When queer extreme athlete Aidan Hyman recently climbed to the elevation of the base camp of K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, he was demonstrating LGBTQ representation at 16,896 feet above sea level.
Thanks to his efforts, our community was literally in rarefied air.
Having just turned 20 at the start of his adventure, Hyman was looking to become the youngest known queer mountain climber to reach K2 base camp. Along the way, he overcame daunting obstacles, witnessed sublime natural beauty and embodied Pride on every step of his journey.
Throughout his odyssey, Hyman couldn’t help but notice that most of the climbers he met along the way were predominately straight men. As if in response to this, he made up his mind that he was going to give voice to his truth for the entirety of his adventure.
“I certainly felt like it was a testament to how far I’ve grown as person that I wanted to be unapologetically myself,” Hyman told Outsports while on a backpacking trek in Thailand. ‘So maybe I’ll make references, I’ll speak a certain way, or I’ll dance however I want to or listen to music. And I’ll just bring up topics. Like I asked, ‘Does it make you uncomfortable’ or ‘How do you feel that I’m gay and I’m on this climb?’”
Happily, he found overwhelming acceptance from both his climbing team and others he encountered, even if some of them hadn’t had many previous interactions with LGBTQ people.
For example, a few members of his team hailed from rural areas of the United States and Hyman found them to be uplifting and curious about his experiences, especially about how being queer meshed with his life as an athlete. “I didn’t realize how open minded our generation is,” he reflected.
Even more encouragingly, when Hyman celebrated his birthday at the start of his trek, he encountered two Russian climbers who happily joined in the festivities and even made him a cake. This was a noteworthy moment as it’s not every day that a queer person gets to commemorate their birthday with a gift from Russians. Even before he began his climb, Hyman was beating the odds.
Every moment of inspiration Hyman found was important because the K2 climb tested his body and endurance in ways he’d never experienced before — and as an extreme athlete, he was already familiar with the stamina needed to run marathons and triathlons.
In fact, the journey before he could even begin the climb was a challenge in and of itself. After landing in Pakistan, Hyman and the team drove eight hours through the desert toward the Karakorum Mountains before embarking on a 100-mile hike through a desert valley and camping out on the Baltoro Glacier just outside of K2.
Along the way, he endured scorching heat, sunburn, massive blood blisters on his feet and plunging temperatures at night. Finally after several days, Hyman and the team reached a point where they could set eyes on the mountains more than 26,000 feet high and, as he later attested, the view was worth every bit of tribulation they endured.
“The feeling was…it was indescribable, honestly,” he said. “Not only is it profoundly beautiful, your brain can’t wrap your head around how big these mountains are.”
Even though his mind couldn’t come up with a comparison for how height of the mountains, his feet were about to find out. It was time to begin the ascent to base camp.
As the team trekked upward, Hyman experienced the full force of one of the biggest obstacles any climber faces: elevation. Even though he’d gone through altitude training in preparation, once the team passed 16,000 feet, Hyman found himself running out of breath every half hour.
“I definitely would rather run a marathon than do the trekking that we did. The mountain is definitely humbling, no matter how athletic or fit you think you are,” he said.
On top of the altitude difficulties, as Hyman was approaching his goal of arriving at base camp, he started running a fever and feeling sick. Remembering that one of his teammates developed malaria-like symptoms early on in the trip, Hyman became concerned about his health but kept pushing forward, completing 12 miles of climbing in 13 hours.
His adventure had taken eight days from the start of the team’s desert hike. Despite his fever, Hyman ended up reaching the 16,896-foot elevation of K2 base camp that he had set as his goal. Unfortunately, on his way to the base camp site itself, he encountered a landslide that, along with his illness, convinced him and his guide not to travel any farther.
Hyman admitted that he felt disappointment that he couldn’t arrive at the physical location of base camp to say that he had achieved everything he set out to do. Yet he had still climbed to the exact elevation of K2 base camp and could experience firsthand what the world looked and felt like at that height.
He didn’t need a photograph of a sign to make his accomplishment any more valid. The entire adventure was a test of his endurance and athleticism the likes of which he’d never experienced before and he had come through with flying colors.
Having climbed to the elevation he’d set out to conquer, it was time for Hyman to celebrate the moment for himself and his community. As he’d vowed when he first planned this quest, Hyman reached into his pack and unfurled a rainbow Pride flag for the first photo of his achievement.
What’s more, a local Sherpa agreed to take the picture of Hyman displaying the Pride colors and the significance of sharing that moment was not lost on him.
“It was just surreal. I just felt that since Stonewall, we’ve already made so much progress, and here I am in an Islamic country holding a Pride flag at one of the pinnacles of the climbing world. It was a crazy feeling and it felt way bigger than myself,” he said.
A journey that started with Hyman celebrating his birthday with Russian climbers culminated with a guide taking his picture holding the Pride flag. Reaching the elevation of K2 base camp was already an incredible moment for a queer mountain climber like himself. But the connections Hyman made along the way with others from around the world were what made his journey even more rewarding.