Climbing Mt. Everest
What do you think
of when you hear the word 'Death'? An awful word actually, but as real
as Birth, as real as life. Everyone faces it sooner or later. But what
happens when you seek it out? 2002 exposed
me once again to death on mountains. What will 2003 bring?
Visit the Everest 2008 page for my return in 2008 plus live dispatches from Everest during my Road Back to Mt. Everest Journey.
"You are really walking up to Death and looking it right in the face, aren't you Alan?" Jeff said with his Irish accent. His comment stopped me cold. I have never considered my Everest attempt as a dare to Death.
"Will you come back? What will be the price you will pay for this attempt?" he continued. An adventurer in his own right, Jeff dives the oceans off Australia. We discussed the risks at 87 meters below sea level and 8,950 meters above. Apples and oranges or different takes on a similar goal? If you accidentally hit the emergency release at 87 meters, you shoot to the surface like a balloon - your lungs exploding the entire trip. At 8,000 meters, your body is consuming itself slowly and is challenged to provide the oxygen required to survive. Vastly different environments but a similar result if something goes wrong.
Looking at Death. The stories on Everest are endless. Did Mallory and Irvine die going up to the summit or coming down? 1,415 people have stood at the top of the world, 172 have died. The Sherpa at Camp 3 who left his tent with only his inner boots on and slipped thousands of feet down the icy Lhotse face. The world-famous guides who pushed their own limits beyond the breaking point and paid the price with an Everest burial. The seasoned Sherpa who innocently fell into a crevasse. The novice who wanted to take on the Big E and never came back home. The mountaineer who let 'summit fever' blur her judgment and forced her Death.
Why do climbers do this? Can't they see the risks and avoid them? Why put yourself in such a situation? Why am I doing the same thing?
I have seen Death on these mountains. Cho Oyu, 1997, Alex Yaggi. Forty-Two years old, died in his sleep after summiting. We buried him in a deep crevasse. It might have been better if we had seen him fall or held him while he went away. But Death is a mystery. It can come at any time and without warning. Why then, why now? Will it happen to me?
Jeff lost his Father and saw the birth of his Son in a two week period. He was blessed to be at both events. What an honor to witness life. He says it changed him. I can only try to understand.
Will I die on Everest? I don't know. I write this with only 20 days before departure. Am I afraid? Am I nervous? Do I want to back out? Yes, Yes, No. I will attempt this mountain at age 45. The middle of life. I love Cathy, my wife, like you do a first love in adolescence. My Mother and Father are alive, but ailing. My only Brother is my best friend. Ashley, my stepdaughter, brings the joys of fatherhood that I never thought I would experience.
Risk. What is risk? Here I begin the rationalization about the risks of climbing. More people die driving to the grocery store than climbing. Heart disease from being overweight is a major cause of death. Americans can prevent early death through better diet and more exercise. OK, I'll stop. Climbing 8,000 meters mountains is in a different league than driving to the grocery store. But why does that matter?
If you live life trying to avoid death then you are dead already.
The BBC had a great program called 'Two Fat Ladies". And they were fat! But they loved life and loved food. One of them recently died. She was in her seventies. Should we criticize her for her life style or celebrate her choice to live life according to her terms. Who actually decides the terms of life? Who is the arbitrator of life?
I will not get into religion here. And I want to be clear that I respect the choice of each individual to select their own guiding light. So, how do we make the very personal decision as to when we put our mortal life at risk? Even worse, how do we justify that decision when we clearly understand the risks? Climbing to the top of the world where 1 in 12 people who have summited have died is vastly different that eating too many hamburgers.
Am I irresponsible to my Family to do this? Am I reckless with my life like a crack junkie? Or am I pushing the limits of life and my own boundaries? Am I really looking death in its face? You decide. Death and life is the definition of individual choice. When else in life are we presented with an opportunity to make this decision?
To state the obvious, I do not want to die. I do not want to lie down in the snow, close my eyes and never wake-up. Do I understand the risks? Yes. My only goal is to do my absolute best. Push myself as hard as I can. Pray that the weather holds. Maybe stand on top. AND get back down.
I climb Everest with the full support of my life partner, Cathy. My Brother, Kenny, who understands my drive. My Parents, who appreciate my desire but wants me to to be around forever - as I want them to be. My work colleagues who see me as a person and would be sad to see me die ... for a few months.
Do you ever watch a movie and after ten minutes you think you know the outcome? There is no mystery, no suspense. That is what life is like without challenges. We challenge life continuously. This can come from the birth of you first child, the union of a marriage or the end of our parent's life.
If I die on Everest, then I die knowing that I looked death right in the face and death took me a few years earlier than planned.
I didn't die in 2002 on Everest. I did get sick. I had serious trouble. But the thought of death never entered my mind. AND now I know so much more.
Peter Legget, a British journalist, died after a fall down the Lhotse Face in 2002. I never met him. He was not on my expedition. And I feel like I knew him. In his forties, he had climbed lesser peaks but wanted to do the highest. He pushed himself hard. He was at Camp 3, 23500' during a horrible storm. He was returning to Base Camp to rest and regroup for a summit attempt. Then it happened.
On Cho Oyu, I helped bury Alex Yaggi in a deep crevasse after he died in his sleep at Camp 2. He had summited only hours before. A clear example of how success can end in tragedy.
Now I return to Everest. Not the most deadly mountain, Annapurna holds that honor. But Everest holds a tight grip on over 175 climbers. Many famous, more unknown. I don't think about dying on these mountains. I think about climbing, focusing on the tasks at hand, enjoying the moment and getting back home.