Storm Over Everest

The Lure of Everest

Photo on left: A line of memorials along the path to Everest Base Camp.  (photo courtesy: Stephen McCarthy), Photo on right: Prayer flags high on a ridge in the Khumbu Valley.  (photo courtesy: Callie Taintor Wiser)

Michael Groom
An experienced climber who had summited Everest in 1993 without oxygen, Groom was brought on as a guide for the 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition.

photo of Michael Groom

My interest in climbing came because of my father. He was a pioneer of rock climbing here in southeast Queensland. I was fascinated by his climbing stories. He used to take me bush walking and rock climbing. One day, he pointed to this local mountain and said, "Do you realize there's another mountain that's 10 times higher?" He said it was Everest. I can remember placing this mountain between my fingers and stacking it on top of each other 10 times to a point where it became incredibly high, and I almost fell over backwards. Imagining that mountain being 10 times higher than the one I was standing in front of was a fascination that just didn't go away.

In '87, on Kangchenjunga [the world's third-highest mountain], after reaching the summit, I had retinal hemorrhage. I couldn't find my way down, spent a night out in the open at around about 8,000 meters. I had serious frostbite and lost 30 percent of both feet, which meant the future of climbing Everest was gone.

It took about two years to learn how to walk again. When I look back on it, I'm glad that I had to deal with that. What I gained from that was the fortitude to deal with a life-changing situation, the self-confidence from overcoming how to walk again.

And if I hadn't have dealt with that first, I wouldn't have climbed Everest in '93 without bottled oxygen. So it was almost a necessary process to go through to achieve my childhood mission of climbing Everest without oxygen. ...

Charlotte Fox
A professional ski patroller and EMT, Fox was the first American woman to climb three 8,000-meter peaks. She summited Everest in 1996 on her 39th birthday.

photo of Charlotte Fox

You don't see Everest, though you're told it's there, until you stand right on the tippy top of the sixth highest mountain of the world, Cho Oyu. Sure enough, you take those final steps to the top, suddenly summit, and then look across. It was a double whammy. I was really excited about being on my second Himalayan peak, but then to look at Everest, it was like: "OK, do you ever want the ante to be upped to over there? If I can do this -- maybe I can do that."

It's an astounding sight that had been described to me, but I just fully didn't know until I saw it. It just is massive, it sits right there in front of you, and I'll never forget it. And that is when I knew I really wanted to go. I knew if I could climb Cho Oyu, I could climb Everest if I wanted it bad enough and trained hard enough. So I made that decision then. Someday I would go.

I think on the summit of Everest, we are looking for something within ourselves. It's a journey. The summit is only the destination. There is something that affects you mentally, spiritually and physically on a climb, where you transcend the moment. And everything blends together in a timeless way, of you and the snow and the rock and the view and the truth -- because you can't hide from the truth up there; that is, yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses and how you deal. And also the other people you're with, you either come away loving them or hating them. It's very intense. But it's also very addicting, because of living in that moment. There's nothing like it.

Neal Beidleman
A guide for the Mountain Madness team, the '96 expedition was Beidleman's first Everest summit attempt. Two years before he had summited Makalu, just a few miles from Everest.

photo of Neal Beidleman

When I was younger, Everest was representative of adventure. Way back then, only a few people had stepped onto Everest, and even fewer made it to the summit. And to hear the stories, the tales and the equipment that was necessary to get there -- as a child I latched onto those and thought, "This just sounds outrageous; this is so cool." I really thought Everest was maybe the ultimate proving grounds for oneself. ...

Everest is climbed so many times now and there's been so many ascents of it that much of the uncertainty is gone. Doesn't mean that you will know exactly what the weather is going to bring tomorrow, but the pattern and the record is so well-understood now that a lot of the mystery has been taken out of it. But on an hour-by-hour basis, an individual still has to adapt and deal with what the mountain throws at them.

Our world -- so much of the adventure has been taken away. We have so many comforts of life at our fingertips, and without them, if they leave us for a day, we get upset sometimes. And I'm as guilty as anyone of missing watching sports or whatever when I go on these trips. But going to the mountains and shedding all of those other needs that you have and getting back to the basics I think is very important to the human spirit. It certainly is for mine.

Lene Gammelgaard
Lene Gammelgaard first began climbing in 1985. Her successful 1996 summit of Everest marked the first time this had been done by a Danish woman.

photo of Lene Gammelgaard

I was on an expedition in Pakistan with [Everest guide] Scott [Fischer]. After being together a month on the Baltoro Glacier, he asked, "Do you want to climb Everest with me in the spring of 1996?" And in my mind, I was in Pakistan to sort of say goodbye to climbing the high mountains, because I was then I think 34, and I thought I need to make the choice of leaving that risky environment behind. I need to grow up. I was really sort of anxious -- until I got that question. And then, everything in me just sort of exploded. And there was just one answer to him, impulsively: Yes!

I learned a lot about myself in that split second: that I -- and probably so many other people, too -- can go around trying to control life with our brains until we encounter a person, event, opportunity that absolutely turns us around and confronts us with who we really are. And that was just one thing I wanted to do: climb Everest. There was nothing that could have stopped me, nothing.

[At the summit] what I felt was a massive, peaceful contentment. And a very exact feeling of everything falling into place: this woman, this young girl, fighting for her space in the world and having a lot of strength and a lot of talents and a lot of ambition and a lot of desire for challenges, and then having set out to climb this mountain because I had the opportunity and took it.

[There was] a proudness, the silent proudness of, "This is who I am." So this young girl having fought her way out of a too-narrow upbringing, a too-narrow country, really having so many self-doubts about, "Why am I being so wild? Why do I need all these adventures? Why am I not like all the others? Why can't I just settle down and be content with that? Am I crazy, or is this wrong?" And then with Everest and with the summiting sort of realizing that, well, I've had all these visions; I've had all these ambitions; I've had all this desire to use my body; I've been this strong because this is what I am. I have ambitions because I'm able to fulfill them.

There's this very old saying, that the hero is not the one who conquers the city but the one who conquers oneself. And that, really, is what Everest represents for most people, both us who have been there and everybody else. It's really this concept of having a really, really high goal that's going to demand even your life in some cases. And you go out and do whatever it takes. You transform yourself, transcend yourself, transgress whatever fears and boundaries. ... Every weakness you have in you, you must conquer to fulfill this goal.

Sandy Hill
During the 1996 expedition, Hill filed reports for NBC. Her successful Everest summit on May 10 made her the second American woman to summit the seven continents' highest peaks.

photo of Sandy Hill

I invested a lot of years, a lot of time thinking about reaching the summit of Mount Everest. And it was a very terrifying prospect that I was now so close to realizing this dream. I remember briefly thinking that there may be some elegance in refusal. I'd read stories about mountaineers who, because the peaks were sacred, got within so many steps of the top but weren't allowed to go all the way to the summit so that the mountain was never really theirs. And I remember sort of toying with the idea in my mind: There's something kind of beautiful about that, about having that unattainable goal out there. And might I savor that memory of not summiting when it was within my grasp instead of going all the way to the top? So it was with a certain conflict inside myself that I took that final step onto the summit.

I'm glad I made that choice. The view from the top is indescribable. You can see the curve of the horizon from there. And the sense of exhilaration over that view and of seeing a phenomenon that perhaps only astronauts have seen, was a thrilling thing.

Makalu Gau
In 1996, Gau was making his second attempt on Everest, leading the Taiwanese National Expedition. In his youth he joined the Taiwan Mountaineering Association, learning snow, ice and rock climbing in Asia and the Alps.

photo of Makalu Gau

It's my dream to climb on the highest mountain in the world. I want to experience the feeling of [looking] around on the top. It's the same as I climb on the mountains in Taiwan, but the mountains in Taiwan are kind of small, so as in Alaska and South America. So I was wondering what kind of feeling it is when I stand on the highest mountain in the world.

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posted may 13, 2008

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