While at a holiday party this week, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who had recently attempted several peaks in Peru. He told me of his struggles and how he turned back around 6000 meters not sure of himself. He went on to proudly tell me about his 2008 trek to Everest Base Camp and how he had amazing views from Kala Patar of Everest.
I asked him several questions about his experience and tried to very, very briefly share a bit of mine wanting to let him know that turning back from a summit was a wise move in many cases. I mentioned my experience on Everest in 2008 turning back after losing my “Mojo” just below the Balcony.
Later in the evening, he looked at me during a pause in a group conversation and said. “I understand you climbed K2.” I smiled and replied “Yes, it was quite the experience.”
A few minutes later he said to the group. “I would never climb Everest. Standing in line below the Step. Besides, it’s too expensive. You know, it’s just not my thing.” Few if anyone in the room acknowledged his comment.
Later I pondered our conversation and his declaration. This was not the first time, someone felt compelled to declare to me their non-intent with respect to Everest.It seemed to be a popular party game to diss Everest, her climbers – past, present and future.
Maybe it makes them feel better about themselves that attempting the world’s highest mountain was off their plate. Maybe they felt superior knowing they would not suffer at altitudes where planes fly. Perhaps they felt uncomfortable climbing with trusted teammates, drawing on a collective strength when they wanted to turn back. Maybe they knew deep in their heart they lacked the ability and willpower to push themselves to a place few go and survive.
I rarely get drawn into the tired old arguments around Everest. You know the ones – did you use oxygen, what about the crowds, the trash, the guides, the Sherpas, the risks, the deaths, the selfishness, the lack of challenge, how easy Everest has become – I have heard it all by now.
There are answers to all these points, but not what someone wants to hear after half a bottle of wine. They know the answers already. They read “Into Thin Air”, after all.
All I know is that I am proud of my four climbs on Everest, three resulting in “non-summits”. When I did stand on the summit, a clear morning just after sunrise on May 21, 2011 with Kami Sherpa, it was a magical moment that instilled pride and deep satisfaction in me that I carry to this day. It was that experience that I leveraged to summit K2, three years later. It was that experience that I will take as I attempt over the next five years the remaining eleven 8000m mountains I haven’t summited.
No, Everest isn’t the most technical climb in the world, in fact 90% of the South Col route involves steep snow slopes. Yes, Sherpas carry tents, food and fuel to the high camps and chop out tent platforms on the Lhotse Face. Yes, 97.3% of all climbers, including Sherpas and guides, have used supplemental oxygen.
Yes, of all the 8000m mountains “only” 267 people have died, a mere 4% of the summits paling in comparison to Annapurna with a staggering 35% death to summit ratio.
And yes, the self adorned “elites”, many who have never been on Everest, refuse to call anyone attempting Everest a “climber”.
Those who climbed decades ago seem to carry the flag that Everest is not what it used to be, conveniently forgetting to mention their own use of oxygen, Sherpas and fixed ropes. Instead of using their own marvelous experiences to encourage others, they protect their egos with condescending remarks on those who admire them and to relive their experiences with their own eyes.
But try telling these facts, stats and slurs to the families back home as their climber goes to the summit. Tell their friends that it is a cake walk and the Sherpas will “drag them to the summit”. Tell them not to worry, after all they just paid $65,000 so what could go wrong.
By now, you, the Everest 2015 climber, know different. You have done your research. Yes, you too have read “Into Thin Air” but you read between the lines, letting the struggles sink in as described by Mr. Krakauer. Your have internalized that people, world-class guides to members, die on this mountain each year.
Your experience on other mountains have taught you not to paint everyone with the same brush, that some will not belong on the climb, others you will befriend knowing they might save your life.
Some of you will be returning after non-summits in previous years, or worse not getting a chance in 2014. You are hungry, you have learned to focus on your training, research and preparation; ignoring the uniformed shots from the cheap seats.
Your motivation is clear. You know why you are climbing Everest. You don’t need to explain it to anyone now. You are not an elitist. You are following your dream. And everyone’s dream should be nurtured, encouraged and fed. Everest is not about summits, it’s about dreams.
So, Climbers, continue your training, finalize your gear, connect with your future teammates; be clear with your family, leaving nothing left unsaid.
When you go to your next party and someone asks you what are you doing next year, smile inside and softly tell them, “I am off to do some climbing.”
Memories are Everything