This interview with Matt Moniz 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. Most climbers are already at base camp so this may be the last interview for 2018 but I welcome suggestions for anyone I should interview.
I met Matt and his family years ago here in Colorado. I knew the moment that I shook his hand that he was “different” 🙂 Polite, mature, sharp, intelligent all at age 12 ! I first came upon Matt when he and his father, Mike, were just about to set a record for summiting the 50 Highpoints in the US, the highest point in each of the 50 states, in the shortest time. They got all 50 in just 43 days. His dad drove.
I asked Matt why a 7th grader wanted to do this in our interview. He said it was to help his friend Ian Hess, 9, who suffers from pulmonary arterial hypertension. “I’m looking to raise awareness of the rare disease that afflicts my friend, pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) and to encourage other kids like me to get off the couch and into the outdoors.”
Matt’s love of mountaineering started like mine with a trip to Everest Base Camp. Of course I was 41 and Matt was 9, but the attraction was the same. He went on to summit Elbrus, Kilimanjaro (youngest at the time at age 10 along with his twin sister Kaylee), Aconcagua, Whitney, Rainer, climbs in Bolivia and, wait for it, his first 8000ers: Cho Oyu and Makalu just days apart in 2014. If you are wondering if he still takes school seriously, oh yeah. With a 4+ GPA in high school he is now at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, US.
Matt’s success has not gone unnoticed. He was a Mountain Hardwear’s first Youth Athlete and named a 2010 Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic Magazine and now is a member of the Adidas Outdoor’s team. Today he is frequently recognized by both adventure and civic organizations for his accomplishments and his fund raising.
But back to those 8000ers, In 2014 Matt’s father cooked up a plan to climb Cho Oyu, Everest, and Lhotse, in less than 15 days including a first-ever ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir (see this interview with Mike). The earthquake that year brought all that to a fast halt but they did get Cho. Matt, along with professional mountain guide and legend Willie Benegas went on to summit Makalu with a small team of Sherpas. Matt became the 14th American and youngest climber to summit Makalu at age 16.
So, what’s he up to this year on Everest and Lhotse? Well, skiing is certainly in the cards and summiting along with Willie, who has 12 summits of Everest plus a long list of impressive climbs around the world. Willie and his twin brother, Damien, won an award in 2003 for pioneering “The Crystal Snake” route on Nuptse, a new route up the North Face rated at 5.9 M4 WI5.
Remember Matt’s Kili’s summit with his twin sister Kaylee and Willie’s twin Damien? Part of the reason Matt and Willie are on Everest is to be part of the continuation of the NASA research project studying twins conducted by the Mason Lab at Cornell Weill Medical. The study’s objective is to study how twins genomically adapt to one of the most extreme terrestrial places on the planet. Their twins – Damian Benegas and Kaylee Moniz — will also be part of the Everest Twins Multi-omics Study tool, being control subjects of the study.
Mike is certainly proud of his son saying “Hard to have imagined back then this little guy next to me would someday be 20 and on his 5th Himalayan expedition to climb his 3rd and 4th 8000-meter peaks. Good luck Matt!”
Enough of the intro, let’s hear from Matt:
AA: First off, how is school going?
MM: I love my classes, professors and classmates, and time has been flying by, maybe a bit too fast! It’s hard to believe that I’m already well into my sophomore year at Dartmouth College, studying international security and global health. Aside from being an excellent undergraduate school, the wonderful thing about Dartmouth is that it is truly a great school for adventurers. You can find world class climbers, skiers, kayakers and pretty much any outdoor sport you’re interested in as a student. Besides mountaineering, I’m active in the Ledyard Canoe Club which brings together a great community of young people pursuing white water kayaking. Also, I’m a member of the Dartmouth Ski Patrol which does an amazing job at training students as fully certified ski patrollers to work at the Dartmouth Ski Way.
AA: How are you training for these climbs?
MM: Great question, Alan. As you know firsthand, the training starts years in advance. Closing in on this expedition, I spent time during the holiday break running many backcountry ski laps in the Colorado mountains. I also slipped out for some training in Utah with Willie. It becomes more complicated, at school, especially at Dartmouth where we have quarters, so it’s an intense ten-week term. My schedule was packed the past few terms with classes and ski patrol, but I did find time to escape for some ski mountaineering in Tuckerman’s Ravine. For sure, the snow is not what I am used to in Colorado, but New Hampshire’s Mount Washington can produce some of the fiercest alpine tempests and for the unprepared, Washington can be an entirely unforgiving peak. This makes the Presidential Range an ideal training ground for the demands of Himalayan climbing, a perfect backyard for me. I’d also skin up Dartmouth Ski Way while I was on shift for ski patrol. Balancing school work and training has been one of the most difficult parts of preparing for this upcoming expedition. In March I finished up winter term, and had about a month to prepare in Colorado before departing for Nepal. I spent quite a few nights sleeping in my car on Berthoud Pass to pre-acclimate and ate a lot of non-dorm food, which allowed me to gain some extra muscle weight that I expect to burn through at high altitude.
AA: What drew you into doing the Research for Twins?
MM: As I have gotten older and become more involved in academics, I have always wanted to blend climbing and medical science. The NASA Everest Twin Study is an unique opportunity to blend climbing and academic research. Like you, I’ve always wanted to make my climbs more than just simply checking a box that I made it to the top. In the past I’ve worked in Nepal with DZi, the American Himalayan Association Stop Girl Trafficking program and in 2015 I found myself part of the Nepal Earthquake relief effort. So when Dr. Chris Mason, the lead researcher for the NASA Twin study, reached out I jumped at the opportunity to contribute and learn.
AA: And you will have to draw blood at all altitude, does this include the summit(s)?
MM: We’ll actually be drawing blood and collecting microbiome samples along the way. The Mason Lab at Cornell Weill Medical has developed a protocol for us to follow. The short version is that Willie and I will collect blood at Everest Base Camp and Camp Three. Beyond C3 we will be using supplemental oxygen (as I still have two more years at Dartmouth and grad school ahead of me and need every available brain cell) which will affect the blood chemistry and the sample will be of less value. As I’m sure you can imagine, drawing blood on the summit of Everest would be complicated. That said, we do plan to collect eye, face, snow and exposed earth microbiome samples from the summit. Incredibly, even at that altitude each day, it’s estimated that 800 million viruses land on every square meter of the planet transported by the virosphere. This will be a comprehensive first look at what organisms call the top of our planet their home.
AA: What one word would you use to describe your Himalayan history?
AA: OK then. You, your Dad (Mike), Jim Walkley and Willie tried to summit Cho Oyu, Everest and then ski Lhotse in 2014 but the avalanche in the Khumbu and Sherpa strike cancelled all climbing from the Nepal side. You “only” got Makalu 🙂 Then you were stopped by the earthquake in 2015. What did you learn from those experiences?
MM: This will be my fifth trip to Nepal and one of the most important lessons that I have learned is to embrace the unexpected. When I came back from Nepal both in 2014 and after the earthquake in 2015, people would say, “Matt, I’m so sorry that you weren’t able to climb Everest.” My response was always the same. The chance to climb Makalu taught me to open my eyes to all the incredible mountains on our planet, and depending on what you want from your climb, you might find an even more rewarding experience than Everest. Spending time in Nepal during and after the 2015 earthquake, without a doubt shaped and enriched me more as a human than standing on top of the world.
AA: Willie Benegas has become not only your guide but a trusted friend. Can you talk about that relationship?
MM: Can you believe I’ve known Willie since I was twelve?! The two of us first met eight years ago on Rainier while I was climbing the US State Highpoints. At that time, I was climbing with my dad, Mike, during our summit push encountered an intense storm, heavy winds, snow and zero visibility which forced us back to Camp Muir. We were on a record pace and were traveling light, had it not been for Willie offering us fuel and food we would have been forced down the next day. That night we had a break in the storm and made a quick bid for the summit. No one was up there, except for Willie. He was looking for a climber that was lost in the previous day’s maelstrom.
It made a big impression on me and he became my climbing hero. On Makalu we made an audacious attempt that should have never worked but between the two of us and our star Sherpas, Nima and Kami we threaded the needle, but spent four days caught in the mouse trap at ABC battling a storm. Like you, in 2015 the two of us survived the horror of the Everest avalanche that struck EBC. At 17, this could have been a catalyst for years of therapy, instead he reminded me of the hero I met on Rainier and the one that is in all of us, ready to respond. I’m grateful for all he’s taught me about climbing, the hours shared listening to RadioLab in base camp tents, the help with homework on expeditions, but most of all he’s made me become a better version of myself.
AA: So, the plan is to summit Everest then go to Lhotse and ski the couloir. Umm, Matt, I don’t have to tell you how rare and difficult this is – the ski part. What gives?
MM: If it were easy it wouldn’t be interesting. Our primary objective for this expedition is to climb Everest and Lhotse, Everest first and then if everything holds together, Lhotse. I’ve been looking at the fine white line that divides the upper portion of Lhotse and have dreamed of skiing the couloir and I know that it’s possible if all the stars align. What we know for certain, is that skiing the Lhotse Couloir would require perfect snow conditions, low avalanche danger, high coverage and no other climbers in the couloir, an exceedingly unlikely alignment but we are developing some strategies that we think may help shift the odds a bit in our favor. One strategy is to attempt an early summit of Everest, return to EBC and wait for a window when we can try to slip in between summit pushes. We’re patient and given it’s just the two of us and our Sherpa team we can be quite agile. A few weeks back I spoke with Chris Davenport about his experience skiing the Lhotse Face and he agreed that if all the conditions line up that the combination of the Lhotse Couloir and Face would be an amazing ski descent.
AA: As a fellow Eagle Scout myself, I’m happy that you will be sending reports this time to the Boy Scouts. What is your objective with them?
MM: I’m an Eagle Scout, and have always been very involved in Scouting. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to travel and climb all over the world, and as you know, that comes at a high price. As far as I know, the Boy Scouts introduce more kids to the outdoors and take them on their first camping trip than any other organization in the world. For little more than the cost of food for the weekend kids all over America are spending their first nights sleeping under the stars thanks to the dedicated work of the organization. Young people have many choices for entertainment, and there’s a powerful attraction to screens. If we want to have future generations that value our public lands, and have a passion for protecting and preserving our wilderness areas we need to make access to outdoor adventure easy, affordable, prevalent, and color and gender blind. The Scouts are doing that today. So if I can inspire some kids to try out scouting by sharing my story then I feel like I can make a small but positive impact. This expedition I will be recording a 60-second video blog every couple of days to share with the scouts around the world.
AA: Wrapping up Matt, you started this adventure life at age 9. Now at 20, you continue it. Is this your future?
MM: Alpine climbing and ski mountaineering will always remain an important part of my life. There are so many more trips from Norway to the South Georgia Island that I have always dreamed of doing, I’m looking forward to climbing Vinson with my dad. The gratification I get from my academic interests is on balance with my adventures. My education has always taken a priority over climbing so I’ve never thought of climbing as a full-time career, but I know it is something that I will cherish and keep doing for as long as I can. Both my climbing and education are preparing me for the next chapter of my life. I’ve written that narrative many time in my head over the past few years.
Thanks Matt for this interview and writing it on planes, on trek and in your tent! Best of luck to you and Willie for a positive experience.
You can follow Matt on his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can follow Willie on his website, Facebook and Twitter. They are also using a Garmin GPS to track their climb. I’ll be reporting on the regularly throughout the season.
Memories are Everything