This week’s virtual whole school Senior Assembly led by Headmaster Mr Doodes began with Monitor Alfie Parry (W) giving his Monitors address & then geography teacher Mr Joyce spoke to the pupils in another of our Teacher addresses.
Alfie opened the assembly with his very moving Monitors address where he chose to speak to the pupils about disability and his experiences of this with his older brother Ed.
At the start of term, Mr Doodes invited teachers to come and give pupils some insight into areas that they are passionate about. Mr Joyce volunteered this week and gave his talk on the Mountains:
Good Morning everybody and thank you Alfie for such a moving talk.
In January, Nepalese climber, Nirmal Purja accomplished one of the most coveted achievements in mountaineering – the first winter ascent of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. It is the mountain that you saw prior to the start of this assembly. It is the only one of the 8000s, that is, the 14 mountains in the world over 8000m, that has never been climbed in winter. There is good reason, for at 8611m, it is only marginally lower than Mt Everest, but is far more technical, and far more unpredictable in terms of extreme weather.
Near the summit, it is not uncommon for the air temperature to reach – 65⁰C, and winds of hurricane force. Above 8000m climbers enter the death zone, so called because there is so little oxygen in the air that the human body is in a state of continuous deterioration, and where you can only survive for a limited amount of time.
There have been six previous attempts to climb K2 in winter, all of which failed, and many considered it an impossible challenge.
Unbelievably, Nirmal is not the most experienced mountaineer, having only started climbing at the age of 29. He grew up in western Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. He often had no shoes and his family would sometimes walk to a neighbour’s house at the weekend so they could share their tv.
His early dream was simple, to join the Gurkha Regiment of the British Army. Every year 28,000 Nepalese men apply for 200 places in this highly respected regiment. Nirmal succeeded in his goal, and after six years, he became the first Gurkha soldier in more than 200 years of history to pass selection for the elite, Special Boat Service, or SBS.
It was with the SBS that he took up mountaineering and in 2016 he climbed Mt Everest. He repeated his ascent in 2017, before attempting the record for the fastest ascent of all the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks.
He called the endeavour ‘Project Possible.’
The record stood at seven years and 10 months. The height gain is equivalent to climbing vertically from sea level to the edge of space. No one believed this was possible and he was even mocked by many seasoned mountaineers.
But on the 29th of October in 2019, he reached the final summit, in a remote region of Tibet, having climbed all the 8000s in an incredible 6 months and 1 week!
At first glance Nirmal’s astonishing achievement seems a solo effort, a phenomenal feat accomplished alone. But it not, and it required a big team effort.
In January, he entered the record books becoming the first person to summit K2 in winter. Upon reaching the summit alongside his fellow climbers, they sang the Nepalese national anthem, and in a statement said: “What a journey I am humbled to say that as a team we have summited the magnificent K2 in extreme winter conditions – we have shown that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible.”
Exploration into wild areas, has always been at the heart of human endeavour.
Indeed, on this day, the 2nd March in 1958, the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Dr Vivian Fuchs completed the first surface crossing of Antarctica.
So, what are the qualities of a mountaineer, or an explorer, and what can we learn and apply to our daily lives?
Many of you, especially those in the Fourth Form, will have discussed our school values, and if you are in Mr Cuthbertson’s Form, you will see them displayed on the wall. The values are: resilience, humility, love, kindness, ambition and compassion.
Humility is a quality that stands out in the Sherpa community, and was also evident in some of the early mountaineers.
Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mt Everest on the 29th of May 1953, held the Sherpa in high regard. Without the Sherpa, Hillary and Tenzing would not have reached the summit.
Humility is arguably a quality that has been eroded in many of the modern, commercially driven expeditions to Everest, where western clients pay thousands of pounds to be hauled to the summit by their Sherpa team.
But, Hillary, Tenzing, and expedition leader, John Hunt embodied humility.
Hillary was quoted saying: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
The first British climbers to summit Everest were Doug Scott, who sadly passed away in December last year, and Dougal Haston. In the 1975 expedition led by Sir Chris Bonnington, one of Britain’s most successful mountaineers, Scott and Haston followed the much more challenging and previously unclimbed south west face.
Forced to bivoc the night in a snow hole just below the summit at 8750m, a feat that no climber had ever previously survived, they demonstrated huge resilience when faced with adversity.
Scott and Haston’s success, was founded on strong teamwork and the humble approach of the supporting Sherpa.
With no mobile or satellite phones, the climbers were cut-off from the outside world. Success relied on the climbers working together, facing uncertainty together, but above all, caring for each other. The Sherpa also recognise that being co-operative rather than competitive is a preferable state for survival in a hostile mountain environment.
As we face the uncertainties in this pandemic, we can look out look out for each other.
Doug Scott founded the charity ‘Community Action Nepal,’ or CAN raising funds through public lectures. He even spoke at King’s, here in this Theatre, with all proceeds going towards the building of new schools and health clinics in Nepal.
For Scott, being the first to summit a mountain was not important. What mattered, was the HOW. He relished the journey, prioritising curiosity, personal responsibility and a willingness to embrace uncertainty.
After the success of Hillary and Tenzing, expedition leader, Colonel John Hunt, went on to become the first director of the Duke of Edinburgh Award when it was established in 1956, and was instrumental in its global success.
Hunt’s Everest selection process was rigorous. He prioritised a constant striving for excellence, along with a high degree of selflessness and patience.
The team demonstrated integrity, humility, resilience and selflessness, while showing courage and giving their best in pursuit of a common goal.
Tenzing was quoted saying: “You cannot be a good mountaineer, however great your ability, unless you are cheerful, and have the spirit of comradeship. Teamwork is key to success, and selfishness only makes a man small.” – Tenzing Norgay
The founder of the Modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, stated this clearly in the Olympic Creed: ‘The important thing in life is NOT the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is NOT to have won, but to have fought well.’
There are few greater explorers than Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton based his life on four key values: optimism, patience, idealism and courage.
His Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914-1917, with the goal of crossing Antarctica via the South Pole, remains one of the greatest survival stories of all time.
His ship, the Endurance became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, leaving his 28-man crew cut off from the rest of the world. Against overwhelming odds, and 137 days of complete isolation, Shackleton rescued his entire team.
He was a remarkable leader who had the ability to inspire others when all seemed lost. One of his strengths, was his optimism, and he was quoted saying:
“The quality I look for most, is optimism, especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeat. Optimism is true moral courage.”
Shackleton placed great value on idealism, similar to the emphasis on ambition at King’s. The unrelenting pursuit of excellence, no matter how basic the task, is vital to the success of any polar or mountain expedition. Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail, and in such extreme environments, this is a matter of life and death for explorers.
So, optimism and courage, essential to Shackleton over a century ago, during periods of extreme challenge in the Antarctic, remain guiding principles for us today.
On the 18th February this year, NASA successfully landed the Perseverance Rover on the surface of Mars. This phenomenal achievement was due to teamwork, resilience and perseverance that got them past multiple failures.
Within 5 minutes of touching down, the Rover tweeted: “I’m safe on Mars. Perseverance will get you anywhere.”
Perseverance and resilience to keep going, despite setbacks, is a character trait that will take us a long way in life.
So, what makes these mountaineers and explorers seek out the challenges of the mountains and the wild?
Ernest Shackleton was quoted saying: “I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown.”
They are driven by a passion. Chris Bonington describes this in his autobiography, chapter 2 of which is titled: ‘A passion discovered.’
He cites the mountains of Snowdonia and Scotland as being the trigger to his passion for climbing. With our travel is restricted, and when it is likely that many of us will have UK based summer holidays, we should remember what is on our doorstep. Adventure does not need to be in the extreme environments of the Himalayas. The Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons National Park are on our doorstep; and those amongst us lucky enough to have experienced the Old Chapel, will recognise that we can have adventure and challenge without travelling far from home.
One of the slogans on the King’s website is – ‘Discover your passion’.
At King’s, we have many opportunities, and by embracing these we may well discover a new passion.
Mountains have the capacity to give us a real sense of wonder for the natural world.
Robert Macfarlane, describes this well in his book ‘Mountains of the Mind,’ saying:
“The true blessing of mountains is not that they provide a challenge or a contest, something to be overcome and dominated. It is that they offer something gentler and infinitely more powerful. Mountains return us to the priceless capacity for wonder which can so easily be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives.”
The pressures of lockdown has highlighted the importance of green space for our well-being.
When much of our lives currently revolve around a multitude of electronic devices and programmes, where we jump from screen to screen, and from app to app; it is more important than ever to take moments to immerse ourselves in the outdoors, even if currently, that is simply in our local field, or a run along the River Severn towpath.
One of the beauties of climbing a mountain, is that it simplifies things, and focuses our minds on the basics, on what is really important. Going into the mountains, lifts the burden of the many pressures that we juggle on a daily basis. It gives us an opportunity to reorient ourselves, and to re-set our values and priorities in life.
John Muir, the Scottish born founder of the modern conservation movement, said:
“Thousands of nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”
When you climb a mountain, for much of the route you will not see the summit. On some days, the cloud base will be low, and it will be difficult to route find. In these conditions you will have to rely on your compass and walk on a bearing. Trusting this baring is crucial, despite the temptation to deviate from it. During the uncertainty created by Covid, the cloud base is low, and we cannot always clearly see the way ahead.
But, if as Shackleton says, we retain our optimism, while also remembering the strength we gain from working as a team in our school community; and if we stick to our values, and are guided by our moral compass, then we will rise above the cloud base and overcome the challenges.
Sir John Hunt, was asked whether climbing Everest was worth it, and he replied:
“Ultimately, the justification for climbing Everest, if any justification is needed, will lie in the seeking of their Everest’s by others stimulated by this event as we were inspired by others before us. There is no height, no depths, that the spirit of man, guided by a higher spirit cannot attain.”
So, discover your passion, and seek out your Everest’s, whatever you choose them to be.
I will leave you with a quote by John Muir, that is displayed in our Library in tribute to Matthew Armstrong, our former Headmaster, who truly loved the mountains and wild places.
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the Mountaineer. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” (John Muir – From ‘Our National Parks’ 1901)
The photograph that follows is of the amazing Carnedd Mountains in Snowdonia – they, are not far from home!
Thank you very much for listening, and I hope you all have a great week.
View our previous Senior Assembly here