a hero's image
The mountaineer Veikka Gustafsson, 31, is a Finnish success story that could easily match the American dream. The picture includes adventure, a sense of the presence of danger, spectacular individual performances and success in business as well. Only seven years ago this young man made a living by driving a goods taxi. Now a book has been written about him and a doll made in his likeness is being sold to children in department stores. Skilful use of media has helped turn a daredevil mountaineer into a hero that everyone in Finland knows.
There is no doubt that his lust for adventure is inherited. Veikka's father decided to accompany some friends of his to Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, and took his son along as well. That was the beginning of Veikka's interest in mountains and climbing. "The main factor in the background when I started was a boyish desire for adventure. I also had to show that I was tough. I imagined that mountaineering was a heroic activity for brave men, fast and with dangerous interludes. The opposite is the case: it is exceptionally precise and slow work. All the lofty things that you imagine disappear when the strain of physical exertion makes you throw up all over yourself, if they have not already gone long before that. That experience is a far cry from the hero smiling and waving a flag on the summit."
Not that his image as a conqueror of mountains has had to be created from nothing. There are few young mountaineers with merit lists to equal that of Veikka Gustafsson. He has climbed seven of the fourteen Himalayan peaks over 8,000 metres and his long-term goal is to conquer the other seven as well. In 1993 he became the first Finn to scale the world's highest peak Mount Everest (8,846 metres). However, he considers his ascent of K2 (Godwin Austen) a year later his greatest achievement. It is a feat that only 150 people have achieved, whereas 1,000 have reached the summit of Everest and the number is growing by 100 each year.
Teamwork perfect in the mountains
"Wanting to show what you can do is not a good enough motivation for very long. Something much more valuable takes its place," says Veikka. "The salt of mountaineering is the seamless team spirit that it engenders. It means working together as unconditionally as can be. You can't be a part of the group without complete mutual trust. It means being able to put your life in someone else's hands. The team with which I set off into the mountains nowadays has been welded together in really awkward places."
Veikka is known only in mountaineering circles internationally, but at home in Finland he has almost the status of a cult figure and is a very well-marketed brand. "I'm a professional, but that does not mean that I start climbing at eight every morning. This activity is so expensive that it would be quite impossible without sponsors. I have five bigger cooperation partners and I pay back what they have invested in me by being at their disposal." That means attending various gatherings and telling a variety of audiences about his experiences: his goals, what motivates him, teamwork, managing risks . There is so much demand for his time that sometimes it seems not enough is left over for climbing and training.
In the perception of most people, part of the glamour of mountaineering is in the dizzying depth and danger that lurks below the man on the mountain. That is something one has to learn to live with. "There is no sense in deliberately taking risks, because so much is at stake. If foolhardiness costs you your life, you have truly blown it. The more experience you have, the more carefully you deliberate your actions. Mountain-climbing is deliberately going into a high-risk environment - and minimising the risks there. It is having to dare to make the right decisions. Sometimes the summit that we have been aiming for has been only a couple of hundred metres away, but the goal has remained unachieved because one's own life has hung in the balance. After all, that is more important than standing on one windswept mountain summit."
"I want to develop as a brand product"
Veikko Gustaffson makes no bones about wanting to be a brand product, because it is part of his occupation. "People can do and sell whatever they want in association with or around me, but on the other hand of course, a person is more than just a product," he says, reflecting on what the commercial aspect of his occupation has given him. "Someone who develops as that kind of a product certainly also does so as a person. One example is an ability to present oneself in public, something that I did not have at all to start with. But now I can talk fluently to an audience of five hundred elementary schoolchildren. That, too, is learning."
In Finland a "Veikka the Mountaineer" doll with a full range of gear is sold at supermarkets and advertised on television. Veikka himself says he was initially against the whole idea, but eventually came round. "Let this be my contribution to non-violence in children's games. The doll is no action man or monstrous alien from outer space with the weapons to sever a thousand heads in a second. On the contrary, Veikka is a living, positive chap and a hero in the eyes of many children - it sounds bad to voice these words myself, but it's another of the things you learn in this job. If girls have Barbies, Veikka would be delighted to hang around with them, too . If a mountaineer is regarded as an acceptable example for boys, it's a good thing. And if it brings me economic gain at the same time, what could be better?"
A man who climbs mountains and makes a living by telling about his adventures has strong self-esteem. Veikka Gustafsson has internalised the role of hero astonishingly perfectly. "Everyone has challenges and dreams that can be made to come true. I'm a living example of that. Seven years ago I was driving a goods taxi and working on building sites. Now I tell top-flight experts and bosses of leading companies how to set goals and go about achieving them."