By Romy Stephens
The moment Nick Whiley realised he had reached the peak of one of the world’s most famous mountains, he was overwhelmed with a sense of euphoria.
“I just burst into tears,” Nick said.
“It was huge, I spent so long training for it. It was pretty amazing.”
In August this year, the Emerald CFA firefighter achieved a lifelong dream by conquering the iconic Matterhorn mountain in Switzerland.
After many years of training, seven and a half hours climbing and countless hours preparing, Nick achieved something most people could only dream of.
But he said the feat was far from smooth sailing.
“It was a big decision. Even up until the two days before it I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it,” he said.
“It’s just such an intimidating mountain.”
Nick fell in love with climbing three and a half years ago when on a photography tour of Mount Blanc in Europe with some friends.
At the time, he had just been through a bad break up and was struggling with his mental health.
“We caught a cable car over the mountain… We saw some mountaineers,” he recalled.
“Me and a mate that I’d met on that trip were just amazed. These people were out in negative whatever degrees.
“They just seemed amazing, they were just living that lifestyle travelling around the world to climb.
“When we got back we thought, why not have a go and did a single day course in the Grampians and got hooked.”
That moment completely turned Nick’s life around.
He now climbs three to four days a week and has set up a gym at home to maintain his fitness.
“It was that second that really changed everything and now it is my whole life,” he said.
Over the past few years, Nick has tackled numerous mountains including Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia.
He said he also tries to explore peaks across Victoria when possible, considering it’s so close to home.
“Climbing is such an international sport and plane travel is so ecologically awful that you should be trying to make your own area good,” he said.
But Nick admitted Australia doesn’t quite compare with the likes of some of the most famous international mountain ranges.
Like many alpine enthusiasts, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by the beauty of Europe’s most iconic peak.
“The Matterhorn was a good challenge for me it’s such a beautiful mountain, it’s the mountain that you know,” he said.
“As I got a bit better at climbing and started to get into the realms of maybe being able to do it, it got more and more appealing to me.
“It took about six months to get up to actually being able to do it.”
The Matterhorn is famously known for its 4478m high near-symmetrical pyramidal peak that towers above other mountains in the Monte Rosa area of the Pennine Alps.
Also known as the Jewel of the Swiss Alps, the most famous mountain in Europe is best described as a single cragged rock tooth that looms breathtakingly over the Swiss Alps.
Nick said during the seven and a half hour journey he had to battle changing weather conditions and difficulties functioning with higher altitude.
“You start at three in the morning. The first few hours are just dark and confusing,” he explained.
“As the sun rises you get to this hut. Then you start the harder bit which is more ascent.”
Nick recalls starting to get headaches as the oxygen began to thin out and worsening weather kicked in.
“You just kind of drill in because by that stage we were at altitude,” he said.
“Then at some point on the shoulder when the weather got bad, we put on our crampons.
“Towards the top, I actually didn’t realise we were at the top because it was whited out so you could only see a metre or so in front of you.”
It’s estimated more than 500 people have died trying to climb or descend the Matterhorn since it was first scaled in 1865, making it one of the most dangerous mountains in the world.
But Nick said he wasn’t scared by the thought of people dying on the mountain before him.
“Someone had died the week before I went,” he said.
“A chunk of the wall fell out, so you could be the best climber in the world and not survive that.
“It’s something that you keep aware of but early on someone said to me, don’t fear the mountains just respect them.
“I don’t tend to get too scared when I’m climbing.
You put that trust in your training and what you’re doing.”
Nick’s ability to tackle life-threatening situations is reflected often in his life with two of the things he does outside of full-time work being firefighting and mountain climbing.
He said there are numerous similarities between the two, but also some significant differences.
“It’s similar in that you train for a thing and you go to it and your adrenaline’s pumping and it’s pretty intense,” he explained.
“But then the muscle memory and the knowledge and the training comes in.
“The risk of dying is certainly much higher mountain-climbing than it is firefighting.
“CFA is so much about protecting its people and the community, whereas mountain climbing you’re protecting yourself.”
His newfound love for climbing and involvement in the brigade have been major turning points in Nick’s life.
Both have not only improved his physical health but also his mental health with the support of newfound friends at the brigade and within climbing groups.
For more information about how to become involved in the Emerald Fire Brigade, visit the brigade’s Facebook page or https:// www.emeraldfirebrigade.org.au/.