A lifetime of experiences on land and at sea culminate as Capt. Grant Maughan summits Mount Everest in May.
By Dorie Cox
Capt. Grant Maughan has navigated hundreds of thousands of miles, both as a captain on megayachts and as an endurance athlete running races across deserts, mountains and frozen tundra. Now, he has climbed the highest mountain on Earth. On May 19 at 8:50 a.m., he stood on the summit of Mount Everest. The altitude was 29,035 feet (8,848m), but it was in the rigors of a career at sea level where his preparations really began.
Capt. Maughan’s boat jobs have taken him to many remote spots – from Greenland to Patagonia to the South Pacific and more – since the 1980s, first on commercial fishing and dive boats and then on yachts. He was build captain on M/Y Samantha Lin (now Pangaea), a 184-foot (56m) Halter Marine; and M/Y Big Roi (now Force Blue), a 206-foot (63m) Royal Denship; was on the build team for M/Y Ulysses, a 353-foot (107m) Kleven explorer; and captained M/Y Turmoil, now M/Y Albula, a 209-foot (64m) Royal Denship, for eight years. Most recently, he was relief captain on M/Y Enigma XK, a 236-foot (72m) explorer conversion operating charters in Antarctica.
These experiences have added to his success as an endurance athlete, Capt. Maughan said. A yacht owner introduced him to ultramarathons, which led to extreme training. Mountains and climbing seemed a natural extension and came next, he said. The physical labor, irregular hours, extreme weather and necessary self-reliance in remote locations while working at sea was a perfect primer for these endeavors.
As an ultrarunner, Capt, Maughan calibrates his scales differently. Accomplishments that surprise many people seem reasonable to him. The native Australian always has an ultramarathon on his calendar. These are races longer than traditional marathons that often incorporate obstacles such as extreme weather, high elevations and rugged terrain. He prefers solo foot races longer than 100 miles, he said. He has run up to 350 miles carrying his own supplies during a race and has competed in as many as 15 ultra races in a single year.
“The things I do seem pragmatic to me, others may think they’re useless,” Capt. Maughan said. “But to me, it proves who I am. It’s how I prefer to be remembered.”
While most spend years planning a Mount Everest climb, it took Capt. Maughan just three weeks to decide to make the 29,000-foot climb. With experience on a slew of the world’s highest mountains, including Denali and Aconcagua, he quickly accepted a spot that suddenly became available on one of the teams tackling the north side of the mountain.
“You can only train so much,” he said.
After arrival in Tibet in April, he faced six weeks of required altitude acclimation before the summit climb.
“There’s no way around that. It’s hard work and patience,” Capt. Maughan said. But even with such preparation and despite breathing bottled oxygen above 23,000 feet, the “climb feels like a plastic bag is on your head,” he said. “You suck hard, but you’re not getting enough oxygen.”
To imagine the experience, he suggested to “get a straw and breathe in and out for five minutes while running up stairs. Then think about being like that for days.”
“Every step is deliberately slow, like you’re underwater,” Capt. Maughan said. “Many times, if you lift your arm higher than your heart, you lose your breath. You walk like you’re in slow motion. As soon as you move fast, you have oxygen deprivation.”
The day of the summit, the group arrived at the highest and final camp at 2 p.m.
“We melted snow to drink,” he said. “You dehydrate quickly. It took a long time to melt the snow and eat soup. You strip off all your extra gear, all the extra weight. At 10 p.m. you put on all your under layers and a one-piece down suit. Everything takes two to three times longer, like you’re in molasses.”
He began his climb with a small group at 11 p.m. It was imperative that they arrive at the summit before the wind and snow built up in the afternoon, he said. During the short annual weather window, which may last only a few days, morning weather on the peak is usually clear and the snow and ice are harder, he explained, which makes for safer climbing with crampons – the spiked footwear they must use on technical sections of the climb.
“The dark hours are frigid. You can see about 50 to 100 feet in front with the headlamp, but you can still feel the gaping void of the North Face on some sections. Sometimes you have a 10,000-foot drop beside you,” he said. “At one point, I could see six headlamps ahead and it looked like they were stacked vertically. They appeared to be stars up in the sky when, in fact, they were climbers on a vertical rock section of the Second Step, which is known as the crux of the climb.”
When he got to the base of this imposing feature, his oxygen ran out. He said he used his freedive training and pressure breathing as techniques to open the alveoli in his lungs for more oxygen. “I managed to get to the top of the Step without fainting before reaching another oxygen bottle from the cached supply there,” he said.
“A guy was warming his hands under his armpits and I sat with him for a minute. I looked over my shoulder about 10 feet away and saw another guy lying down in the fetal position. I said to the sherpa [a Nepalese high-altitude worker] that he should not be sleeping at this altitude. The sherpa said he had been sleeping like that for several years.”
It was just one of the many bodies of climbers who remain where they died while attempting the summit. It is considered too difficult to retrieve them. “The dead bodies remind you where you are and what you are trying to do,” he said. “You have to focus on getting the job done and get out of the Death Zone [above 26,000 feet].”
Within 14 minutes of reaching the summit, Capt. Maughan was on his way down. With 40 knot winds and temperatures of -40C, it was no place to linger. He said he knew he had to get off the mountain to survive.
“The ecstasy you should feel on reaching the top is tempered by the fact you are only halfway,” he said. “And the descent is the most dangerous part.”
Capt. Maughan said the Everest climb was even more difficult than he expected. “Every mountain is dangerous, but on this mountain, you have more factors working against you all the time.
“I’m not embarrassed to say I was scared. On the descent, I was totally worn out and I needed to use every physical and mental resource to concentrate on making it back. It felt like I was very near my limit. I don’t mind saying that – that’s important, revealing the truth. I never say I conquered a mountain.”
There is more than the sense of accomplishment that drives Capt. Maughan. “It’s how to get respect in this industry, the hard-working mentality,” he said. “I try to give more than is expected.”
Chef Michael and Chief Stew Hannah McMahon joined Capt. Maughan on Turmoil about six years ago when he was new to ultra marathons.
“With his quiet and unassuming nature, we were surprised to see the great accomplishments he made in the ultra running world in such a short space of time,” the couple wrote in an email.
Capt. Maughan, 54, is muscular and compact. His skin is weathered and bears a few scars. He has broken his collarbone and fingers, and he lost sight in his left eye after it was a hit with the corner of a tie-down strap.
His tolerance scale for discomfort from injuries is high.
The McMahons and Stew Sonja Mejlholm have seen Capt. Maughan’s fortitude while serving as his race crew during a hot 100-mile run through the Florida Keys. The crew drove a van to meet him at checkpoints with supplies, fluids and snacks.
“The mental toughness and brutal pain he is willing to put his body through is something that we were surprised and inspired by,” they wrote. They said he often trained on board and it was “hard to locate him when he was doing laps on deck with a weighted backpack to train for his Sahara run.”
His pain would be off-the-charts for many people, as photos of the bleeding, blistered, broken-toenailed feet on his blog seem to attest. He disputes that he’s unique.
“I feel pain like everyone,” he said. “It’s in the acceptance. With things like running a long race, the others quit because they’re too uncomfortable. I accept that this feeling of discomfort will eventually end.”
He doesn’t see himself as exceptional partly because he aligns himself with capable and accomplished people. This translates to his crew on board.
“He expects his crew to be professional without needing his constant management,” the McMahons wrote. “As a captain, Grant is easy going and likes to let you do your job as department heads without micromanaging, however he’s big on safety and always liked to ensure we had regular drills on board.”
“I like working with crew that get in and get it done,” Capt. Maughan said, “and who don’t say, ‘That’s not my job description.’”
As a solo runner and mountaineer, he said he prefers time alone, but his crew said he focused on teamwork and made ample time for them.
“Grant put a lot of focus on crew morale. How we all got along together was most important to him,” the McMahons wrote. “He would remind us to be aware that we are living on a boat, even though it was a big one, and to be respectful of each other’s space. He always encouraged the crew to get outside, do activities and loved to hear all about the crew adventures with a sunset beer.”
“People say I’m so lucky,” Capt. Maughan said. “I say you make your own luck. When I was young, I thought, ‘This is how I want to shape myself.’ Each thing I do leads to another. It’s not luck, it’s not random – things segue and everything blends together.”
Follow Capt. Maughan on his blog at www.dingofishexpress.com. Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.