The human capacity for endurance is astounding. And Hamilton-born Dave Williams is no stranger to pushing himself to his absolute limits; physically and mentally. Just one of his many adventures has seen him run the equivalent of 10 marathons in nine days, followed by a five-day climb to complete the first ever sea to summit ascent of Mt Kilimanjaro. And that’s not even half of it.
When Dave Williams decided to set himself a world-first task, he knew he was about to push his body to its limits. What he didn’t realise, is that he would do the same to his mind. And along the way gain a greater understanding of the very cause he set out to promote; that of men’s mental health.
The hugely self-driven athlete is an adventurer in the truest sense of the word. Having lost two friends to depression, he decided to take action and raise awareness and funds (a goal of $100,000) around the issue of men’s mental health.
And so sea2summit7 was born; one man’s determined journey to become the first person to climb the highest mountain in each continent from the nearest feasible coastline.
Yes, you read that right. Not just climbing some of the world’s highest mountains, but adding in the challenge of running to them from the closest coastline. Sometimes involving weeks and hundreds of kilometres of running.
No television cameras, no fanfare, no crowds of fans – just a sole Kiwi bloke on an epic adventure. Quietly going about his goals with minimum fuss.
“Essentially I run, climb, crawl, whatever it takes, in conditions from searing heat to Antarctic freezing,” says Dave.
With his sights set on McKinley, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Vinson, Kosciuszko, Kilimanjaro and finally the epic Everest, Dave is currently halfway through his journey and heading into his third year of commitment. He has made enormous personal sacrifices to undertake this mission and is about to face arguably his toughest challenge yet; Mount Aconcagua– his nemesis.
Ticked off the list already is Kilimanjaro, his first mountain conquered and involving a run of 440km. Then Kosciusko (Australia) 340km, Elbrus (Russia) 210km and now hoping for third time lucky, he is tackling Aconcagua again, a 240km journey but so much more.
For Dave this Argentinian mountain, which he never regarded as particularly challenging, has defeated him already. He has endured the heartache of climbing Aconcagua, only to have to turn back just hours from the summit… twice.
“Making the decision to turn back and dealing with the fact that I came so close but failed was definitely up there in terms of my darkest moments,”
Imagine the agony of training and preparing for more than a year, embarking on a journey at your peak of fitness, and coming within a few hundred metres of achieving your goal and then having to turn back.
The first time Dave made the life-saving decision to abandon his summit success was due to weather conditions, after 28 days of unimaginable physical toll. Two other climbers who continued the climb, lost their lives.
And when Dave summoned the courage to re-attempt Aconcagua, this time the onset of an unexpected peanut allergy foiled his plans, leaving him virtually unable to stand, let alone climb.
“I used to have an allergy as a child but it really hadn’t affected me for more than 20 years. However I guess my body was so fatigued that it became susceptible again, and the nuts which are often some of my main sources of nourishment while climbing proved my undoing this time.”
So January will mark ‘third time lucky’ when he tackles this mighty 6962m mountain yet again. He plans to relax and enjoy Christmas first and then set off on what may be his greatest challenge to date.
Ironically it is the failures associated with this mighty mountain in Argentina that have taught Dave the harshest, but most valuable lessons.
“I do motivational talks around the country and often I have to share those moments on Aconcagua. So I have to relive it constantly. But this challenge was never going to be easy and my failure is a real part of that journey. What I dealt with twice on that mountain has given me a much bigger insight into mental anguish.”
His determination to once again attempt Aconcagua is not without an element of fear, which Dave is honest enough to admit.
“I won’t pretend that not succeeding those climbs was extraordinarily hard to cope with. It plays through my mind. I relive the decisions to turn back, I replay the climb with ‘what ifs’, etc. This has been very tough to deal with mentally.
“The second time I was very ill, but it was still a harder decision to turn around than it would have been to keep going. If I had committed to continue I would have become a liability for others on the mountain and you never do that as a mountaineer.
“Turning around for the second time was one of my hardest decisions on that adventure. Failure is never easy, let alone failing twice, but this is what motivates me to keep up the battle, and so this January I will return to Argentina yet again for my third attempt at the summit.
“When the going gets tough I have the ability of being able to walk away from the shadow the mountain casts, but those who battle depression do not have this luxury.
Having decided that he can’t move on to Mount Vinson in Alaska until he has conquered Aconcagua, the climb is fraught with many underlying emotions.
“It is the monkey on my back. People with depression often say they feel like they have a cloud over them. Aconcagua is my cloud.
“I don’t want to go back there. But I have to. I love adventuring and I love climbing but there has been so much emotion now invested in and attached to that mountain it creates a feeling of anxiety. Part of me is dreading it and the fact that an element of doubt keeps creeping in is definitely a mental challenge I need to overcome.
“No matter what happens, when I do stand on that summit the feeling is going to be out of this world. I need to focus on that.”
“You get to a certain level of desperation and pain, and then after a few days of that, it becomes your norm.
“But standing atop the mountain after the journey is just pure euphoria. There is a lot of pain, mental hardship and endurance along the way, so those moments of elation are that much more special,” he said.
Preparing for extremes is also part of the journey. Dave can make his way from 30 degree heat to minus 30 degrees. And given that he carries his own gear, he likes to pack sensibly.
“I’m very lucky to be kitted out by Bivouac. They’ve been behind me 100 percent right from the beginning and I’ve had the same quality gear from my first adventure to now.”
Dave is also hugely grateful to Yealands’ Family Wines, his main financial support.
“I am truly humbled by the people who have supported what I am doing by donating to mental health and spoken about it to raise awareness.”
The most physically difficult challenge to date has been Mount Kilimanjaro, where Dave ran the equivalent of 10 marathons in nine days. That was just to get to the mountain and then he had to climb it.
“And because of the heat, I had to start running at about four in the morning, just to avoid the worst of the midday temperatures. It was the heat and the long straight boring roads that were hardest to cope with.”
Training for these events is constant. Dave runs to work through Auckland City most days. He runs up mountains and usually clocks up a few hundred kilometres each week.
“I reckon I know every inch of Pirongia and Karioi where I run most weekends.
“I’ve been training pretty much non-stop for three years. I know what to expect and plan for regarding the physical side of the journey. It is the mental side that can catch you unawares. Each mountain is a rollercoaster ride. It’s pretty hard to live inside your head for days on end when you are alone, endlessly running and climbing.”
Often with a 28kg pack strapped to his back, Dave is used to weeks of solace. He chooses to carry his own gear and doesn’t rely on a porter for his mountaineering.
He represented New Zealand in trampoline as a 16-year-old and still uses the trampoline for fitness (and an element of fun).
A few serious injuries from the trampoline and playing rugby saw him decide to preserve his body and opt for ‘safer’ options – although as it turns out, he is once again pushing his body and mind to the max. Surfing, rock climbing, mountain biking and marathon running – hardly easier options, but Dave approached them with the same 100 percent enthusiasm he gives to every aspect of his life.
He shares his love of the great Kiwi outdoors as an outdoor education teacher at Auckland’s Edgewater College. Most weekends are spent in Raglan, where he is slowly renovating his first home and considers Pirongia and Mt Karioi his ‘home run tracks’.
“I’ve always loved adventuring and when you do a sea to summit, you go through so many different landscapes, challenges and environments. I could be running a marathon one day, then I’m rock climbing, then mountaineering on snow. The changing environment is part of what I love.”
And in a true case of life going full circle, Dave has experienced many ‘lightbulb’ moments during his mountain journeys.
“Here I was determined to do all of this by myself and I then realised that this is exactly what people suffering from depression and other issues go through. They don’t want to ask for help or don’t know how to. I have also learned that lesson.
“I had to teach myself to share and reach out to friends and family and particularly my AUT lecturers. It’s so important to have people around you to lean on, whoever they are.
“Just talking and sharing has helped me put the tough times into perspective.
“When I talk to groups, it is the failure they want to hear about, not so much the success. The Kilimanjaro story is an awesome achievement but it’s not particularly motivational. I trained really hard, I planned really well and I achieved my goal. That’s it.
“People seem to relate better to my stories about Aconcagua because of the challenges I experienced.
“I’m just an everyday Kiwi bloke, I was never the best marathon runner or the best mountaineer. I just loved it all. Anyone can do this sort of challenge if they train hard and believe in themselves.”
However not everyone has the sheer determination or resilience to stick with such a mighty goal. And while Dave is quick to resist praise and insists that what he is doing is nothing special – his actions speak louder than his words.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
That I just magically arrive at the sea and summits without considering all of the countless hours of technical and fitness training, research, diet, mentoring, preventative physiotherapy and sports massage involved to get my mind and body adequately prepared to tackle each challenge.
What is the most amazing place you have ever been to?
The Nakra Valley on the border of Georgia and Russia. It was absolute wilderness and solitude and I was the only westerner ever to be granted access into this area. After riding a specially assigned military horse across a torrent river, I ran 25km off track bashing through ivy. I then climbed solo up a glacier, through snow and giant boulders to set foot on an area of European border where no one has probably ever been.
What are your ‘must have’ items when travelling?
Suunto Ambit 3 and HR monitor, Inov-8 running shoes, ice axe, Arcteryx climbing gear, crampons, Metagenics supplements, Arthotics, Bluetooth headphones, Ice Breaker Merino running top and socks, The North Face thermoball jacket and recovery SKINs.
What are your favourite pieces of kit?
Suunto Ambit 3 GPS watch, it actually runs my entire life, can receive texts, emails, navigate, control my pace, heart rate, track distance, altitude and even tells me the time! I don’t know how I could adventure without it now. My SKINs recovery gear, as without it I would have to run 6km each day instead of 2km for my body to warm up. My walkman, as music makes things that much easier and more fun.
Name an Item you covet/would most like to add to your travelling kit?
I would love to make all of my electronic gear one brand like Sony. This would sync my operation and make it so much easier to get all of the footage I need and communicate and share it with the world. One less thing to worry about on hectic days.
How do you ‘relax’?
I go surfing in Raglan. There is something about the waves and the ocean that just makes everything more awesome. I need to remove myself from this challenge sometimes so I feel balanced and surfing is the best way to do this. Also Physio Mechanics in Takanini provide me with massage treatments which help to keep my muscles relaxed, because as soon as my body tenses up so does my mind.
What’s your go-to meal when you finish a major event?
Steak, mashed potato, carrots and red wine.
What is the best advice you ever received?
Never compare yourself with others but embrace their achievements as motivation to help with your goals. And AUT Outdoors has always encouraged me to ‘take the path less travelled in life’, which has become my mantra.
To support or follow Dave, check out his journey at www.sea2summit7.com