Thursday, May 28, 2009


I reached the summit of Everest at dawn on May 20, 2009, just as the very first rays from the rising sun were bathing the highest point on earth with a golden glow and casting the shadow of a perfect pyramid on the high Himalayas.  It is nothing short of a miracle that I was blessed with this experience, because I found Everest to be a shockingly dangerous mountain to climb.  I am truly amazed that more people don't perish in the attempt to reach its lofty summit. On the way up I took a bad fall on the Hillary Step,which resulted in a series of stress fractures in my right hand.  A carabiner I'd clipped in to the fixed rope prevented me from falling further and saved my life.  I'm thinking of having it covered in gold leaf.  I wasn't about to turn around so close to the summit, broken hand or not, so I got myself back up the Hillary Step and onto the summit ridge right behind our expedition leader Alex Abramov.  He was none the wiser until he saw me fumble with my left hand trying to clip in to a fixed rope on the descent.  The descent was complicated by my broken hand.  Climbing is mostly done with the feet, and maintaining proper balance is critical, and yet the hands are necessary to use safety devices like carabiners, ascenders, and belay/rappel devices.  As much as it was a miracle that I reached the summit of Everest, it was even more of a miracle that I was able to descend safely all the way down to Camp II, our advanced base camp.  I've never been so utterly and completely exhausted in my life.

I'm typing this with a temporary brace on my right hand.  Tomorrow the doctors here in Kathmandu are going to fit a plaster cast.  There is so much I'd like to share, but this is a bit of a challenge.

Hopefully I'll be able to elaborate on these themes at greater length when I get a more permanent solution for my hand, but there are three things I'd like to share.

(1) The incredible true story of courage and friendship demonstrated by my friend Noel, who short-roped our friend Patrick down from the summit--as part of Team II they reached the summit one day later than I did as part of Team I--when Patrick temporarily lost his vision, putting his own life at risk to protect Patrick.  It took them so long to descend in this way they came down the treacherously steep and icy Lhotse face in the dark.  I will forever remember their headlamps shining in the darkness as beacons of true courage and friendship.  By his own admission, Noel, from Northern Ireland, is "a wee man," not particularly tall, but in my estimation he is a giant among men.  Noel, I'm glad to know you.

(2) The remarkable life-changing spiritual epiphany I experienced on the summit of Everest.

(3) The ordeal of the trek down from Everest base camp to Lukla, where I was able to catch a flight back to Kathmandu. We covered those 60-70 kilometers in three days.  I rode a Tibetan pony on the third day from Namche Bazaar to Lukla in the pouring rain, coaxing the sure-footed beast up and down 45-55 degree rock and mud-covered pitches.

More to come, depending on how restrictive the cast is that the doctors here in Kathmandu are going to apply tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Summit Push

I've got big news.  The summit push we've been waiting for is on.  We'll be up at 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning and heading up the Khumbu ice fall toward Camp I well before dawn.  The schedule is entirely subject to the weather, the movement of other climbers on the mountain, the health of each expedition member, etc., but if everything goes according to schedule:

Saturday: everyone moves from base camp to Camp I; spend the night at Camp I
Sunday: everyone moves from Camp i to Camp II; spend the night at Camp II; Alex Abramov, the expedition leader, divides the expedition into two teams
Monday: the first team (most likely including me) moves to Camp III and spends the night
Tuesday: the first team moves to Camp IV; the second team moves to Camp III
Wednesday: the first team pushes for the summit starting between 9:00 p.m. and midnight Tuesday night; ideally we reach the summit between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning; although exhausted, for our safety and survival we descend all the way from the summit back down to Camp II by the early afternoon on Wednesday; the second team moves to Camp IV
Thursday: the first team descends from Camp II to base camp; the second team pushes for the summit and descends to Camp II
Friday: the second team joins the first team at base camp

The earliest anyone will hear from me is Thursday morning in the U.S., but Friday or Saturday is more likely given how unpredictable a summit push can be.  We're most likely to spend more than one night at Camp II waiting for the ideal opportunity to push higher up the mountain.  You've really only got one shot at the summit once you commit to Camp III and Camp IV.

Now more than ever I appreciate all of the thoughts, prayers, meditations, and positive energy that people have been sending my way.  It makes a huge difference, both to me and to every other climber on Mount Everest this season.  With all of my heart I hope and pray that everyone will be able to return to their friends and families in health and safety.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

This is a picture of yours truly crossing a ladder over a deep crevasse in the Khumbu ice fall.MJMonladder.jpg


Reporting from Everest

Just for the exercise and a change of scenery I hiked down to Gorak Shep and back the other day.  Gorak Shep is the closest outpost of civilization--and here I'm using the word "civilization" quite generously--to Everest base camp.  While I was there I ran into a group of trekkers who wanted to hear all about climbing Everest.  They were curious, apparently, because other climbers they'd encountered were a little too full of themselves and couldn't be bothered to spend time with mere trekkers whose only ambition was to get to Everest base camp.  It was a lot of fun to talk with them and hear their stories.  Two of them had just graduated from medical school in England, and part of their graduation requirement was to spend six weeks working in a clinical environment before they went on to their residencies.  So they chose to spend six weeks working at a clinic in Kathmandu.  I was inspired by their altruism, and it would have been a shame if I hadn't taken the time to learn a little about what brought them to Nepal.

As I was leaving Everest base camp on my way to Gorak Shep there was a huge avalanche--the largest I've seen yet--that swept down on the Khumbu ice fall.  It originated from a huge, overhanging cornice of ice and snow far up the nearly vertical slope that defines the western flank of Everest.  I've been keeping my eye on it, wondering when it would finally come crashing down.  i learned after I got back to Everest base camp that the avalanche had resulted in two injuries and a fatality, a Sherpa who had been buried alive and then crushed to death by the huge mass of snow and ice that came crashing down on him.  One of the injury victims was in sufficiently serious condition that he was evacuated by helicopter the next morning.  That speaks volumes about the extent of his injuries, because a helicopter evacuation at this altitude is very dangerous.  Ask any helicopter pilot how his or her craft performs at 18,000 feet.  A rescue helicopter crashed at Everest base camp last year.  All of this was a sobering reminder of just how dangerous this whole business is.  That Sherpa who lost his life in the Khumbu ice fall could have been any one of us.  My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Today our expedition is hosting a huge party to celebrate victory day in Russia, the anniversary of what Americans are more familiar with as V-E day, the day Allied forces, including Americans and Russians, occupied Berlin and World War II in Europe ended.  The Russians, which make up the majority of our expedition, are making a big deal out of it.  Last night at dinner they were trying to think of ways to improvise pyrotechnics in place of fireworks.  I"m afraid by this evening the vodka will be flowing and the Russians will be blowing things up.  Our expedition leader Alex Abramov has invited a number of other expedition leaders, including Russell Bryce, whom you may know from two seasons of the Discovery Channel series Everest: Beyond the Limit.  This should be very interesting.  This evening also marks the deadline by which all expedition members who went down the Khumbu valley to lower altitudes for rest and recovery are supposed to be back in Everest base camp.

I wish the weather forecast were more promising.  We may be stuck in Everest base camp for a good while longer waiting for the right opportunity to make our summit push.  I'm getting really tired of fighting for breath.  Yes, I've acclimatized very well; after all, we're close to 18,000 feet here; but I really long for a truly satisfying gulp of oxygen-rich air and sleeping in my own bed for that matter.  This is where an important part of the mental game comes into play.  The agony of climbing the world's highest mountain would be a welcome torture compared with finding ways to keep from going crazy waiting, waiting, waiting ...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

P1000199 copy.JPG

Safely Back At Base Camp

The dress rehearsal, our third acclimatization climb, was a quiet, uncomplicated success for Team I.  No muss.  No fuss.  Everything went pretty much according to plan, although Erik Ravenstein from Holland dropped out the last minute citing health concerns to stay behind another day and climb with Team II.  That meant it was just me and the Russians.  We climbed yet again through the Khumbu ice fall, spent a night at Camp I, ascended the Western Cwn the next day to arrive at Camp II, climbed the surprisingly steep and icy Lhotse face the next day to spend a night at Camp III, dug into the side of the Lhotse face at around 24,000 feet.  I spent the night with one of the Sherpa, a delightful young man of 20 named Zangbu who despite his age has already been to the summit of Everest twice.  We got along very well, exploring the differences in our cultures, and I'm optimistic that when it comes time for my own summit push he'll be assigned to help me.  The next day, even though a weather front was advancing, we spent three hours or so climbing further up the Lhotse face toward the Geneva Spur and the Yellow Band.  We gained another 1,000 feet before the weather made us retreat.  We climbed all the way back down to Camp II, spent the night and then made it back down through the Western Cwn and the Khumbu ice fall to base camp by 10:00 o'clock the next morning.  We're learning that the less time you spend in the Khumbu ice fall the better your chances are of surviving an Everest expedition.  Today in the late morning there have been several huge avalanche events that appear to have affected climbers descending through the fall.  Rescue parties have been sent and we're waiting for word about injuries or worse.  Personally I'm relieved that I've only got to go through the Khumbu ice fall two more times, once up and once down, and then I'll be happy never to return.

Now that we're back at base camp the plan is to rest and recover for 5-6 days until May 9, when we'll have a look at the weather and plan our summit push.  There's a full moon about that time, which would help with the visibility while we're climbing though the night along the summit ridge.

This dress rehearsal to 25,000 feet without oxygen was a huge confidence builder for me.  Next time I get to Camp III at 24,000 feet there will be a bottle of oxygen waiting for me.  Everything I do at or above that level will be with the help of supplemental oxygen.  There are still a million things that can go wrong, but now I'm really beginning to feel like this might actually go according to plan.

Now all I need to do is stay healthy.  It seems like literally everyone else on the expedition is suffering to a greater or lesser extent from some kind of upper respiratory distress, and few of them learned how to cover their mouths when they cough.  Some of the expedition members are going to descend lower down through the Khumbu valley to help with the recovery process.  I'm planning to stay here at base camp to keep all of the benefits of acclimatization for which I've worked so hard.  I trust the food and water here a lot more than what I experienced coming up here.  We've also got a primitive shower facility and the occasional low-band width internet connection, so I'll just stay put, rest, relax, recover, and hope for good climbing weather from May 9-15.  I wouldn't mind getting to the summit of Everest and getting home sooner rather than later.  This has been an ordeal the likes of which I could not have imagined before I got here and experienced it.

Thank you as always for all of your positive thoughts and prayers.  They make a HUGE difference.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Chillaxin' atEverest Base Camp

Chillaxin' at Everest Base Camp
Sometimes Google can be just a little too sophisticated. Otherwise I would have updated my blog ages ago. When I've tried to update my blog from here at Everest base camp, Google, the sponsor of this site, detects the location from which our satellite signal is originating and all of the menus show up in the script of a language with which I am utterly unfamiliar. So to make this work I've asked a friend to update my blog for me.
Our trek to Everest base camp was relatively uneventful, other than the typical health issues associated with hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition in the third world. Thank your lucky stars for flush toilets, hot showers, potable water, and food that you can trust. I used to be able to say that I was genuinely omnivorous in the sense that I could eat anything and that I was the least picky eater you were ever likely to encounter. Well, I've met my match: yak meat.
We took our time on the journey, trying to give our bodies time to acclimatize properly, spending a couple nights at the truly fabulous Sherpaland Hotel at Namche Bazaar, then on our trek making overnight stops in Tengboche, the site of the famous monastery, Dingboche, and finally Lobuche before we finally arrive at Everest base camp. Some of the guides and Sherpa associated with our 7summits-club expedition had preceded us to base camp and our camp was already set up by the time we got there. We stole the prime spot on the uppermost end of Everest base camp usually occupied by the Alpine Ascents International expedition, but in the interests of U.S.-Russia relations the AAI guys were very gracious about it. Along the way we met Todd Burleson, the founder of AAI, and Vern Tejas, one of their famous guides. Both of them were very classy guys.
Having never been to Everest base camp before, I really didn't know what to expect. Nor did I realize what a prime spot we had. There's a saying to the effect that !@#$ rolls downhill, and so it is at Everest base camp. There we are at the top, untouched by any filth from higher up, but I can't say the same for those down below. Everyone makes do as well as possible, but it can be pretty grim for people trying to climb Everest on the cheap. I really lucked out with Alex Abramov, the Russian leader of our 7summits-club expedition. The quality of our food and other amenities at base camp are far and away superior to what others have to endure. Proper nutrition is vitally important here, because the altitude really saps your strength and kills your appetite. You have to eat; otherwise you won't have the energy reserves to climb the mountain. The food isn't what I would necessarily choose, but there's variety and it's prepared in such a way that we're unlikely to get sick from eating it.
The topography of Everest base camp was a bit of a surprise to me. There's no flat camping area. The whole thing is built on top of a slowly moving glacier covered with rocks and gravel. It is melting out from under me as I write this. The terrain can best be described as undulating. To get anywhere, even in your own camp, you have to scramble up and down hills covered with loose, unconsolidated, sharp rocks and scree, with patches of ice showing through from underneath. It's a wild and crazy place to pitch a tent.
The bottom of the infamously dangerous Khumbu ice fall is quite close to our camp, so when I wake up in the morning and open the zipper of my tent I enjoy a spectacular view of the Khumbu ice fall. It's really quite breathtaking, and quite dangerous to move through. We've already been up through the fall twice for acclimatization purposes. The first time we just spent a night at Camp I and returned to base camp the next morning. The second time we spent a night at Camp I and then moved further up the mountain through a valley of glacial snow and ice known as the Western Cym (pronounced "coom") to Camp II, which is situated at the base of the steep Lhotse face. The next morning we retreated all the way back to base camp.
What makes the Khumbu ice fall dangerous? It's a huge jumbled of constantly moving blocks of glacial snow and ice known as seracs. Some of them are the size of buildings, and they can fall on you without warning. Then there are the deep crevasses, most of them bridged by aluminum ladders put in place by a specialized team of Sherpa known as the "Ice Doctors" who are responsible for maintaining the route through the Khumbu ice fall. They stay very busy as the fall is constantly shifting. It is particularly dangerous to be in the fall in the afternoon when the sun is beating down and melting out key structural supports for the larger seracs, so most people try to climb through the fall in the very early morning, but you never know. Things can get crazy at any time. We were barely missed by an avalanche on our second trip through the fall. All you can do is clip in to the nearest, strongest anchor, hide behind the biggest serac in the area, and hope for the best. It was especially unnerving, because we could hear the avalanche before we could see it.
It is Monday here. Early Wednesday morning I'll be joining Team I for our third acclimatization climb up the mountain. We'll spend one night each at Camps I and II, both of which we've been to before, and then push higher up the mountain halfway up the steep Lhotse face to Camp III, which is situated at about 23,000 feet. We'll spend a night there and then the next morning we'll attempt to climb without supplemental oxygen another thousand feet or so to the top of the Yellow Band. Then we'll scurry all the way back down to Camp II, spend the night, and then retreat all the way to base camp the next morning. Following that we'll take about a week to rest and recover, perhaps retreating further down the Khumbu valley to lower altitudes, and then regather at base camp for our summit push.
This has been so much harder than I ever could have imagined. It is taking absolutely everything I've got--physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically--just to cope with the challenges I'm facing. It will be nothing short of a miracle if I actually summit. So many things can and do go wrong, but then miracles do happen, and with the kind thoughts and prayers of so many friends I'm curiously optimistic. Thank you for all of your support. I can sense it.
It is said in some ancient spiritual traditions that the one and only voice of God is silence. That voice is very loud here. It's so deep and profound here you can't help but hear it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Plan B: Flying by helicopter to Namche Bazaar

Well, so much for Plan A.  We didn't make it out today either on account of bad weather in Lukla. The airport here in Kathmandu has become a purgatory of sorts for lost souls hoping for redemption in the form of a flight to Lukla.  It's not just the Everest climbing expeditions.  There are a bunch of trekkers too who hope to make their way to Everest base camp.

I'm impressed with the patience exhibited by my fellow expedition members and especially by our expedition leader Alex Abramov.  No one seems upset, even though objectively it's frustrating to be stuck in Kathmandu waiting for a break in the weather.  It's nice to be surrounded by people who understand that no amount of worrying about what can't be helped is going to make the situation better, so we're making the best of it.

Now our plan is to fly to Namche Bazaar tomorrow morning in a huge Russian-made heavy-lift transport helicopter that can carry all 11 of us and all of our gear in one trip.  I like that plan mostly because it gets us out of Kathmandu and on our way to Everest base camp, and the added bonus, assuming the weather is clear enough for us to land at Namche Bazaar, is that Namche Bazaar is closer to Everest base camp than Lukla, so this will enable us to skip the trek from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, which was on our route anyway.  The downside is that Namche Bazaar is considerably higher than Lukla.  I believe I've heard the elevation of Namche Bazaar is 3,400 meters, which would be just a little over 11,000 feet.  Kathmandu is a little shy of 4,500 feet, so we're looking at an elevation gain of 6,500 feet in a matter of 30 minutes or however long it will take us to fly to Namche Bazaar.  That's a lot of altitude to digest in terms of acclimatization, so it's likely that we'll stay put in Namche Bazaar for a least a day.

After spending the bulk of the day at the airport, I succumbed to the temptation to check out the extraordinary number of climbing gear shops in Kathmandu.  Most of these are very small mom & pop stores with a somewhat limited inventory, so it's not like you've got a bunch of REI stores to choose from, but if you know what you're looking for and are willing to keep searching, there are great bargains to be had.  I've really got everything I need, but what caught my eye this afternoon was an ultra-light weight headlamp from Black Diamond: the Ion.  My trusty older headlamp, state-of-the-art as of four years ago, feels like a brick compared to the Ion.  I got a great price on it too and picked up some spare batteries while I was at it.  I'll test it once we're at Everest base camp and decide whether to take it alone or as a backup for my older headlamp.  The loss or malfunction of a headlamp on summit day would make it impossible to proceed.  A typical push to the summit from the South Col/Camp IV begins before midnight.  You've got to be able to climb in the dark for at least six hours or so.

Our acclimatization plan is to make a total of four trips up the mountain from Everest base camp.  The first time we will climb through the treacherous Khumbu ice fall to Camp I at approximately 6,000 meters/19,700 feet, spend the night there, and return to base camp the next day.  The second time we will climb to Camp I, spend the night there, advance the next day through the Western Cwm to Camp II at approximately 6,200 meters/20,300 feet, spend the night there, and then descend the next day all the way back to base camp.  The third time up the mountain, perhaps the most critical in terms of acclimatization, we will bypass Camp I, ascend directly to Camp II, spend the night, climb half-way up the Lhotse face to Camp III at approximately 7,200 meters/23,600 feet, spend the night, and then push on to the Geneva Spur, which is not far from Camp IV on the South Col at 8,000 meters/26,200 feet.  (The objective is to reach the Geneva Spur without the use of supplemental oxygen.  If we can reach 26,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, weather permitting we should be able to reach the summit at 29,035 feet with supplemental oxygen.)  After reaching the Geneva Spur we will descend all the way back down the mountain to base camp and then continue descending for rest and recuperation at the much lower altitude of Tenboche.  We'll stay there for a week, ascend back up to base camp, and then wait for a good weather forecast.  When we can reasonably anticipate a 72 hour window of decent climbing weather, we'll move up the mountain in stages, taking a day to climb from base camp to Camp II and another day to move from Camp II to Camp III.  We'll start using supplemental oxygen at Camp III.  The next morning we'll climb to Camp IV on the South Col and prepare to leave Camp IV for the summit that same night a little before midnight.  That's the theory anyway.  The weather may have other ideas.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Flying to Lukla

If all goes well we'll be on a plane tomorrow morning to Lukla to begin our trek to Everest base camp.  I say "if all goes well" because the huge Alpine Ascents International expedition, several members of which I know from my Aconcagua expedition several years ago, have been stranded for several days now.  That's one of the disadvantages of a large expedition: logistically it's more of a challenge to move people and gear, especially when airplanes are involved.  Even though there's a thunderstorm going on here in Kathmandu right now, the forecast for tomorrow is good, so I'm optimistic that we'll be able to fly.

Although it's possible to make the trek from Lukla to Everest base camp in a matter of three or four days, we plan to take 8-9 for purposes of acclimatization.  That's a process that simply can't be hurried, at least not safely.  Along the way we'll spend time at Namche Bazaar and Tenboche monastery.  (I'm guessing about the spelling of those by the way, so cut me some slack.  I'm sure I'll have it right once I've spent some time in each place.)

We've already got a couple of the Russian guides and some of our sherpas at Everest base camp.  Our camp should be well established by the time we get there.

I won't have access to the Internet while we're trekking to base camp, so this will be my last post for 8-9 days.  I'll be back online once we get to base camp.  Hopefully, our satellite uplink and wifi system will be operational by the time we arrive.

I'm getting to know the other members of the expedition better and better.  It's a very diverse, international group, with climbers from Russia, France, Holland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Canada, and then there's me from America.

I'm amazed at the technology that is available these days.  Earlier I was on a video call via Skype with a producer at Inside Edition.  Nothing is for sure until a segment actually appears on the broadcast--that's just the way that industry works--but it's all looking very positive in terms of doing some segments about my Everest expedition and the Arizona Dream House Raffle.  Who knows?  Soon I could be talking to Deborah Norville via Skype from Everest base camp with the spectacular Khumbu ice fall in the background.

Thanks as always for your support and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


I'm sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu, Nepal.  We'll have another day or so here before we fly to Lukla to begin our trek to Everest base camp on Saturday.  I spent the day walking around Kathmandu doing some last-minute shopping for some essential climbing gear.  This is probably the best place in the world to pick up equipment for high-altitude mountaineering.  There are something like 200 climbing gear shops in the city.  Kathmandu has changed quite a bit since I was last here in 1994.  Most of the roads are paved now, and the power supply is more consistent, although there are still periodic outages.  Tourism is down almost 20% due to the recession, so people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods are a little aggressive.  Who can blame them?  You do what you have to do to survive.  Still, compared with 15 years ago, the standard of living seems to have improved quite a bit, although there is still abject poverty everywhere you turn.

I'm getting to know some of the other members of my expedition.  They are an interesting group of people.  There's John, 55, from the Isle of Man, a motorcycle racer who's had his share of near-fatal accidents.  This is his third attempt to climb Everest.  Then there's a married couple, a rare entity on expeditions like this, Nowell and Lynn, both endurance racing enthusiasts who regularly run eco-challenge races and ultra marathons.  They attempted Everest together in 2005, but Nowell experienced retinal bleeding in both eyes, compelling him to abandon the attempt.  Nowell and Lynn had made a pact, that if one of them could not continue, the other would go on, but Lynn could not bear to leave Nowell in that condition, so she abandoned her own summit attempt.  Nowell came back the next year and successfully reached the summit of Everest.  This year the two of them are back to reach the summit together.  Another member of the team is Philippe, an IBM executive from France.  Today a friend of Nowell and Lynn's arrived, Patrick from Canada.  Then of course there are the Russians, starting with our expedition leader Alex Abramov.  More on them later.

Arizona is almost exactly on the other side of the planet from Kathmandu, so I've got 12 time zones of jet lag with which to contend.  I hardly slept at all last night.  Hopefully, I'll fare better tonight.

I'm anxious to begin our trek to Everest base camp.  Soon enough.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Are you kidding me?

I'm in Singapore, 3:30 a.m. local time, waiting for my flight to Kathmandu in the morning. I was featured on ABC15 news at 10:00 o'clock the night before my departure. Some enterprising burglars put two and two together, realized I would be gone for a couple of months, and decided to break into my Biltmore home, the one I'm raffling off for charity. (See for details.) My neighbor stopped another crew that was trying to steal my Rolls Royce! I know times are tough, but just how low can you go? I mean, seriously, are you kidding me? Who would break into a house that is being used to raise desperately needed funds for the Child Crisis Center, a charity that helps prevent child abuse and neglect? I guess no good deed goes unpunished. I'm surprisingly calm and unruffled about the whole thing, but I really didn't need the distraction as I prepare to climb the highest mountain in the world. I wish the burglars well, and I hope their circumstances improve during these hard times to the point where they no longer target people who are trying to do a little good in the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I'm leavin' on a jet plane ...

T-minus 10 hours and counting before I begin my journey to Kathmandu, Nepal. The first leg is an early morning United Airlines flight from Phoenix to San Francisco. From San Francisco to Kathmandu I'll be flying Singapore Airlines all the way with a fuel stop in Tokyo, a long layover in Singapore, a change of planes, and a direct flight from Singapore to Kathmandu. I'll arrive in Kathmandu around noon on Wednesday. The last time I was in Kathmandu was 1994, so it will be interesting for me to see what's changed over the years. I look forward to meetin the other members of the expedition in person. We'll be staying at the Yak & Yeti Hotel for several days before flying to Lukla to begin a 9-10 day trek to Everest base camp.

I'm feeling a whole rainbow of colorful emotions right now. I'm worried, concerned, even a little fearful of the daunting challenges that lie ahead. The area above Camp IV, from 26,000 feet to the summit of Everest at 29,035 feet, is known as the "Death Zone" for good reasons. So many people have perished attempting to climb Everest. Yet I'm also feeling a profound sense of quiet confidence and certainty that this is what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I honestly don't think I could have trained harder or smarter, especially sleeping in my altitude tent for purposes of acclimatization. I've had the hypoxic generator set at 20,000 feet for weeks now. I'll soon see how well my training prepared me for the climb, especially the first time I make the arduous ascent through the infamous Khumbu ice fall. I don't think there has ever been a climber gasping for breath on the summit ridge of Everest who thought to him- or herself, "You know, I wish I hadn't pushed myself so hard with all of the training. This is a walk in the park." I'll soon be grateful for all of the effort.

Our expedition leader, Alex Abramov, informs me that we'll have a satellite uplink to the Internet and our own wi-fi network at Everest base camp. I'm taking a pair of laptops, a Macbook Pro and a Macbook Air, to stay in touch while I'm climbing Everest. That means I'll be able to update this blog regularly once we get established at base camp. I've also just figured out how to use Skype to make video calls over the Internet, so with all of this technology I'm going to have a very different experience on Everest compared with what things were like on the other big mountains I've climbed. I had some porter help on Kilimanjaro, but everywhere else I had to carry everything I needed myself. On Everest most of the heavy load carrying is done by Sherpa, so you're not going to catch me boasting that I climbed Everest by myself. No way. I will give credit where credit is due. My chances of successfully summiting Everest are so much better precisely because of all of the help I anticipate from Sherpa.

I'm so very thankful for all of the help and support I've received from friends and family far and wide. I absolutely thrive on the positive energy, prayers, and best wishes so many people so generously send my way. I couldn't do this without you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Did I say Tibet? Oops! I meant Nepal.

The Chinese have done it again. They've effectively closed Everest from the Tibet side for the second year in a row. At least this time we had a little more advance warning, enough time to switch to the Nepal side. I guess I'm not surprised. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's exile, so the last thing the Chinese want when Free Tibet protests inevitably erupt this spring is a bunch of western mountaineers sympathetic to the Free Tibet cause hanging around Tibet with their digital still and video cameras, satellite uplinks, and access to the internet. It's harder to shoot teenage nuns in the back and leave them for dead in the snow when a video of the atrocity is going to show up on YouTube right away. The Chinese closed Tibet to tourists for the entire month of March. That prevents Nepalese sherpas from entering Tibet in time to prepare base camp and start moving tons of supplies up the mountain. Logistically, April is too late to start the process and hope to have everything in place in time for an Everest summit bid when the weather opens up toward the end of May. There was no guarantee the Chinese would open up Tibet to tourists in April anyway, so it was not a tough decision for Everest expedition organizers to switch to Nepal. That comes with a big price tag, however, both in terms of money and the potential for bottlenecks through the Khumbu ice fall and the Hillary Step. I've had to cough up an extra $14,000 to make the switch, and with the Nepal side of the mountain filled with climbers who were otherwise going to make the climb from the Tibet side, there's bound to be some traffic jams at key points along the route. I'm disappointed, naturally, because I was really looking forward to seeing Tibet, and although climbing Everest from the Tibet side was going to be more of a technical challenge higher on the mountain, I was happy about the fact that there is no equivalent to the treacherous Khumbu ice fall on the north side of the mountain. Now, having switched to the Nepal side, I can look forward to ice climbing and crossing deep crevasses walking on crampons across aluminum ladders lashed together to bridge some of the wider chasms.

On a much more positive note, I took some time off from training this past Friday to speak about my upcoming Everest expedition and my quest to reach the highest point on each continent at Laird Elementary School in Tempe. The kids were very attentive, seemed to love the pictures, and asked lots of interesting questions. There was a palpable sense of positive energy at the school, a can-do sense of hope and optimism, a sense of meaning and purpose. Kudos to the faculty, staff, parents, and students. It was an honor and a privilege to speak. The whole experience made me think of my own third grade teacher, Mrs. Fry, who spoke these words to me, words I'll never forget: "Michael, there is nothing in this world you can't accomplish if you set your mind to it." I believed her, and that has made all the difference.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I reached a milestone of sorts this past Sunday morning, a personal best time hiking to the top of Camelback Mountain from the Echo Canyon trailhead: 24:27. (As a point of comparison, the best I could muster last year, just before the Chinese pulled the plug on all Everest expeditions planning to climb the mountain from the Tibet side, was 24:59.) Now I'm wondering just how much faster I can go. As it is, I have to run all of the traverses. I use my Sunday morning jaunt up Camelback as an unerringly honest gauge of how effective my training is. The mountain simply doesn't lie. A lower time means that my cardio-vascular workouts in combination with sleeping in my altitude tent are paying off. Yes, there are world-class athletes who could probably still kick my butt climbing Camelback, but I've said many times that you're in great shape if you can climb Camelback in as many minutes as your age. What does it mean that I can climb Camelback in less than half as many minutes as my age? I suppose I should feel ecstatic, but the reality is that I wonder if it's even close to being enough for a challenge as big as Everest. Yesterday, I climbed Camelback with my pack filled with over six gallons of water. The total pack weight was around 70-75 pounds. It took me an agonizing 55 minutes to reach the top. To save my knees on the way down, my plan was to dump the water out at the top, but not wanting it to go to waste I first offered it to anyone at the summit who wanted to top off their water bottles. A line of about two dozen people quickly formed, all thankful for the water, and all probably quite convinced that I was crazy. I look forward to Sunday morning, when I will once again see if I can lower my (unladed) personal best time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Flat Iron

For training this past weekend I climbed to the top of Flat Iron in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. There is slightly more than a 3,000 foot elevation gain to the top, so with a purposefully heavy pack it was a good summit day simulation--or it would have been if I'd been breathing through a narrow straw and only one lung was functioning. I imagine that's what it will feel like to breathe on the summit ridge of Everest at 29,000 feet.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cheyne-Stokes respiration and the Potala

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 49. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 14,500 feet. Today's training: 60 high-intensity minutes on the elliptical machine, 60 high-intensity minutes on the step climber, and four sets of 10 leg presses @ 400 pounds.

One of the many things that makes high-altitude mountaineering dangerous is Cheyne-Stokes respiration , an abnormal pattern of breathing characterized by oscillation of ventilation between apnea and tachypnea, to compensate for changing serum partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The condition was named after John Cheyne and William Stokes, the physicians who first described it in the 19th century. This abnormal pattern of breathing, in which breathing is rapid for a period and then absent for a period, can be seen in patients with heart failure, strokes, traumatic brain injuries, and brain tumors. In some instances, it can occur in otherwise normal people during sleep at high altitudes. Maybe it's because I've had more than my fair share of traumatic brain injuries, concussions too numerous to catalog, but in this case I'm pretty sure the culprit is high altitude. Suffice it to say that I'm very familiar with Cheyne-Stokes respiration, because that's what I do when I ascend too rapidly on a mountain-climbing expedition. I got hit with it pretty bad last night, having adjusted the simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator from 12, 100 feet to 14,500 feet. I hardly slept at all. The physiology is complex, but the basic idea is that there are two ways in which the human brain regulates autonomic breathing. One, the more primitive version, makes us breathe when the partial pressure of oxygen is too low. The other, a more advanced, finely tuned adaptation, regulates our breathing as a function of the partial pressure of carbon dioxide. What happens at extreme altitude is that the body is fooled by the partial pressure of carbon dioxide into thinking that it has enough oxygen, which is decidedly not true, but you stop breathing anyway until the more primitive regulatory function--the one that works on the basis of whether there is enough oxygen--basically says "What the bleep?" What results is a disturbed pattern of breathing in which you stop breathing for a while, gasp for air, stop breathing again, gasp for more air, ad infinitum. The problem is that you typically wake yourself up every time you gasp for air, so when you finally get up after a fitful night's sleep, you feel completely exhausted. One of the benefits of my previous high-altitude mountaineering experience is that I've learned how my body responds to high altitude. That's why it is so essential for me to acclimatize with my hypoxic breathing generator well in advance of leaving for Everest. It's very rough every time I increase the altitude, but my body does get used to it, and by the end of the 8-day cycle I'm using to stage altitude increases, I'm sleeping reasonably well through the night and feeling more rested in the morning. Why go through all of this? I get to climb Everest! And on the way there I get to stop in Lhasa, Tibet and see the Potala, the palace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama before his exile 50 years ago.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Grand Design

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 52. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: 60 high-intensity minutes on the elliptical machine, 60 high-intensity minutes on the step climber, and four sets of 10 leg presses @ 400 pounds.

My expedition leader is Alex Abramov, a well-known and well-regarded Russian climber who's had good success leading expeditions on the Tibet side of Everest. I need to be in Kathmandu, Nepal to meet with him and the other members of the expedition on April 1, which will necessitate leaving Arizona no later than March 30. We plan to fly to Lhasa, Tibet on April 4 and then take 10-12 days making our way to Everest Base Camp, visiting lamaseries along the way and taking our time to get used to the altitude. After arriving at base camp in mid-April, we'll begin the arduous task of moving literally tons of supplies up the mountain, establishing the higher camps and fixing safety ropes along the more dangerous parts of the route. Most of that work will be done by Sherpa, and I fully intend to give credit where credit is due for their tireless, uncomplaining work in the excruciating conditions of high altitude mountaineering. I had the good fortune to climb the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, Aconcagua in Argentina, in the company of Lahkpa Rita Sherpa, who has reached the summit of Everest no less than 10 times! My chances of success on Everest are dramatically higher than they would be if I were to attempt the highest mountain in the world without the help of a personal high-altitude Sherpa.

High-altitutude mountaineering is all about acclimatization. Our plan involves several forays up the mountain. The first time we will go as high as Camp I on the North Col before retreating all the way back to Base Camp to rest and recover. The second time up the mountain we will attempt to reach Camp II and once again retreat back to Base Camp. The third time we will establish ourselves at Advanced Base Camp and wait for the weather forecast to predict a 72-hour window of decent climbing weather. We will then move higher up the mountain as the weather allows, ultimately positioning ourselves at Camp IV in anticipation of a summit bid. Timing is everything, because we'll be using supplemental oxygen at that point, with only a limited supply available, and we'll be in the so-called Death Zone. Even with supplemental oxygen, the human body, no matter how well acclimatized, just isn't meant to function or even survive at extreme altitudes. Once you are above 26,000 feet, your body is dying, growing weaker and weaker with every passing moment, so if you are to climb Everest you must do so as quickly as possible and then retreat to the relative safety of lower altitudes. There's a reason there are no permanent human settlements higher than 14,000 to 16,000 feet. Our summit bid will be launched from Camp IV, probably around midnight, with the expectation that we will reach the summit by mid-morning. The most challenging part of the route will be the notorious Second Step, a nearly vertical rock face about half-way along the summit ridge. In the 1970s a Chinese climbing team placed an aluminum ladder at the Second Step, significantly simplifying the ascent from a technical standpoint, but even with the ladder in place the Second Step is a huge obstacle to overcome. Imagine climbing a ladder with only a third of the oxygen available at sea level and the consequences of a fall being near certain death. Wait a minute! Why am I doing this?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Moby Dick

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 53. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: two trips to the top of Camelback Mountain, a total elevation gain of over 2,400 feet. The first time up I was carrying a pack containing a six gallon plastic jug filled with water. I offered the water to other hikers who needed water and then poured out the rest to save my knees on the descent. The second time up I only filled the jug about a third full. I'm exhausted!

How do I respond when friends and family ask why I would climb a particular mountain? Everest pioneer George Mallory already took the now-famous best answer, "Because it's there," so I've had to look elsewhere for my inspiration. Here's a bit of wisdom from Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, filled with peace and joy, but encompassed by all of the horrors of the half-lived life." Climbing big mountains for me is just one more part of drinking as deeply as possible from the cup of life. It's just one of many things about which I'm passionate. The thing is, greater climbers than I--of which there are many--might be able to reach the fabled Seven Summits and descend safely with half-lived lives, for perhaps they are capable of that and so much more, but for me it will take absolutely everything I've got, and so in a very real sense climbing big mountains like Everest is just another part of my ongoing personal quest to turn my attention away from all of the horrors of the half-lived life and enjoy the tropical island paradise of the soul Melville describes.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 54. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: 60 minutes at level 18 on the elliptical machine. It took me four minutes to get my heart rate up to 153 beats per minute, which is 90% of my theoretical maximum. I sustained 153-161 beats per minute for the remaining 56 minutes. Then I spent another hour doing aerobic training on the step climber. The aerobic mode allows me to push my heart rate to at least 90% of my theoretical maximum and then recover slightly before pushing it back to 90%. It's all about increasing my VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, and lactic acid threshold. I doubt very much if there has ever been a climber gasping for breath on the summit ridge of Everest at 29,000 feet who thought to himself, "You know, I think I overdid it on the training."

This was me on the summit of Elbrus in Russia at 29 degrees below zero in gale-force winds, displaying that superior power of misery which distinguishes the human being and places him or her at a proud distance from the most melancholy chimpanzee. Elbrus in Europe was the third mountain after Kilimanjaro in Africa and Aconcagua in South America on my quest to reach the highest point on each continent, the fabled Seven Summits.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"What?!? Are you crazy?!?"

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 55
Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet

Everest here I come, but first I’ve got some explaining to do, so this is an open invitation—I’m begging really—for help from my fellow mountaineers. Please share your thoughts and feelings about what compels you to climb big mountains. You see, I’ve noticed something about high-altitude mountaineering. As long as I keep my plans to myself, I can remain blissfully deluded that I’m a veritable model of sanity, the sensible sort of man you can rely on to make rational decisions about what to do with his time, talents, and resources, but the moment I begin to articulate my mountain climbing ambitions out loud or in writing to friends and family, typical responses make it seem like I can keep whole teams of psychiatrists busy for years. Why do we do it? I know it all makes sense to my fellow climbers on big mountain-climbing expeditions, asylums for people who think this kind of thing is fun, but how am I supposed to explain to everyone else what is so appealing about spending the equivalent of the gross national product of several third world countries on technical climbing gear just so that I can voluntarily expose myself to howling gale-force winds, absurdly frigid temperatures, white-out blizzard conditions, and excruciating levels of physical and psychological fatigue, not to mention the very real possibility of dismemberment, disability, or death from falls, frostbite, hypothermia, AMS, HAPE, and HACE? Do you know what happens when a contemporaneous webcast of a big guided expedition reports that you had a brush with HACE almost 23,000 feet up in the high Andes? I do. Your friends and family Google “HACE” and freak out. It’s not enough that I’ve already put them through Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, Carstensz, and Kosciuszko on my quest to reach the highest point on each continent. Now I’ve set my sights on Everest. Isn’t there a 12-step program for this? It’s sort of like what I’ve heard about flying from fellow pilots. It’s a disease for which there is no cure, only treatment. So, dear friends and family, this is me getting ready to check into yet another mountaineering rehab facility. This one is called Everest.