This interview with Robert Kay is one of an ongoing series I do each season with Everest climbers. Not the famous, sponsored ones who get plenty of publicity but the regular people, who often have full time jobs, full time families and climb for the love of the climb. I welcome suggestions for anyone climbing in 2013 I should interview. Now here’s Robert:
Originally from Australia, Robert and his family visited Colorado back in 1973, and never left. An avid skier, Robert has skied some of the Colorado 14,000 foot mountains, Europe’s Mt. Elbrus and Mont Blanc plus Orizaba and Manaslu..
In spite of this love affair with the mountains, he now lives in Nebraska where he owns the motorcycle dealership, Star City Motor Sports recognized as one of the top 100 dealers nationwide by Dealernews Magazine.
Like many Everest climbers, Robert read Annapurna by Maurice Herzog when he was 15. He dreamed of climbing the big mountains and now has attempted Everest once, summited Manaslu (26,759′/8156m), Island Peak (20,305′/6188m), Lobuche East among other and is going back to Everest this year at age 51.
Today, training is a big part of life including his beloved Jacobs Ladder:
Robert says the culture is as important to him as the climb. This might be due to his family living in Bangladesh when he was six years old. Leading an international life continues today with Robert and his wife adopting two daughters from Nepal.
Now, please meet Robert Kay:
Q: You have two adopted daughters from Nepal. Can you tell how special that is?
A. In 1993 my wife and I decided we wanted to adopt a child from a Third World country and since we’d both spent a lot of time in Nepal and loved the Nepali people we quickly settled on this special place. We went through all the home study requirements in Colorado and by November, 1994 we had completed a one month stay in Nepal and signed the last of the documents to complete the adoption of our daughter Soni. Fast forward more than 18 years and she is mid-way through her pre-med training at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Soni is incredibly smart, hard working and has a beautiful and outgoing personality. She is everything anyone could wish for in a daughter. No boy is worthy of her in this overly protective father’s mind!
Through all these years we kept in touch with Soni’s birth mother and in 2008 I returned to Nepal for the first time in 14 years and reunited with her. She lives in Jharkot, the first village below Muktinath and the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna trekking route. It was on this visit that I also first met her husband and two of her five kids, including Kalpana, who has a birth defect with her eyes. Our family stayed in touch and in September, 2011 on another visit to Nepal to climb Manaslu, I arranged permission to take Kalpana to visit some eye specialists in Kathmandu. They didn’t offer much hope, but my wife and I felt more and more of a burden to help Kalpana so I returned to Jharkot in November to gain permission from her parents to bring her to the US for medical attention and also education. They granted this permission and then shortly after this Kalpana’s father unexpectedly passed away.
With a tremendous amount of help from two wonderful Nepali friends plus Trish Crampton of Altitude Junkies fame, we finally succeeded in gaining a visa for Kalpana to come to live with us. Soni and I went to Kathmandu in May, 2012 to bring Kalpana home to Nebraska. After Kalpana had been with us for several months we found our feelings and attitude towards her changing and felt we should talk with her mother about adopting her. The mother visited us last winter and eagerly agreed and now we have almost completed the adoption process. Kalpana is 15 and has amazed us with how fast she’s learned English and come to love her new life in the US. She is a fun-loving, delightful member of our family. She also loves to ski which really pleases me!
We feel such a huge debt to the birth mother for giving Soni to us and we also feel like she and her family are truly part of our family. With this in mind we are now arranging for the remaining four kids plus several cousins to all live in Kathmandu in one home and attend a quality school there. This will be the first time the four siblings have been together for any substantial piece of time as they’ve been “farmed out” to four different schools in four different areas of Nepal. We are very excited to do this and part of my time in Nepal this spring will be spent with them and ensuring that everything is as we have envisioned for these great kids.
My son seems to get left out of these discussions because his story is “normal” but he’s also been a fantastic kid. He graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University last year and is now pursuing his MBA there. I’m very excited to see his career develop. I don’t deserve the family that I have!
Q: You set a goal to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, all 50 state highpoints (plus Washington DC) and all Seven Summits. How far along are you?
A. I have reached 46 of the 51 state highpoints (I’m including DC). I have Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Texas and Wyoming to go. So far I’ve skied all or part of Colorado, Oregon, New York and Vermont’s highpoints.
I have climbed 27 of Colorado’s 14ers. I’m disappointed with this as I consider myself a Coloradan in spite of living in Nebraska for the past 16 years. I grew up there and go there all the time so I have no excuse for being only half-way through this project. I will try to improve on this performance this summer. I have skied three of these peaks.
I have decided to climb what I term “all Nine of the Seven Summits” and have done them all except for the last 1,200 feet of Everest. Why nine peaks? Well, there is the common controversy on Carstensz Pyramid vs Kosciuszko so to avoid any doubt I did both. I also had a personal problem with defining Elbrus as Europe’s highest peak. Without meaning to offend anyone, I felt like I was in Asia far more than Europe and so I decided to add Mont Blanc to the list. I was able to ski from the summit of Elbrus and just below the summit on Mont Blanc.
You may notice the ski theme in my answers. I consider myself a skier who is also an enthusiastic climber.
Q: You climbed Everest in 2010 but didn’t summit. What happened?
I was with IMG and our large group was split into two halves for the two forecasted good summit days. The first group enjoyed good weather although they battled some slowing due to the number of people climbing that night. The second night ended up having quite bad weather, opposite from what was predicted. I found myself about 200′ above the Balcony with strong winds, heavy snow and lightning. I couldn’t see, took off my iced-up goggles and my eyes immediately got dangerously cold. It was then I noticed my Sherpa guide had no goggles. Thoughts of Nima Nuru being permanently blinded or either of us becoming the second act of “Into Thin Air” went through my mind and I decided to turn back. It was a heart breaking decision that I almost immediately regretted but I realized the mountain will always be there and I knew I would return for a second attempt. A lot of people turned around that night and quite a few also summited. There’s a very fine line between bravery, perseverance and foolishness-bordering-on-suicide up there in a storm. Three years later I’m still not certain if I made the right call but I’ve made peace with it and am so excited to give it another try.
Q: You recently climbed Manaslu, in what ways do you believe that expedition has prepared you for Everest?
I think every climb, especially to high altitudes, helps with the next one. Experience is so hard to gain, especially when you aren’t a professional climber. I learned that I can climb an 8,000 meter peak which gives me confidence for Everest, although I don’t want to be overly confident. It would be easy to assume a “done-that” attitude and not show up as prepared as I should. I learned to be patient, that I can put in the big days when necessary and that I don’t want to ski any more 8,000 meter peaks, or at least not from the top. The skiing is immensely difficult, dangerous and no fun at all. I know that I cannot overtrain.
Q: Can you tell us why you choose the North side of Everest.
I actually had my heart set on the south side as I really love Nepal and the Nepali people. I had a fantastic time and expected to go that way again. All this changed when I climbed Manaslu and made an attempt on Ganesh Himal, both with Altitude Junkies. I really enjoy Phil Crampton’s style of climbing, his incredible Sherpa staff, his facilities, camp infrastructure and his quality of food.
On top of that, I really like Phil and also his fantastic wife Trish. They feel like family. When Phil decided to return to the north side after several years on the south I was forced to decide and ended up going with Phil. There is so much history on both sides and I suppose I would ultimately love to reach the top from both directions, but right now I am 100% focused on a safe summit from the north so any thoughts of future trips will need to wait until I am safely back home in June.
Q: Any thoughts on the mystery of Mallory & Irvine?
Wow, what a question! I’ve read much of their history beginning with books by people such as James Ramsey Ullman through to the discovery of Mallory’s body by Conrad Anker through the recent theories and even the movie The Wildest Dream. My guess is that they didn’t reach the summit. Their gear was so inadequate, Irvine was so inexperienced and the weather was far from 100% perfect. I know from my own experience that the first few climbs at very high altitudes seemed far more difficult than the later ones and this was Irvine’s first high climb. Couple this with clothing and equipment that we would deem completely inadequate on any mountain today and I don’t see how they could have made it.
I suppose you could argue it might be just barely possible if the weather was warm with no wind or cloud, but they didn’t have this luxury. I think it was Hillary who, when asked the same question, said something like “it really doesn’t matter if they reached the top because they didn’t reach the bottom” and I tend to agree with this sentiment. The top is only the half way point on any climb. But, having said all this, I sure hope they find Irvine and the camera although it certainly makes life more interesting to have a little mystery. Mountain climbing seems to require controversy and they certainly help fill this need.
Q: You like to use the Jacob’s Ladder machine for training. What is special about this training machine?
I live in Lincoln, Nebraska which is almost at sea level and is flat as a pancake. I also have a bad knee due to an old injury and find it impossible to run, even for a few yards so I had to improvise. I primarily use a Stairmaster at my local gym and also do strength training there. However, I bought a Jacob’s Ladder a couple of years ago and use it for a month or two before each big climb to really get me that last bit of conditioning. It is a miserable machine because it forces you to work so hard! My legs scream, my cardio is redlined and I just want to get off it! I know this is exactly what I need so I do it for 30 minutes in the mornings before work and then follow my normal routine in the evenings. This gives me nine or ten hard workouts per week.
Q: Last question, do you have a favorite piece of gear you use on all your climbs?
I’m a bit of a “weight weenie” so I’m always looking for the lightest stuff. The one place I break this rule is for my sleeping comfort. I decided the small bit of extra work involved in dragging a comfortable mattress up the hill is more than offset by the vastly better night’s sleep I get so I haul a big Exped Synmat or Therm-A-Rest Neo Air XTherm mattress with me.
I have a hard time eating when I get up high. Everything tastes horrible, I have no appetite and I end up losing most of what I try to swallow. This year for Everest I am going to try a new secret weapon; I’m going to carry some of my mother’s home-made fruit cake. Most people hate fruit cake and they are the brunt of many jokes but my mom makes a great one and it is super dense and full of calories. I will let you know if it gives me that last bit of power I will need to summit.
Q: Any other thoughts for us followers this year Robert?
Climbing the Seven Summits, and climbing in general, gives you such a fantastic way to see the world. It is easy to forget that although the summit is the goal, you only spend a few minutes there and an expedition can last 30 to 60 days. If you don’t enjoy the whole journey you will have a horrible trip. I love the journey so I always have a great time. It is such a blessing to have the chance to see other countries and cultures, to meet interesting people completely removed from your normal circle of friends and to see such magnificent beauty. I never forget how lucky I am to be born when and where I was. I meet people in Third World countries who are far stronger, smarter and more motivated than me but they simply don’t have the opportunity that we have living in the US. I am truly grateful.
I really appreciate the kind and encouraging words that so many people pass on to us when we are climbing. It is hard being away from family and home for two months and the little communications are like a breath of fresh air.
I am tired of hearing negative comments from people who have never even seen the Himalayas. You know what I’m talking about; Everest is just a walkup, rich guys paying to have the Sherpas carry them up and do all the work, there are fixed ropes so it is too easy, etc. It is completely true that almost no one could reach the top were it not for the Sherpas but this doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s cold, there is lots of exposure and you can’t breathe. The most mundane things such as putting your boots and crampons on will leave you gasping for air. People have no idea how exhausting it is, both physically and mentally.
Besides, we can’t all be professional climbers with three lungs. We aren’t all Ed Viesturs. Most of the people I’ve met in the mountains are very ordinary people who have enormous dreams and have put their lives on hold for large periods of time, first to get into the best shape they possibly can and then to actually fly halfway across the world and give it their best shot. We are just normal people going as hard and high as we possibly can and I never forget that there is always someone better than me no matter what I’m doing. We all have our personal summit (the highest point we can physically reach) and this is determined by our genetics as much as anything.
People need to lighten up if someone climbs with oxygen or has a guide. All this talk about oxygen not being fair is nonsense. If you truly intend to climb Everest without artificial help, then leave the crampons, boots, ice axes, down suits, radios, ropes, tents, etc at home and run up in your loin cloth. I don’t like arbitrarily applied standards, especially when they come from some anonymous guy putting up snide comments on the internet from his mother’s basement.
Thank you Alan for all your incredibly hard work in covering all things Everest. Besides the armchair climbers, I know lots of family members of people on Everest rely on your coverage to monitor what is happening and to feel confident that their loved ones will return safely to them.
Best of luck this time Robert. He will be climbing on the North side with Altitude Junkies. You can follow him on his blog.
Memories are Everything