On top of the world
This year’s keynote speaker for ifa’s Business Strategy Day, Michael Groom, has climbed the tallest mountains in the world, despite losing a third of his feet to frostbite.
Not many people can say they were one of the first to climb the five highest mountains in the world. Brisbane-based Michael Groom was the fourth to do it, without the support of supplementary oxygen or sherpas.
Now approaching his 60s, he still visits Nepal every year, having gone once or twice annually since he first participated in two modest expeditions there in 1982.
Mr Groom remembers being obsessed with the word ‘Everest’ ever since he was five years old.
He grew up in Brisbane, in what he describes as a family of explorers, descending from his grandfather who explored central Australia with Aboriginal trackers and camels.
“My father Don Groom was sort of a pioneer of rock climbing in Queensland and made many first attempts of the sheer rock face that we have surrounding Brisbane,” Mr Groom says.
“I was exposed to that sort of climbing adventure lifestyle pretty much ever since I can remember.
“Even before I was going to school, I was bush walking ever since I can remember, scrambling over boulders and going over rock cliffs and stuff like that.”
The first time he rock-climbed was around ages four to five.
At age 10, Mr Groom completed his first abseil, which was also his first introduction to real exposure. He remembers being entrenched with fear.
The climb was a three stage abseil next to a waterfall in Lamington National Park, down a cliff scaling around 280 metres in total.
He watched his younger brother complete the course, who he says was a “natural, he handled the exposure quite well”.
“I didn’t do anywhere near as good a style as my younger brother, when I got to the edge and instead of backing over gracefully, I laid on my stomach on the dirt and wriggled over, which is not the way you do it,” he says.
“I was terrified of hanging my backside over the edge.”
Fear can be useful, however, Mr Groom adds, as he says it has kept him safe in dangerous conditions.
“It is a fear, but it’s a healthy respect for the environment that I’m in and I would say that I’m glad I’ve got it because the day I don’t have that anymore is the day I should stop exposing myself to those situations,” he says.
When he finished school, he completed a plumbing apprenticeship and around the ages of 19 to 20, he enrolled in a mountaineering course in New Zealand, climbing there as well as living in Alaska.
He completed his first climb in Nepal in 1982, going on to do a number of other smaller expeditions in the region.
“All the other mountains in the world stop at around 6,500 metres. But in Nepal, that’s where they start,” he says.
“They go from around 6,000 metres up to nearly 9,000 metres.”
Under the guidance of experienced mountaineers, Mr Groom learned the “tricks of the trade” before he organised his own smaller climbs.
From there, he gained the confidence that he had the experience and the expertise to try scaling some of the bigger peaks.
In 1987, he climbed the third highest mountain in the world, the Himalayas’ Kangchenjunga, towering at 8,586 metres above sea level.
“It was incredibly hard, but it was a great adventure,” he comments.
“We didn’t make it to the top. But that was the start of my serious big mountain climbing.”
It would be on this climb that he would experience frostbite and, as a result, have the front third of both of his feet amputated.
For most people, this would easily be the end of their serious mountain climbing.
For Mr Groom, it meant two more smaller expeditions before trying Everest, where he would have two failed attempts, once in 1991 and once in 1992.
Although he was told his climbing days were over, Mr Groom gradually taught himself to walk, before running, cycling and being ready to climb within the next couple of years after his injury.
During his first attempt at the world’s highest peak, an avalanche swept him 900 metres down the Lhotse face of Everest.
Luckily, he survived, only copping a broken nose and a few cracked ribs.
It was on his third go that he would finally surmount Mt Everest in 1993.
On why his injury was not an obstacle, he says he “had the desire to continue to climb”.
Mr Groom adds, “I think when you start playing the Himalayan mountain climbing game, you will be involved, or your mountain friends will be involved, in a fairly serious incident and your job as a climber is to manage the risk that you’re exposing yourself to.
“Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong.”
He didn’t want to have any regrets, refusing to give up for “a bit of frostbite”.
“I didn’t want to get to my twilight years and say well why didn’t you try harder,” Mr Groom says.
The year after he conquered Everest, he climbed K2, the second highest mountain in the world at 8,611 metres above sea level.
Then, in 1995, it was Lhotse, the fourth highest, scaling 8,516 metres.
With that, it was four for four: Mr Groom was the fourth person in the world to have climbed the four highest peaks.
He had also completed the climbs without the aid of oxygen.
“I climbed these big mountains without the use of oxygen and without the use of sherpas, because I believed if you needed those two, perhaps you shouldn’t be there,” he says.
“You rise to the challenge of climbing these great mountains.
“You don’t bring them down to your level by submitting to oxygen and endangering the lives of other people by carrying your stuff up the mountain.”
Mr Groom would be one of two survivors in a group of six climbers who reached the summit during the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.
He was acting as a guide for an adventure travel company, when a deadly blizzard struck the mountain over two days.
On their descent, they stumbled into American Beck Weathers, who was now completely blind.
Mr Groom tethered him to his harness and lowered him down sections of the mountain, placing his own life in danger.
It also became the deadliest season on Everest until an avalanche took place in 2014, with 12 people dying as they attempted to reach the summit.
This did not stop Mr Groom from climbing the last of the big five, Makalu, three years later.
“I didn’t know the meaning of resilience until I got into Himalayan climbing,” he says.
“It’s something you soon find out whether you’ve got or you haven’t.
“Because of the overwhelming desire to do well at what I was doing, I sort of relied on what we referred to as resilience.”
He says all mountaineers, along with everyone else, have the will to push themselves to a certain degree.
Mr Groom notes, “I think we all have limits of what we’re prepared to expose ourselves to, both in objective danger and in terms of discomfort.
“We all have those limits. Mine are probably quite high.”
In 2000, Mr Groom was awarded the Order of Australia Medial for his services to mountaineering.
His story has also been told widely, including within his own book, Sheer Will, a Channel 7 documentary and Everest, the 2015 film based on the 1996 blizzard.
The biggest challenge for Mr Groom, however, hasn’t been making the ascent up the highest peaks, surviving treacherous conditions or enduring and persisting despite injury.
He says it was overcoming his fear of public speaking, but now he tells his story to a broad number of audiences.
The key, he adds, was changing where he thinks the fear comes from, choosing to use it as an enabler instead of being restricted from doing the task at all.
“It’s a bit like climbing, it’s nervous anticipation for wanting to do a good job. I’m happy to face the nervous anticipation that any entertainer or speaker should probably have,” Mr Groom says.
“Twenty-five years ago, I would have broken my own leg not to do it, but these days, I look forward to it and I look forward to doing a good job.”
Mr Groom has only just retired from mountain climbs, having completed what he decided would be his last in October last year, although he still plans to return to Nepal.
“I won’t be climbing in the Himalayas anymore, but I will be going to do treks and to get my annual dose of Nepal,” he says.
On why he’s decided to stop, he says, “Age and the fact that I’m losing my speed, my strength. And the desire to push myself and you need to do it in a safe manner.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve used up my nine lives and the trick to this game is to quit while you’re in front.”
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