By Clare Morin
Many people who enter a 4 Deserts event have one thing in common: a wish to push themselves through an extraordinary process and to come face-to-face with their own raw potential. Perhaps none of the competitors in this year’s Atacama Crossing understand this mindset as clearly as the award-winning Chilean mountaineer Cristian G.H. Valdivieso.
In the past 20 years Cristian has climbed three of the world’s highest mountains, all towering over 8,000 meters. He conquered Mount Everest in 1992, taking the very difficult wall of the Kangshung Face on the Tibetan side of the mountain – the second person to ever complete the route. “We recruited and led an outstanding team of elite climbers,” explains Cristian from his home in Temuco, in the Araucanía Region of Chile. “It took 10 years [to prepare] to be on the roof of the world. We had two previous attempts and had to learn to overcome the most complex difficulties.”
This victory was followed by another successful ascent in 1996 – this time to reach the summit of K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth after Everest. Then, in 2007, the Chilean reached the top of Nanga Parbat – a Himalayan giant nicknamed “Killer Mountain” in the early 20th century for the many climbers that had died in their attempts to get to its peak.
Cristian says that his success has come from a combination of dreaming big, working extraordinarily hard to achieve his dreams, and counting on the energy and cooperation of teamwork. He adds that it’s also about one’s mindset: “I think that by going to an 8,000-meter peak you discover human limitations [and how to overcome them],” he says. “You get to the point where it seems impossible to go further. The pain and suffering is combined with the [greatest] satisfaction and happiness. It seems you have the power to numb this pain, to make it bearable and even forget the pain when you do these crazy adventures that you love so much.”
The Chilean’s adventures are not only limited to mountains. In 2010, Cristian ran six ultramarathons with his Atacama Crossing 2011 team, including the Aculeo (56km), North Face (80km), Lican Ray (70km) and The Mission (160km) in Argentina. He points to the strong parallels between mountain expeditions and ultramarathons: “In both disciplines, exceptional preparation is required and what defines success is your mind. The day you scale a summit is very similar to an ultramarathon day; everything has been done well so far, but what is required is self-discipline and follow-through. Each step is a movement that has to be exact. There can be no neglect of hydration; your pace must be such that you never need a break, and your mind must be peaceful, totally blank, so your energy flows without stop.”
And while it can be very painful at times, he argues that the end result is one of pure bliss. “Both activities require the person to give it his/her all, to live and suffer intensely. If we do this well, we achieve a similar experience to what is achieved through meditation.”
Cristian says he wanted to enter the Atacama Crossing 2011, his first 4 Deserts challenge, because he loves racing and extreme challenges: “Not because they feed my ego, but because I learn things that I would never have discovered in a more comfortable situation.”
He adds, however, that his Chilean roots will be of no consequence when out in the wilderness of the Atacama. “This is not a competition between countries; it is a struggle against our fears, limitations and weaknesses – a competition against [our own selves]. All competitors are of the same tribe. We are equally human; we suffer the same heat, the weight of the backpack and blisters at the end of the day.”
But once again, it’s about overcoming those challenges he adds, and coming face-to-face with the vast human potential. “If you like running or climbing then you have to have an infinite power,” says Cristian. “You run or scale for long hours and turn away from all distractions…. [you] overcome all obstacles and find yourself the most beautiful, full, peaceful and powerful that you have ever been.”