Climber Miettinen is summit special
To the discussion of which sports boast the best athletes, allow me to introduce elite mountain climbers. Oh, stop it. Your smirk shows your ignorance.
You know you have an athlete when a guy "summits" Mount Everest on May 19, then turns around and "summits" Denali in Alaska on June 22. As his altitude doctor in London frets somewhat, he climbs Everest's 8,848 metres on a day four climbers perish, then scales the 6,194-metre Denali as a Japanese climber shows up at a tent along the way requesting a satellite phone because four of his fellow climbers just died in an avalanche.
This athlete, trained partly running up and down the stairs of a 55-floor Dubai high-rise, climbs Everest on a half-metre-wide reach with three kilometres of emptiness on either side and no place to rest. Then he climbs dangerous Denali in the all-day sun, staying on the rope, focused masterfully on the task, thinking of his wife Delanii, his life, when suddenly, he turns up …
He turns up one reach away from his five-year, cold-and-wet, tent-heavy goal of climbing the Seven Summits on the seven continents.
Then this exactingly fit athlete returns to Dubai and says of Denali, "I don't want to disrespect the mountain. Only 40 per cent 'summit.' But it actually felt easy. There was an element of acclimatisation so my body was used to operating at a lower oxygen level."
That would be about 30 per cent of sea level on Everest; that would be 40 to 45 per cent on Denali, and that would be some kind of athlete.
Atte Miettinen, 36, Dubai telecommunications executive and the first Finn to climb the Seven Summits, can say: "The one thing you come away with is a level of confidence that you can take on big projects and realise that you have pushed yourself quite far and you realise a human can do a lot of things that might seem distant and difficult, and if you have enough determination it's possible.
"And, at the same breath: Could I have pushed myself more, or was I already at the limit?"
Well, if anybody ever got close to knowing . . .
This one climbed Everest through the night, in a windy minus-40 degrees, with an oxygen system that broke thrice, with a brain flashing panic, but with an athlete's capacity to forestall panic, until an amazing sherpa lent his oxygen, descended five hours and aided two rescues.
Then, around 4.50am, near sunrise, Miettinen "summited," and: "It was a beautiful thing to look around and see all those major mountains around you and realise you're standing higher than anybody else in the world at the moment."
Yet then, in true athlete form - you never arrive! - he spent the 30 minutes atop the world reminding himself, "You're halfway." Most Everest accidents happen on the exhausted, crowded descent. "I've since spoken to climbers who literally walked over people who were dying and for me that's kind of unforgivable," he said. "And when I say they walked over them, they literally walked over them, because the path is so narrow…"
One fellow climber got sick near the top, foiling years of preparation and expense. Another has black toes from frostbite. Another will lose all his toes on one foot.
Another came home 10-12 kilos lighter, bone-tired and in unusual need for afternoon naps. That would be Miettinen, who yet within weeks did find himself almost up Denali in a tent, falling asleep and realising his mission, arduous beyond arduous beyond arduous, lurked less than 24 hours from completion.
Then came the last 12-hour slog upward as the back anchor for six climbers and two guides. And a congratulations from guide and author Mike Hamill. And unveiling UAE and Finland flags at the summit. And an hour of exhilaration and remember-you're-only-halfway. And the trip back down, during which the rope got taut and the climber in front vanished into a crevasse . . . thankfully not fatally.
Three days in base camp for bad weather, a bevy of connections, and Miettinen on Tuesday found himself in the Dubai airport, in the normal drone of baggage claim, emerging, reuniting with Delanii, teeming with emotions from thrill (of completion) to emptiness (at completion) to renewed enthusiasm (about resuming normal life).
But that mind does like to wander to the corners: "I'm interested in skiing to the South Pole or North Pole which are 60 days each," he said at one point yesterday. "The South Pole is a little bit easier than the North Pole" - and really, who knew? - "where you have to run away from polar bears, et cetera."
Could an elite athlete race polar bears? Maybe someday, one will tell us.
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Updated: July 4, 2012 04:00 AM