with my career.”
Regardless of where Kenton goes in his third act, the man has the tools, and the mentality to pull it off. His parting words, ones reaffirming the gospel of meeting luck halfway, of building a platform so solid that everything falls into place, of a blueprint that allows its builder to find their flow with such staggering ease?
“GET YOUR SHIT ALIGNED.”