The Khumbu is full of activity right now but one team just left home for what may be the most unique expedition of 2014. Or perhaps I should say 3 expeditions aka the Triple 8.
I have gotten to know this team over the last couple of years as they also live here in Colorado. So when Mike Moniz told me that he wanted to go climb three 8000 meter mountains in one push this spring, prescription I was not surprised.
I was surprised when he told me his 16 year-old son, no Matt, was coming along. Actually, to be honest, I wasn’t totally surprised as Mike and Matt set a record in 2010 by climbing the highest point in each of the 50 U.S. States in 43 days, obviously including Mt. McKinley.
Over a couple of dinners and hikes, Mike, Matt and long time friend, Jim Walkley shared the details of their Triple 8 expedition. To make this clear, these are the stats and no one has ever climbed all three in a single season.
- Cho Oyo, Tibet 26,906′ (8,201 m)
- Everest, Nepal 29,029′ (8,848 m)
- Lhotse, Nepal 27,940′ (8,516 m)
While ambitious, they have thought through every detail and partnered with one of the Everest guides in the business, Willie Benegas.
As if all this was not impressive enough, Willie and Matt will attempt to ski the Lhotse Couloir, something a few have tried and none have accomplished. I could write a book on this team, but these are a few highlights:
- Mike summited Everest and Lhotse back to back in 2012 plus the same summits of several extreme climbs with his son. Read my 2012 interview with Mike.
- Matt is an expert, world-class extreme skier with summits of McKinley, Elbrus, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro. He was Mountain Hardwear’s first Youth Athlete and an Ambassador for Outdoor Nation. In 2010, he was one of National Geographic Adventures of the Year.
- Jim, an accomplished skier and mountaineer, has 6 of the 7 summits completed. He barely missed summiting Everest in 2012
- Willie has summited Everest 11 times as part of 18 Himalayan climbs, including Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, and Lhotse. He is known for his unselfish role in multiple rescues around the world. He and his twin brother, Damien, have made over 80 ascents of El Capitan plus over 50 climbs on Aconcagua.
A little more on Matt. He is currently a sophomore, enrolled at Boulder High School and University of Colorado Boulder. To get the time for the Triple 8, he began attending classes at CU Boulder last summer and continued this past fall semester so he was able to leap ahead enough to double up the speed of his spring classes and complete early with the full support of his teachers. He’s maintained a 4.0 average at both schools. He has a few reading assignments and papers to complete during the expedition and Willie, from Argentina, will be teaching Matt Spanish!
The plan is to acclimatize with a summit on Cho Oyu, then quickly get to Everest for a summit attempt followed by the ski attempt from the summit of Lhotse.
In something this ambitious, it becomes a family affair. Matt’s twin sister Kaylee was the youngest person to summit Kilimanjaro in 2008 at age 10. The stabilizing force behind the amazing family is Dee Moniz, who went on several of the climbs with her family and keeps right up there them on the ski slopes.
So, let’s get to know this team and their plans.
Q: Who is the mastermind behind this Mike?
Well Alan, depending on how you look at this, I take much of the credit or blame for the idea. As you reported in 2012 I had planned to climbed three 8000m peaks. Fortunately, I managed to complete two, Everest and Lhotse but the monsoon closed in, literally, as I stood on the summit of Lhotse. Lessons learned, reverse the order. With Cho Oyu first, the bonus is only one rotation through the Khumbu Ice Falls. Cho Oyu also offers an earlier summit window, we’re hoping for around May 6th, which opens up a bigger weather window in mid to late May for an Everest and Lhotse summit.
Q: OK, so the big question Mike – I get Everest, but Cho Oyu, Everest and Lhotse in one push? Why?
Multiple peaks have always been our style, much like our 50 US Highpoints in 43 days and Everest and Lhotse in 24 hours. We love the complexity and strategy these expeditions offer. Beyond that, starting on Cho Oyu accomplished two big objectives. We’ll test Matt’s performance on what is accepted as the “easiest” 8000-meter peak, Cho Oyu, prior to Everest and to reduce objective risk. Most importantly though, with Cho Oyu first it’s Matt’s bow of respect for Everest and its great alpine tradition.
If you think about it Alan, the progression makes great sense. Recently Everest teams discovered the benefits of climbing Lobuche East to acclimatize to the equivalent elevation of Camp 1 on Everest. By doing so, teams eliminated one rotation out of four through the Khumbu Ice Falls, which is meaningful when you consider the high objective hazards they present. Taking this strategy a step further, by climbing Cho Oyu first we can limit the trips through the Ice Falls to just one, dramatically reducing objective hazard exposure.
Q: Jim, you did not summit in 2012 on Everest. What happened?
A: I was simply unlucky in 2012. I was one of the stronger members of a team that put everyone on the summit but two (26 in total summited except for my tentmate and me). We had a GI bug working its way through our team during our wait between our Camp III and Summit rotations. As we departed base camp on the final push, I was feeling very strong and made it to Camp II in under 5 hours. My good friend and tentmate arrived much later.
That evening at 11pm, he proceeded to fall victim to this stomach bug. I spent the night looking after him, but my fate was sealed at that point. The following day, my 39th birthday no less, was our scheduled rest day at Camp II. My tentmate continued to suffer and eventually departed for base camp on Os with an O-Sat in the 60s. At 11pm that night, exactly 24 hours after my tentmate first got sick, I succumbed as well. With my team departing for Camp III at 2am (only a few hours after I first fell ill), I was unable to climb with them since I was still in the throes of it.
Q: Jim, what did you learn from that experience you are applying this time?
A: Not being able to continue to the summit with the rest of my team in 2012 was incredibly disappointing, but there is not a lot I would change with regard to my approach, preparation, etc. The biggest take-away for me was that as a member of a large team, it is impossible to stop the train once it has left the station. Therefore, I knew that if I was ever to return to Everest, it would be with a much smaller team, the way I typically climb and certainly the way I prefer to do so.
This provides several advantages for experienced climbers in my opinion. A couple of the more important ones include limiting exposure to germs, infections, etc., as well as providing additional flexibility if/when someone on the team is having a tough day. Therefore, when I was invited to join this expedition comprised of only four members, I jumped at the opportunity as it fit all of my criteria: a small, strong, accomplished team; an ambitious itinerary; and great people that you’d want to spend 2 tough, hypoxic months with.
Q: Mike, Willie Benegas will be the professional guide for the three climbs. Why Willie?
I’m glad you asked! Undoubtedly, this was the most important decision we made. Matt and I met Willie on Mt. Rainier in 2010 during our 50 Highpoint expedition. I think we were on peak 43. Climbing in a private team of three, traveling extremely light, Matt was out front on our approach to Camp Muir. He passed a group of climbers, quickly, and I think it caught their guide by surprise. Did a twelve you old just blow by our team? The guide was Willie, he immediately engaged Matt in a wonderful conversation about climbing and his personal story. As Willie waved goodbye he told us to come see him if we need anything.
That night, after midnight, we departed Camp Muir for the summit. A few hours into the climb snow began to fall and intensified to a near whiteout, forcing us to return to Muir just short of the summit. Upon returning, we discovered our stove had failed, not a good situation. A quick trip to see Willie saved the day with a replacement stove and fuel. The storm finally subsided around 3am and under brilliant starry skies we made our way to the peak of Rainier. Taking summit photos alone at the top, or so we thought, we heard Willie’s distinctive voice shouting, Matt! Way to go! As it turns out, Willie was up searching for a lost climber who was caught in the storm. He was alone risking himself for someone he’d never met. Speaks volumes about a human being.
During my last trip to Everest I ran into Willie and his twin brother Damian. There is no doubt they share the same DNA, again and again I witnessed the twins’ selfless contributions, remarkable alpine skills and professional precision. Over the past couple of years Matt and Willie have climbed and skied quite a bit together and we’ve all grown close. When considering Everest, I’ve thought a lot about whom I would have absolute confidence in if Matt were to climb on without me. Not another thought, Willie is like a second father to Matt, decision made.
Q: Matt, Is there a lesson from the 50 Highpoint quest, you can apply to this endeavor?
The US Highpoint expedition exposed me to lots of different types of climbing. Denali was high, harsh, glaciated and very tough. Rainier reminded me that it’s ok to turn back from a summit push, there’s always tomorrow. Idaho’s Borah Peak taught me to never underestimate an “easy mountain” – conditions can change and you better be on your game. I learned how to move fast on the mixed technical terrain of Montana’s Granite Peak. Most of all, I learned that anything is possible if you have the right attitude and commit your mind to the task.
Q: Jim, you left your girlfriend to spend a month training in Fraser, Colorado – elevation 8550 feet (2601 m) – with your dog. Umm, was it worth it? 🙂
A: Firstly, I recommend having an extremely supportive and understanding girlfriend before attempting this maneuver. Secondly, we met and had three dates before I departed for the Papuan jungle to climb Carstensz several years ago, so she certainly understands that this comes with the proverbial territory. Thirdly, I moved only 90 minutes away, so we still see each other a couple of days each week, which definitely helps. Besides, I think that most days she misses the dog more than me! From a strictly training point-of-view, it has absolutely been beneficial.
Q: Matt, your twin sister Kaylee is an accomplished skier as well, did she want to join you on this?
At first Kaylee was little disappointed that she was unable to take part in the expedition, but as I started talking with her about what it would be like she decided that she wouldn’t enjoy sleeping in a tent for two months.
Q: If successful, you guys will be the first to ski the Lhotse Couloir. Mike, can you describe the technical aspects since you have climbed it?
There have been several bids to ski this stunning line and all have been unsuccessful. Phenomenal ski mountaineers like Adrian Ballinger have attempted the Couloir and bad snow and timing conspired against them. So I don’t think it’s a technical ski problem as much as being in the right place, at the right time with the right gear. During my climb in 2012 the Lhotse Couloir was fairly dry, mainly rock mixed with snow and ice. Unskiable. This year the Everest region has had some significant snow and we have reason to be optimistic that the conditions will be good. We’ve reviewed the film I captured on descent from Lhotse’s summit, conditions permitting, it is similar to lines we’ve skied in British Columbia and Alaska. Safety of the team and other climbers is our number one concern. And of course, we have three 8000-meter mountains to climb before we clip into the Dynafit bindings. Step by step.
Q: Matt, what other couloirs have you skied that have prepared you for this one?
Many, many in the winter Park region, I’m not sure of all the names. Also, we’ve trained in British Columbia at Kicking Horse as well as Alaska’s Alyeska area. Some of the great lines included Christmas Chute and Truth or Dare. Kicking Horse was perfect because of its massive 4100 feet of vertical and dozens of insanely steep technical chutes.
Q: Jim, are you also skiing?
A: As much as I love skiing, Alan, this one’s above my pay-grade…
Q: Will there be any skiing on Cho Oyu or Everest?
Not a lot of spare time on this expedition so at this point the plan is to ski only the Lhotse Couloir and possibly, with the right snow, the Lhotse Face. Also, Cho Oyu is known to have better skiing in the fall. Big thing is logistics of moving skis from country to country.
Q: Speaking of logistics they must be complex. Is there a critical point that might be a go/no go on the project timeline?
At this point we are all in for an April 7th arrival in Kathmandu. Of course this is a highly complicated expedition and we expect we will encounter challenges along the way. One mountain at a time is the team slogan.
Q: Mike, the emotions must be deep attempting this with your son. Can you express them?
Barely, but I’ll try. One of the dynamics of our mountaineering community is the remarkable bond we share. We are one like no other sport. Mix that quality with the bond between a father and son and you have an indescribably close connection. One that has been forged over tens of thousands of vertical feet, in dozens of the planet’s mountain ranges, we’re always connected by a metaphorical rope and the confidence that if either ever falls, the other has them on belay. We’ve been blessed to share so much time together to train, plan, laugh, shiver, conspire, and celebrate. Not sure what more can you ask from life.
Q: Similarly, Matt, doing this at age 16 – with your dad – well I think this is very cool. You?
Ever since I trekked to Everest Base Camp in 2007 I’ve never stopped dreaming about standing on the top of Everest. Of course being there with my climbing partner and dad makes it really special for me. I love climbing with my dad, we have a fun time and we’re great friends. My whole life, for just about as long as I can remember, I’ve always been somewhere in the mountains. My sister Kaylee and I grew in up the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Mom and Dad introduced us to the outdoors as soon as we could walk. Some families go to Hawaii and Mexico for spring break, when I was twelve I spent mine on the Ruth Glacier trying to climb Mt. Dickie in -30F and heavy snow! This deep connection with the mountains began when I was very young, my first memories, so getting the opportunity to climb Everest at my age, I would have to agree with you Alan, it is very cool.
Q: Last question. This is for Dee – Matt’s mom and Mike’s wife. Any thoughts on parting words at the airport?
While it can be hard to be apart for almost two months, I’m happy Matt is going with his dad. One thing for certain, Matt is destined to climb Everest, one-way or the other. I’d rather it be with Mike. Parting words? I love you both, will miss you deeply and will pray everyday for your safe and successful return.
Memories are Everything