Often the first question, when mountains came up in the conversation was,
“So did you climb Everest?”
“Yes,” I would say.
A pause, leaning closer, eyes more interested now,
“And what was it like then, what was the top like?”
“Absolutely wonderful. Stunning. Incredibly beautiful.” I would say.
The conversation would roll on, perhaps a few more questions, perhaps a glass of wine.
“Have you ever nearly died?”
Then I would pause. I would have to search for the answer.
Because there were lots of times and lots of ways I could have died and really should have died. I’d had nine expeditions to Everest. And on eight of them I had not gotten to the top. So I had gone back. Again and again. I had spent more time on obscure climbs up Everest than anyone I knew. And almost none of it was on the normal routes, or with oxygen, or with Sherpas. So the chances of dying were pretty high. Everest is a dangerous place.
So the answer to the question “have you ever almost died?” wasn’t a simple one. And it wasn’t only one time when I chose to think about it. There were lots of times, sometimes multiple times, on one expedition. Even if I hadn’t almost died, there was always a truism; a moment that emerged that defined that expedition.
Over the course of nine Everest expeditions, spread over 18 years, I would change. Intense circumstances would do that to anybody. From leading an expedition that completed a new route with a team of just four people without oxygen, to solo attempts on the North Face and bivouacking alone in snow holes at over 8,000 metres, you learn more about the depths of yourself and others than imaginable. Climbing Everest is more an inner journey than an outward one, it affects you right to the depth of your soul, whether you want it to or not.
As much as I would change, Everest would change. Drastically.
1985, seemingly eons ago, on my first expedition to Everest, was the last year the Nepalies only allowed one expedition per climbing route. Then they opened the floodgates, and anyone with a checkbook could get a permit, setting the stage for the Everest we have today.
In 1988, with our successful ascent of the Kangshung Face and Stephen Venables becoming the first British person to summit without oxygen in his incredible feat climbing to the top of the world, we closed out a decade that had seen Messner’s solo, the Australians climb of White Limbo without oxygen, and Loretan and Triollet’s duet solo, again without oxygen, up the rarely climbed Super Couloir, in a rather unbelievable 43 hours round trip.
By the time I was back on Everest in the early 90’s, larger commercial expeditions were just getting established. People were paying for the privilege of climbing Everest, with Rob Hall’s company, now Adventure Consultants, and Scott Fisher’s Mountain Madness, leading the charge.
Meanwhile I was hiding out on the more remote North Face, first with a small team, then with no team as I tried and tried again to solo the mountain at the tail end of the monsoon. I probably had more North Face time than anyone on Everest, with 5 attempts in as many years, and more near death experiences that for a long time I cared to think about.
The 90’s were punctuated by the 1996 disaster, recounted vividly in Jon Krakauers’ book Into Thin Air. Suddenly Everest was more public than ever. Yet it was also still a small and private world amongst the guides, from knowing Rob Hall in New Zealand, to David Breashears who directed the IMAX movie, whom I’d grown up rock climbing with in Eldorado Springs, Colorado, to Pete Athans who I’d climbed with on the West Ridge of Everest on my first expedition. One day I had a postcard from Rob Hall in Everest Base Camp and the next day the press were asking for interviews to comment on his being stranded in the heights.
By 2000, commercial expeditions had pretty much over-run the mountain. And I still hadn’t been to the top. Maybe my solo attempt in Winter (still not completed) was a bit too far out there?
The ever astute and unforgiving Liz Hawley in Kathmandu, the doyen of Everest climbing and keeper of the Himalayan database and all things Everest, having provided long running and quiet encouragement for my more adventurous pursuits assured me that “Yes, I probably had the record for most times on Everest without reaching the top.” Yet she never said failure, and I never felt that.
Everest is just too big, at times too fun, and too big a part of the earth to not be guaranteed an experience, often beyond belief. Sometimes sad, sometimes hard, always challenging. And fantastic experiences with climbing partners, with friends who you then know and share more mountain time with, for life.
Nine times though. That is a lot of Everest time. Who would attempt Everest nine times before they finally summit?
And what would be of interest in those attempts? Certainly not the packing, the preparation, the logistics, the travel. I realized that on every expedition, there was a moment, a very memorable moment. And on nine expeditions at least nine lives. So here is the answer to that question, “Have you ever nearly died?”