The Karakoram highway, running along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of the most spectacular and dangerous roads on the planet. It’s a feat of human engineering and folly, four thousand metres above sea level, precarious and prone to landslides.
In the summer of 2015, Jason Black was among a group of elite mountaineers travelling by bus to attempt to climb K2. Two Ford pick-up jeeps, each carrying six hired security men armed with AK-47s, formed a cavalcade. A guy beside him sat with a Glock gun on his lap. Black felt excited and solemn. There was something dissonant about the journey. Climbing is personal and has an undeniable spiritual dimension. But this day felt heavy. The security wasn’t a western conceit. Just two years earlier, 11 climbers had been accosted in a night camp at Nanga Parbat and executed on the spot by Taliban militants.
“They were camping in this village high in the mountains and they killed them,” Black says. “They shot them dead because they were westerners. And now we were on the same bus.”
Sitting towards the front of the bus was a climber Black reveres, Monique Richards, the Canadian woman, one of the most accomplished on the planet.
“We were travelling for about four days and pulled into this village for a break and to get some fresh fruit. And the suppression that women in some of these villages endured was just . . . we went through this one village where, from the day a woman was born until she died, she never got outside other than to leave the family home for the marital home. So we were stopped in a village. And all of a sudden this mob came around the bus, pulled the driver out and nearly killed him stone dead with a post because he allowed Monique to sit in the front of the bus. He had allowed a woman to sit in the front of men, in other words. So getting to the K2 is nearly as dangerous as climbing it.”
But not quite. The American physicist and mid-century mountaineer George Bell is credited with naming K2 ‘the savage mountain’. Its austerity and technical difficulty means it will never become Disney-fied or hawked to leisure climbers. Nearly 5,000 people – including Black, on the north face – have climbed to the summit of Everest. Just 340 have stood on top of K2. It commands a dark, crude statistic: for every four people who summit, one person dies.
Only one other Irish man, Ger McDonnell, had ever made it to the top. That was on August 1st, 2008 when, just hours after the euphoria of standing on the summit, McDonnell perished along with 10 others in one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history. After a deluge of conflicting and international reports, it was established that McDonnell had behaved with extraordinary valour during a catastrophic night-time descent, re-ascending alone through the pitch dark to free tangled Korean climbers. It is thought that McDonnell was at some point struck by falling ice and died.
Black was partially motivated to honour McDonnell. But he would have to wait for three more years. The 2015 attempt was cancelled after an avalanche. He finally made it to the summit in July of 2018, along with the Co Down climber Noel Hanna. His gripping account is an unnerving cocktail of terror and beauty which seems to attract extreme athletes.
Like the rest of the world, Black has spent much of the past year housebound. He has been training for his next calling: a solo crossing of the Atlantic, starting at St John’s in Canada and finishing in his native Donegal. No safety boat. Just him. When we speak by video, he has come in from a few hours on the bike. It’s a sublime April evening in the northwest: faraway skies with big streaks of colour. Black speaks in the unaffected drawl of mid-Donegal which can make everything seem casual. But there’s no escaping the reverence in his voice when he takes himself back to the apex of that climb. If he speaks in the present tense, it’s because, you suspect, that part of him is always there.
“You read about House Chimney and the Serac on K2 and I’ve watched it on film. But, you know, I’ll be honest: there is nothing that prepares you for that thing. It is the most frightening thing that you can imagine. And it takes you to a place of such discomfort. As an athlete, to have the skillset to survive it is unbelievable. It is minus 20. The regulator is frozen over and then your gums start to freeze. My mask is getting covered up.
“I get to One Man’s Pass which is at the bottom of the Serac. It’s just a very narrow ledge. There is a Japanese climber right in front of me. And he just falls. He just falls two and a half thousand metres right in front of my eyes. He falls to his death. And you are just watching this happen. And you exist. And you have this unnerving conversation where you just are just telling yourself to keep moving forward; that you can’t do anything about what is after happening. And then you turn the corner and you are on the last push, which is about 14 hours long.”
Camp Four sits at 7,900 metres. The bottleneck climb to the summit is 700 metres further. At that altitude the body is so oxygen-deprived that the digestive system shuts down. Oxygen levels in the blood drop to 14 per cent. Humans shouldn’t be there. It’s a gamble.
“So your cognisance is very limited. When you do get there, it’s not a rush. You don’t have that mental capacity. It is more: I am not going to miss this view. You are top of the magic carpet of the world. And you are looking in on this glass fishbowl of the world. That is what it looks like. All the aeroplanes, the 747s, they are flying either level or below you. So it is a ‘sweet Jesus’ moment. Those last two days are when you are beyond your physical capability and beyond who you are as a human being.”
Ger McDonnell, who had stood there 10 years earlier, was on his mind. He felt his presence.
“And I had a very unnerving experience then where I had to talk to myself for an hour, tell myself I’d be okay. You are so tired. And you say: Jesus what are you doing this for?”
It’s a question that Black has only begun to answer. He celebrated his 50th birthday recently. He had an outdoor beer with his dad. “And I just thanked him.” Jason’s father is called Tanya Black. His brother, whom the family lost in a motorcycle accident in Philly in 1997, was Billy Black. Their grandfather was Billy Black. Their great-grandfather was Billy Black. All four men were motor mechanics and shared an obsession with engines, with bikes, with cars.
STREAK OF PETROLEUM
Something of the answer as to why Black climbs forbidding peaks or cycles continents is to be found in those lost days in the late 1970s on the edges of Letterkenny. He was the eldest of four: then came Billy, Dervla and Tanya. Just as a biblical seam runs through the heart of America, there’s a streak of petroleum that leaves an indelible trace across mid-Ulster.
“I don’t know why but we all have it. My son is Billy – and he has it too! Part of it was dad fixing cars at the side of the house. Driving a car at seven, my own motorbike at eight. We had full race go-carts at 11-years old. And as daft as it sounds we were going 10 miles down the road on these carts. And I don’t know if mum and dad were right or wrong. But they gave us these kinds of adventures and that is what unlocked this thing in me. Everything seemed possible because of what they gave us.”
His brother, he says, was “just mischief” and he laughs now when he remembers the spirit: a kid entrepreneur gamely selling Armagh apples from a horse box aged 11.
“He was his own person, gathering his own money – and he was reckless in how he spent it. Billy was born with a murmur in his heart and he had so much energy. He bounced continually. Billy was the better athlete. He was lighter than me. But he couldn’t see the sense in training continually whereas I did. In our family the rest of us would always hug each other and say that we loved each other. Billy was more reserved about that. But then, when he did say it, he really meant it.”
Donegal couldn’t contain Billy Black. Like many of his generation, he looked west. Seamus Fay, a family friend, had been in Philly for 20 years and gave him a sofa, a framework. “He created a wonderful circle out there and knew the geography and the politics of the city and he just fitted in seamlessly.”
He came home the week before Jason married Sharon McCool, a local girl. Because they were young and couldn’t afford a honeymoon, Billy invited the couple out to Philly for a week. He showed them the town royally. It was a blast.
“Then, Billy went out for a run on the bike just before we left. And he just got it wrong on a corner and crashed and was killed.”
Jason had to tell his father on the phone. He can hear the excitement in the voice still. ‘How’s it going over there son?’ And then this terrible Transatlantic silence. The family had already lost their mother Freda to cancer when Jason was 17. “And when we lost him, I lost a part of me. We were best friends and arch enemies growing up. We would kill each other. Mammy would always make homemade chips on a Saturday night. And homemade onion rings in the deep fat fryer. But it wasn’t a deep fat fryer; it was just a pot with hot oil. Even if you were leaving the table, to go to the loo we’d pretend to spit in our chips because the other would have them eaten.”
He’s laughing. Brothers that they were, Jason never did tell Billy about what was the true test of his life. His five years in secondary school was a hell that shaped him. He was singled out by another kid in his year and bullied to the stage where he was a husk. It was the early 1980s: the rules of engagement were rowdier. What Black recalls now is the newness of those first few days in secondary school in St Eunan’s.
“I had a brand new bag for the first time. And new books that weren’t hand me downs. I can still see the new sharpener and pencils. And that bollocks just destroyed it all. I still remember walking through those gates. And within two weeks, I was in this unmerciful black hole. I didn’t have the skills to deal with it and I don’t think the teachers at the time did either.”
Five years of casual psychological torture awaited him. Black was a green belt in judo, fighting up in Ulster at weekends, but was helpless against this and spoke to nobody. All joy was eroded. Why him? He’s not sure but maybe it’s because he was from outside of town and identifiable as a bumpkin. Maybe in those first weeks, the uniform was too pristine and he lined up too eagerly.
“I was smaller than I am and wasn’t streetwise and I was probably very obedient. The individual involved was from town and had older brothers so he had all that education and street craft handed down to him.”
A combination of shame and not wanting to hassle his parents made him hide it. The family wasn’t flush. “My mum just put these amazing dinners up from a fridge that could be very empty sometimes.”
So Black put on a mask and acted through his teens. Then his mum got sick and, to their lasting disbelief, died. He left school with no real qualifications to speak of.
It all left Black floating through the mid-1980s. He was certain that he had nothing to offer. “I was completely disabled. I was struggling massively. And for a long time, I was planning on checking out of this world.”
Funny, intervention came not through heroic races or super endurance but through stacking shelves. See him in Dunnes now one morning, just glad to have a job, any job, where he’s inconspicuous. And a call comes through to the office from Pauric Murray, a Cadbury’s rep from Galway and a terrific lad. The roads are terrible: he can’t make it up to do the order. And he wants Jason to do it.
Black gets the stock cart but he hasn’t a clue what to do. Dan McTeague, the Jacobs rep, happens to be in the store room. He shows Black how to fill in a stock order on the sheet. Then Black crosses the road to the public phone box and rings the order through. It’s a success. A few weeks later, Pauric Murray calls him again. There’s a sales rep job going with Cadbury’s. He urges Black to go for it. “And I just didn’t feel worthy of it. Not at all.”
But there he is, on a CIE bus to Coolock – still the most nerve-wracking journey of his life. He remembers every second of the interview and the feeling when Gary Obray, then the head of sales, offered him the job.
“I was just blown away,” Black says quietly. “I had never, ever been offered anything like this in my life.” If he speaks about this episode with more weight and intensity than any of the more extreme feats, it’s because it matters most to him. Those casual acts of kindness genuinely saved him. “I was off my knees,” he says now.
Things began to happen fast. Black is sociable at heart and a born communicator. There’s a mad story about a “white lie” he told about his driving licence that day in Coolock. After six good years with Cadbury’s he was approached by Cuisine de France, then a start-up, and ended up spending time in Minnesota to study the to-go food culture of petrol station forecourts. After a chance conversation, he and Sharon bought a small corner shop in town.
“We didn’t have two pennies to rub together. But Sharon was studying accountancy. And I knew retail.”
They took out a bank loan and the returns smashed the three-year plan. They bought other shops, then a local nightclub and suddenly had a staff of 185 people with a turnover of more than 10 million quid.
“There was something that I do owe the bully. I had no fear left. I didn’t fear debt or worry. But you know, we let them all go. I felt I had lost purpose. I’m afraid I got into the Jones end of things and buying the material things – houses, cars holidays and all that. I was adapting again as a person. I was working with the Irish Red Cross at the time. And that kind of . . . changed things for me. Sold it all up, paid off my debts to the bank and we walked away with a few quid. Not a lot but enough.”
Fifty years in, it turns out that Jason Black is a born motor mechanic, too. It took him decades to take himself apart. It was during that first time in the camps on K2 that he had time to properly revisit those school years. He has spoken about this once in a harrowing radio interview: in the tent, at those eerie heights, screaming for hours. For his mother, for the lost years, for all of it. The lad who bullied him physically faded from his life the day they left school. But this, 20 years on in Pakistan, was an exorcism.
“You know, on reflection I don’t think the bully knew he was the bully. I have never named him and I don’t need to now. I don’t wish ill acts to fall on anyone. But karma did catch up with him. I don’t need to confront him and I don’t think he would even remember it, to be honest.”
And that is the part that frightens Jason Black: the casual damage that people visit on each other. On his website, there’s a short audio clip he recorded from the summit of K2 that is at once beautiful and sad. It’s just two minutes. And it’s an ode to Ger McDonnell and heartfelt message to his wife and children and the Black family as well as a rasping reflection of the natural miracle before his eyes. But for the listener, it’s more the sound of his voice that catches – the exhaustion and pride and ego and vulnerability all clashing like heaven symbols. It’s spoken from a place that very few human beings ever have or will stand; fewer than have been to the moon. He survived. He got there.
“The reason I keep the adventures so alive is that they are like a shop window. People can see and hear the message,” he says now.
“Am I reckless? No. Am I in the hands of God? Yeah. Am I in the hands of Mother Nature? But we have endless opportunity and potential in this country. So I’m just trying to be a cog in a wheel and encourage people to live a better life and to have the courage to walk in their own shoes and do whatever it is they want to do. I want to be an enabler and I want to stop the dream stealers. I had enough of those in life.”
So he tells his story. From time to time, he goes back to the old school. He stands in that very classroom in St Eunan’s. It’s a different place now, a school he thinks he’d love. Having in him to talk about his experiences is proof of that. He still gets nervous as a child standing in front of a class and that’s what he wants to explain. Everyone has their obstacles. ‘My name is Jason Black’, he tells them.