Traveling home from Mt. Everest is an opportunity, if for no other reason than it gives you the time to think, to heal and to begin to process the experience. It takes days just to get off the mountain. After an 18hr beautiful, clear but cold summit day, we returned to our tents at the South Col; tried to eat, drink and curled up with the last of our oxygen for a final night in the dead zone. The next day we moved down to camp 2 and stayed for a second night. On day three, we made our way through the Khumbu Ice Fall for the last time. It’s not until you pass through this gateway that the tension and stress of the last seven weeks begins to release and slowly lift away. You are safe at last and the air feels thick and warm.
After a couple of easy days at basecamp spent packing up and getting some good sleep and food, the body begins to heal. The nightly crash of avalanches and rock fall from the peaks that surround base camp seem far less threatening and more a part of the natural environment. We are ready to start the trek down valley. The walk takes another three days. We get stuck waiting for planes and equipment to catch up, extend our filming project in Kathmandu, and on and on. It’s more than two weeks after summiting that the team splits up for the last time in the International terminal of the Dubai Airport. Fourteen hours later, I touch down on American soil. It feels fantastic to be home.
During those weeks coming down out of the mountains and after a few days at home, I feel that the climb has begun to settle in and I’ve gained enough perspective to at least send out a long overdue dispatch. The best conclusion that I can come to is that Mt. Everest is everything that people say about it. If that sounds conflicted and confusing, it is. Being in that region of the world, located in the nexus of the highest mountains on earth and spending time on their slopes is an experience that is stunning, beautiful and wild. The privilege of climbing in that place is humbling and I am deeply grateful for the time I spent there and for the people I was able to spend that time with. Our team, as well as many other teams on the mountain that I interacted with, were solid, prepared, well supported and properly trained. Almost all members on those teams had also found a good balance between pushing toward a difficult goal and having a realistic and alert mindset of the dangers of that environment. Many teams cooperated well, contributed when called upon and were assets on the mountain. On the far other end of the spectrum surrounding and drafting this core of competent operators, was, as far as climbing is concerned, the biggest clown show on earth. The details could fill pages, but simply put, there were many who had no business attempting to operate in that place and at that level of risk and consequence. In the absence of a radical change in the management of the mountain and the vetting of future teams and climbers, accidents and fatalities are certain to continue.
This last week I drove to Lake Tahoe to visit some friends and attend the InterWest Insurance Services annual Sales Exchange meeting. Listening to their top teams recount their successes, their challenges and strategies for the future, I was struck again by the similarities that arise in any difficult environment and goal driven endeavor. Many times I heard reference to, and emphasis placed on, the critical role of training.
If I had to name a quality or factor that was the defining difference between the teams on the mountain this spring, it would be the manner and intensity with which they trained. A certain amount of this was physical in nature, but beyond a baseline level, it was probably far less of a factor in success than most would imagine. Far more important were basic climbing skills, familiarity with gear and equipment, as well as efficiency in systems and movement. The ability for each team member to understand and implement the strategies and plans for a given section of the climbing route depended entirely on their prior training. For the teams that had placed an early emphasis on training, the difficulties were known and not theoretical. The skills to overcome these had been drilled and practiced until they were second nature. For the teams that did not have this foundation, each new obstacle brought confusion, delay and exhaustion. In the end, the separation between these approaches was dramatic. On the same summit days that those with proper training reached the top and experienced no lasting ill effects, other teams experienced prolonged exposure, rescue scenarios, debilitating cases of frostbite and even fatalities. Most of these unfortunate outcomes could have been avoided.
In the mitigation of risk, nothing modifies the risk equation more quickly or profoundly than training. This is the salient point and message that was brought home to me again and again. It is the difference between the professional and the dilettante. It is what prepares you for risk, uncertainty and the adversity that arises in any difficult undertaking. There are hallmarks of a good training program and the how and why of their steps and processes, but maybe that is best saved for another dispatch and the next adventure.
Thank you for your time and interest. I have enjoyed writing these and especially the great conversations that they begin with and the learning and ideas that circle back to me. Keep chasing new horizons and train every day to meet the challenges that will come. They are part of the package and after all, they are what makes life so interesting. All the very best.
Writing from: Salt Lake City, UT USA