Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Everest Beginnings

In 1996 I was in the process of leaving active duty and looking on to the next chapter in my life- Business School at William and Mary. Things were relatively quiet in the world at the time, so a 20-something single life in 29 Palms wasn't exactly something to be excited about. One of my roommates from those days- a guy named Jim Etten- was big into mountaineering and had also left active duty, heading back to his family in Chicago. The two of us were close, and over the course of several dozen telephone calls we decided to go take a shot at Mt McKinley in the Alaska Range. We planned and planned, but because of school prerequisites and other transitional issues there really wasn't any way I could have joined him for the climb. So in June 1997 I picked up the phone, and learned from Talkeetna that he had succeeded in his dream of making the top of 20,320' Mt McKinley. I was definitely jealous. But I was also very proud of my friend, who I met up with a few weeks later to hear story after story from his experiences driving the Trans-Alaska Highway and taking on the West Buttress Route. In return, I supplied him with gripping stories of Accounting and Stats class.

Two summers later, the McGilvray-Freeman IMAX movie on Everest was released, which represented the first time an IMAX camera had ever been taken to the top to bring stunning images from the top of the world on a beautiful, windless day. While watching that movie, I thought that the traditional route- the South Col Route via Nepal, would be the eventual route that I would most like to take if and when I was ever given an opportunity to climb to 29,035 feet. Of course, when living in the ranks of starving college students surviving on ramen noodles, it didn't make that sort of goal realistic. So to seriously consider Everest remained for years just an elusive dream, something that seemed attainable but not with much serious thought or effort attached.

But in October 2000 that all changed. I took a trip from Japan to Kathmandu for a week long vacation with the girl I was with at the time, and while in Nepal we took a mountain flight where you actually see Mt Everest up close and in person. What a strange experience. After breakfast at the downtown Hotel Yak & Yeti, a car arrived and whisked us off to the domestic terminal of Kathmandu Int'l Airport, dropping us off at the security line. Here's hoping "security" at Kathmandu Int'l has upgraded since 2000: You walk into a room, where you find a door with a metal detector that just so happens to be turned off. You have two lines- one for men, and a curtained one for women. What women did behind the curtain is a mystery of the ages but it seemed like they would always go in together and I'm sure that nestled away back there was a couch, nice wallpaper and a place to discuss feelings. Anyway, I walked straight through the turned off metal detector, into a holding room and was shortly thereafter shuttled onto a smallish turboprop with assigned seating. Slipping skyward from the runway, it only took a few seconds before the plane had gained enough altitude to leave the lowland clouds behind and see giant Himalayan monsters unfold in front of us. As our tiny plane climbed higher and higher, the air thinned considerably and temperature dropped in a way where everyone could see their breath inside the cabin, the tiny windows frost over and feel adrenaline surge through veins. Climbing and banking right, a line of 8,000 meter mountains line up off the left wing for a plane load of awestruck passengers to peek out at, staring with unblinking dinner plate-sized eyes. One at a time, legendary peaks roll by until there before you is the tallest one of them all. Unquestionably Everest, the pilot offers for people to come up front where a small part of the frosted over cockpit window has been wiped away. Cramped and leaning to stare in wonder, the summit seems literally meters away from the plane and it is incredibly easy to make out fine details of snow, ice and rock contours. After a few lazy turns the plane noses southeast and drops quickly back toward the mists of Kathmandu Valley, where the air is heavy with oxygen and bathed in subtropical warmth. And then it's over. 1 1/2 hours after having breakfast, you are seated back in the same restaurant having tea, unsure of exactly how you could quite possibly communicate to everyone seated around you about what you just experienced. And seriously, how do you? Especially given all the stories of yesteryear where mammoth expeditions spent months slogging through leech infested forests with backbreaking loads of climbing equipment- just to reach a point on the mountain where they could position themselves within striking distance? Here we sat, taking 1 1/2 hours to have breakfast, fly to the summit, snap a few pictures, and then make it back to the safe confines of the hotel. Surreal. But definitely tantalizing and in that brief encounter, a serious long range goal was born.

In 2001, IBM assigned me to a project in the Pacific Northwest- what turned out to be about 19 months, actually. Living in Silverdale, WA isn't exactly Seattle by any stretch. It's another 29 Palms, only this time much wetter and without 120 degree summers. About an hour away from Seattle, Silverdale is way out on the Olympic Peninsula, across Puget Sound via either a long drive across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge of Galloping Gertie fame, or via one of the charming yet antiquated and amazingly expensive Washington State Ferries. Silverdale is perfectly positioned for work at SUBASE Bangor, home to Pacific Fleet-based Trident Nuclear subs. But if you aren't married or have several kids it has zero social life. As a result, in my free time I focused on getting out into the mountains and over the two summers I was in Silverdale knocked out almost all of the major Pacific Northwest peaks in one fashion or another, meeting climbing buddies and gaining valuable experience along the way.

One day in 2004, I descended from a summit climb of Mt Rainier and when I finally had cell coverage, turned on my phone and found six voicemails from my then Battalion Commander. I called him back and heard the good news: "Pack your bags, you are heading to Iraq". After I returned, I was casually talking with Christine Boskoff, the outgoing, personable and high octane owner of Mountain Madness climbing guide service. While we were catching up, I expressed frustration at once again seeing another season slide by without the chance to pull together a viable team to go for McKinley, which I still had in my sights. She mentioned that Mountain Madness had scheduled trips, and actually had slots available if I was interested. It took me a few days to deliberate (a guide service?! Come on) but then recognized the opportunity before me and seized on it. What a great trip. I had found myself with a highly professional, extremely strong team that were focused and well prepared. Typical summit assaults of McKinley take up to 21 days round trip. We made the summit in 9, and were back off the mountain in 11 days with 6 of the original 10 making the top.

After returning from my second deployment to Iraq in 2006, I caught up again with Chris and asked her about the flag that I mailed her from Al Taqaddum, then talked about her upcoming climb in China. It was great to hear from her and she had just returned from more exciting adventures that she was excited to share. Chris is one of those people who amazes. A woman from Wisconsin who worked in a typical corporate job, she had caught the climbing bug and wanted to do something with her life. Convincing her husband that there was much more than the day-to-day grind, they approached Mountain Madness with an offer to purchase the climbing company- then in the throes of upheaval in the wake of Scott Fischer's passing made famous in the 1996 storm captured in Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air". After a few attempts, the owners agreed to sell to the Boskoffs, and Chris became happy owner of a mountaineering firm. Her husband passed away, and as a result Chris dedicated herself to finding herself and putting 100% into her company. In the process, she transformed herself into a world class female high altitude climber, successfully scaling more 8,000 meter peaks than any other female in recorded climbing history. She summited Everest, too. But in iron lady fashion, she had to climb to Camp 4 four times before conditions were acceptable for a summit attempt. Her partner Peter Haebler commented that "Christine takes pain very well". Her personable nature, ease at approaching total strangers and ability to communicate her experiences in a manner that inspired others made Mountain Madness a financial success and globally one of the top guide firms focusing on mountaineering adventures.

On 1 November, 2006 I returned to IBM, and was eventually placed on a US Coast Guard job working in Elizabeth City, NC. As I flew back and forth across the country from Seattle to NC, I happened to glance at the front page of USA Today somewhere in December and my gaze stopped at a quick one sentence quip at the top: "Hope withers for climbers lost in China". As soon as I returned home I did an Internet search, and learned that the same day I had traded emails with her in China was the last day she had been heard from. Over the next few weeks I learned that she and Charlie had pushed into unclimbed territory in China and were swept away in an avalanche on unclimbed Genyen Peak. She lived as she passed, in unique settings living her dream with people celebrating her and leaving behind one hell of a legacy.

In the wake of that tragedy, Mark Gunlogson, the President of Mountain Madness and no slouch in his mountaineering experiences himself, continued to talk with me about climbing opportunities as time wore on. Inevitably, Everest came up. We spoke about it and then spoke about it some more. Other climbs and opportunities arose, and when we talked about a USMC climb to Aconcagua, he kindly offered to assist with logistics support for that trip and even offered to assist with Seattle Mountain Rescue however he could. He mentioned that the 2008 Everest climb would include another hard-charging team of strong climbers led by Willie Benegas, an Everest veteran with 6 summits under his belt and a tremendous amount of experience. The story goes that last year, he climbed to the top with his team, safely returning and then turned around with another teammate and made the summit a second time. After working with Mark and ensuring that everything was going to work out timing wise, I committed to joining the Mountain Madness team and take on the Nepal-side South Col Route.

The South Col Route is the one made famous in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary who along with Tezing Norgay were the first people to step on the summit. Steeped in history and one of the more popular routes to the top, our team will move from Kathmandu via air to a landing pad ~30 miles from base camp, hiking up through Namche Bazaar and Thyangboche monastery to Everest Base Camp at 17,500'. After spending several weeks of training and climbing to develop acclimatization to Himalayan high altitudes, the team will ascend through the Khumbu Icefall into the Western Cwm, up the Lhotse Face to the South Col, across the Hillary Step and onward to the summit. All things considered, we will be targeting a summit somewhere in mid May timeframe.

So now the difficult part begins. Preparation, training, and coordination. Long hours in the gym, trips to REI and Feathered Friends and calls dealing with sponsorships. Three months may seem like a long time depending on where you are (3 months in Iraq was not a right around the corner timeline), but in planning and preparing for this event, it will be over in the blink of an eye and then I'll find myself on a plane crossing the International Dateline enroute to Nepal. I'm extremely pleased with all the support and encouragement I have received from friends and family, and haven't even bothered to think about know-it-alls who think that the South Col route isn't that tough, or pish-posh the use of Mountain Madness to get to the top. In response to those people, go slay your own dragons and grow a set so you can speak from experience. As for me, I'm pretty damn psyched to take on my next adventure and am truly amazed at how the stars came into alignment for this, in the manner that they did. To me, this is more about me climbing for those who can't; seeing things that others may never have the chance to; and in a small manner, this is an adventure for all of us to celebrate and experience together.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
- Teddy Roosevelt "The Man In The Arena" Speech at the Sorbonne Paris, France April 23, 1910

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