David, you've made many ascents. All that I've read indicates that altitude sickness/oxygen deprivation at worst can be deadly and at best is like running a marathon with a bad flu. Is it that bad up high? If so, why is it worth it to keep going up? I can understand one summit of Everest? Why after that?
Bob Kammer Plover, WI
Response from David Breashears, climber and author of High Exposure:
Those descriptions of climbing at altitude—running a marathon with a bad flu—are not the descriptions of climbing at altitude that I recognize. Those are somebody else's experiences. Of course, there are moments at high altitude that are very debilitating, and one does feel awful and discouraged, ill-adapted to the thin air. But the rewards, and sometimes the joy, of being in those great mountains, experiencing the majesty of nature, and gaining self-knowledge far outweigh the more difficult moments of hardship. In fact, the self-awareness and self-knowledge that one gains does not come without hardship.
Why ascend Everest four times? Well, asking that question is placing the only value of those experiences on reaching the summit. In fact, the mountain has many sides, and many seasons. You share its slopes over the years with many different characters, comrades, and friends. You go with different objectives at a different time in your life. For all my journeys to the top of Everest, the only point that they really had in common was the summit. The slopes can have a different snow and it can be a different season. And I didn't have a lot in common with myself between ascents: on my first ascent of Everest I was 27, and on my fourth ascent I was 41. In that period one goes from feeling invincible and immortal—the normal conceits of a young man in the mountains—to feeling, especially after the tragedy in 1996, more in touch with your mortality. And one no longer feels invincible at 42. Your body is telling you that it's not.