The Longest Climb – 10 years on

The Longest Climb

On how epic achievements don’t feel that epic, and how we underestimate what we are capable of.

By Tom Lancaster

10 years ago today I did something that no-one had ever done before. Over 13.5 hours, I climbed 29,045ft on an artificial climbing wall, 1,210 ascents of the 24ft wall.
The project had begun some 18 months previously, when I had the hair-brained idea. I convinced a colleague of mine that it was a good idea for us to race each other to a world record, and we spent the next 18 months training, battling injuries, navigating logistical challenges, sponsor requirements, and journalists.
My time has now been beaten, but for about 4 years I was an official Guinness world record holder.
The funny thing about extraordinary achievements is that they don’t feel that extraordinary when you do them.
Another funny thing about extraordinary achievements is how much we underestimate our own capabilities.
When I started the climb, at 4pm on March 11th, 2011, I had never climbed more than 10,000ft (give or take) in one go. We had spent the last 18 months training together for the race, and based on our training, had estimated that it would take somewhere between 20 and 24 hours to complete the climb.
So we had decided to start at 4pm, the idea being that we would climb through the night and finish at some point the next afternoon, to rapturous applause from the crowd of onlookers and supporters at The British Leisure Show.
The night was to have several unexpected twists and turns.
Firstly, it became very quickly apparent that it wasn’t going to take anything like 24 hours to complete the climb. Both Johnny and I were climbing much faster than we had in training, and so we knew early on that we would finish sometime in the middle of the night, long before anyone showed up for the next day of the show.
Secondly, we all thought that the wall was 8m high, when in fact it was 24ft. This meant that the initial calculation of 1106 ascents to reach the heigh of Everest was short by 104. I found this out an hour and a half after I had finished. I thought it was done, the world thought it was done (well, it was announced on facebook and twitter at 2.49am).
I was asleep in the car, with icepacks bandaged to my forearms, when my brother came over and said “there’s some bad news’. I remember so vividly going through all 7 stages of grief in about 30 seconds.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
All within less than a minute, I had my harness back on and was clipping back into the rope.
If I didn’t know whether climbing the height of Everest was possible before I started, right now i KNEW it wasn’t.
I couldn’t use my fingers at all. They had completely seized up. Those last 106 climbs will be forever etched into my memory as the hardest physical thing I have ever done. Climbing like a t-rex, using my gnarled useless hands like ice axes, hooking them over the holds. It was painful. I didn’t think I could do it.
But I did. 106 more climbs, and for the second and final time, at 5.21AM, I had done it.

I raised over £7000 for three charities. I did something that had never been done by an individual before. It was an incredible accomplishment.

But the only way this happened was simply taking the next step every day. Getting up every time I fell down. One foot in front of the other, over and over again.

Even though those last 104 climbs were among the most miserable physical experiences of my life, it didn’t feel like a huge thing. I did it in half the time we had predicted, even with a 2 hour break in the middle. 

Even though the whole ordeal was brutally hard, It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

When Johnny and I started out, we had no idea how to train, what to eat, or even if this lunatic idea was even possible. Through the whole process, life continued to happen. Jobs, relationships, family drama all happening outside of the sphere of The Longest Climb. We kept taking what seemed to be the next step.

Sometimes we fucked it up. One of us would train too hard and injure ourselves. Something got posted on the blog that didn’t go down well. We fought between the two of us. A lot.

But each time we got knocked down, we dusted ourselves off, adjusted the plan based on the new data, and put one foot in front of the other again.

The same is true for that thing you want to do. You have this picture in your head of how hard it will be. How incapable you are. All the reasons why it will fail.

But the only guarantee of failure is never starting.

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