Cathy O’Dowd: ‘What are you doing next?’

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“What are you doing next?”

I hate that question.

I know why you ask. I’ve asked it myself, talking to climbers or adventurers I admire, and winced inwardly as I heard the words tumble out of my mouth. I – you – we are excited to stand in the presence of this person, eager to learn that the story we’ve just heard doesn’t stop here. The climb goes on to ever greater heights and we’ll be able to follow along, that much closer to the beating heart of the adventure, now that we’ve met this amazing individual.

But as the person on the receiving end – it’s nothing more than an invitation to disappoint.

You don’t want to hear that I plan to sit on a sofa with my cat for a few months, munching down palmfuls of chocolate M&Ms while watching Netflix.

You don’t want to hear that right now I am so over pursuing sponsors, wrangling media, chasing peaks and ‘living life to the fullest’. I need some time to pay off debts, earn money, revive neglected friendships and wade through post-expedition depression and big-challenge burnout.

Even once I’ve emerged on the other side of the post-project lethargy, the goals that matter to me are not necessarily the ones that will impress you. You and I, we’ve been talking about a new route on an 8000 metre peak and now I tell you I’m excited to be going to Kalymnos, the Disneyworld of outdoor climbing, in pursuit of a 7a redpoint?

7a is a deeply mediocre climbing goal. Hundreds of thousands of climbers have done better. Nowadays children with ages in single digits redpoint 8a and harder. I’ve rock-climbed for over 30 years at this point. It has to be the world’s slowest warm-up for 7a. But still – I am going to revel in that route when I finally lead it! And nobody but me, and two or three close friends, will understand how much it means.

You’ve heard about the lists – the Seven Summits!, the 14 8000ers! You’ve heard about the tag lines – the Adventurers Grand Slam! You have a sense of the importance of ‘first’, ‘fastest’, ‘highest’. You want to hear a goal you can understand, that sounds impressive.

I don’t want to let you down. You’re a decent person who is being very complimentary about things I’ve achieved and I feel an unspoken pressure to measure up to your expectations.

You don’t want to hear that I am missing four of the Seven Summits, and that I don’t care. Two are boring, the third too expensive to justify the cost, and the fourth is cool but crowded, and anyway, the season for climbing it is in the middle of my peak work period and I have a mortgage to pay.
As for the 8000ers – jumar-hauling up fixed lines on the standard routes is slow, expensive, and headache-inducing, and most new routes I’m not good enough to do, and don’t care enough to try.

So I give you a long explanation about how 2018 is a year of adventuring close to home, and the value of exploring my extended back-yard, and how climbing in western Europe can be more challenging that the Himalaya, and etc, etc, waffling on.

I watch you looking baffled and vaguely disappointed.

Then I say something about not all challenges requiring intercontinental air-flights and you light up. Eco-warrior! Reduced carbon footprint! Save the planet! At least it’s a mission that is of the moment.

I smile awkwardly. I fly far too often with my work as a motivational speaker to claim any face-saving low-carbon credit.

Sometimes the question is phrased differently. When’s the next climb, or when’s the next mountain? I hesitate. I know what you mean. You want to hear about next mega-summit with a name you recognise. But the answer is probably – tomorrow. Or later this week. It’ll be Casamanya, or Font Blanca. It’ll be Perles, or Coll de Nargo. Unless you live in Andorra, or climb in northern Catalonia, they’ll mean nothing to you.

Let me have a go at answering this question for you. In all my years of mountain adventure, what achievement am I most proud of?

I was first introduced to big mountains some 35 years ago, visiting the Drakensberg in South Africa as a young teenager on summer camp. Since then I’ve climbed on six continents – trad, sport, alpine, ski… on rock, snow and ice. I don’t choose my success on Everest – for which I’m best known, or hitting my limits on the Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat – which I hope is the hardest, riskiest thing I will ever find myself on.

Some of us are born in the right place for our temperament and passion. I wasn’t. I grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, on the vast flat central plateau of South Africa. The most ambitious thing my parents did was day walks when we went on our annual beach holiday.

I spent seven years in higher education, I have a Masters in Media Studies to show for it, and the most valuable career move I made was to join the rock-climbing club. That club was the beginning of my journey to discover my people and find my home. All these years later, I’m more or less there. That’s what I’m proudest of.

I live in Andorra, a micro-state wedged between Spain and France in the Pyrenees mountains. I own a renovated stone farm building at the edge of a small town and I’m just months away from clearing the mortgage. I can run from my front door onto forested mountain paths. For less than 30 minutes of driving I can access several ski resorts and dozens of ski-touring peaks. Summer offers a selection of via ferratas, sport climbing crags and rocky ridge scrambles. There are canyons to descend, mountain trails to run, 2900 metres peaks to summit, mountain lakes to jump into. Most of this is done, summer or winter, bathed in the sunshine that I love from my South African roots.

Extend my back-yard circle to some three hours by car. World-class rock-climbing in Catalonia and the south of France. Limestone, granite, conglomerate, from one-pitch set-pieces to 18 pitch all-day adventures. Some of the best canyoning in Europe. Iconic mountain running country. Excellent ski-touring, with all the rush of 1500 metre descents and none of the risk of Alpine crevasses. Via ferratas all over the place. Caving for those who are inclined.

And if you insist, it’s only a three hour drive to the beach.

I don’t tick off Adventures from a 50 before 50 Bucket-List. I don’t Conquer Challenges. I just run, and climb, and ski, and swim, trying to live a life infused with the values that matter most to me.

That’s not to say that every day is #Adventure! Sometimes I wake up tired and unmotivated. It’s another sunny day in my mountain paradise but I pull the duvet over my head and go back to sleep. Sometimes I lie on the sofa with my cat and binge on chocolate M&Ms and look at photos of climbers I know on expedition in the Himalaya, and I wonder if I should be doing more, trying harder.

But on the whole, I’m happy with where I’m at. I am proud of finding my way to this adventure life and living it on a daily basis.
I’m sorry my answer to your well-meant question is 1300 words long. I’m sorry it’s not what you were hoping for – a snappy reply about #HardestChallengeEver New Route on Everest in Winter Solo!!! Honestly, at this point in my life, it’s never going to be that.

“So what are you doing next?”

I’m opening my front door and heading out into my daily adventure life.

Cathy O’Dowd is a South African climber living in Andorra. She makes a living as a motivational speaker, a career she launched thanks to her Everest ascents. She recently created a website The Business of Adventure, designed to help adventurers from all outdoor activities find funding for their projects. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram at @CathyODowd.

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