By Doug Pierson on March 27, 2008 10:00 AM | Comments (0)
I was introduced to climbing by my godfather, who started taking me to climb rock faces and eventually cliffs when I was about 10 years old. My godfather was the type of teacher who if I got halfway up a cliff and yelled down that I couldn’t go any farther, he’d yell right back, “Okay, but if you aren’t going to keep climbing then we’re going to practice falling.” I would take another look at the rock and keep climbing. I learned a lot from him — both techniques of climbing and love for the feeling of being outdoors with friends. Sometimes we made it up a route, sometimes we didn’t. It didn’t really matter that much. Just being there together was enough.
I got into mountaineering later in life. As an active duty marine stationed in southern California in the early ’90s, I started going to the mountains with my buddies. We’d climb San Jacinto and San Gorgonio at the entrance to the Palm Desert outside Palm Springs. We climbed — or I should probably say hiked — Mount Whitney, which is the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Eventually I found myself really wanting to be out in the mountains challenging myself on higher and more technical climbs.
I had hoped to climb Mount McKinley in 1996, but plans to climb with a friend didn’t pan out that year. I was sent to Iraq for a tour of duty in 2004 and while I was over there, I made a promise to myself that I’d attempt McKinley if I made it back to the states safely. After returning to the states, I was talking to a friend in Seattle, Christine Boskoff, the outgoing, personable and high-octane owner of Mountain Madness climbing guide service. While we were catching up, I expressed frustration at once again seeing another season slide by without the chance to pull together a viable team to go for McKinley, which I still had in my sights. She mentioned that Mountain Madness had scheduled trips, and actually had slots available if I was interested.
It took me a few days to deliberate (a guide service?! Come on) but then recognized the opportunity before me and seized on it. What a great trip. I found myself with a highly professional, extremely strong team that was focused and well prepared. Typical summit assaults of McKinley take up to 21 days round trip. We made the summit in nine days, and were back off the mountain in 11 days with six of the original 10 making the top. I was psyched about how my body performed at altitude.
On my second tour of duty in Iraq, I promised myself an even bigger challenge. I made a promise to myself that if I made it back with all my fingers and toes, I’d figure out a way to test myself on Everest. I’d been interested in Everest since the MacGillivray-Freeman IMAX movie on Everest was released, which represented the first time an IMAX camera had ever been taken to the top to bring stunning images from the top of the world on a beautiful, windless day. While watching that movie, I thought that the traditional route — the South Col Route via Nepal, would be the eventual route that I would most like to take if and when I was ever given an opportunity to climb to 29,035 feet. Of course, living in the ranks of starving college students surviving on ramen noodles, that sort of goal seemed unrealistic. So Everest remained for years just an elusive dream, something that seemed attainable but not with much serious thought or effort attached.
But in October 2000 that all changed. I took a trip from Japan to Kathmandu for a week-long vacation with the girl I was with at the time, and while in Nepal we took a mountain flight where you actually see Mount Everest up close and in person. Slipping skyward from the runway, it only took a few seconds before the plane had gained enough altitude to leave the lowland clouds behind and see giant Himalayan monsters unfold in front of us. As our tiny plane climbed higher and higher, the air thinned considerably and the temperature dropped so that you could see your breath inside the cabin. The tiny windows frosted over and I could feel adrenaline surging through my veins. Climbing and banking right, a line of 8,000 meter mountains line up off the left wing for a plane load of awestruck passengers to peek out at, staring with unblinking dinner plate-sized eyes. One at a time, legendary peaks roll by until there before you is the tallest one of them all. Unquestionably Everest, the pilot offers for people to come up front where a small part of the frosted over cockpit window has been wiped away. Cramped and leaning to stare in wonder, the summit seems literally meters away from the plane and it is incredibly easy to make out fine details of snow, ice and rock contours. After a few lazy turns the plane noses southeast and drops quickly back toward the mists of Kathmandu Valley, where the air is heavy with oxygen and bathed in subtropical warmth. And then it’s over. One and a half hours after having breakfast, you are seated back in the same restaurant having tea, unsure of exactly how you could quite possibly communicate to everyone seated around you about what you just experienced. And seriously, how do you? Especially given all the stories of yesteryear where mammoth expeditions spent months slogging through leech-infested forests with backbreaking loads of climbing equipment — just to reach a point on the mountain where they could position themselves within striking distance? Here we sat, taking 1 1/2 hours to have breakfast, fly to the summit, snap a few pictures, and then make it back to the safe confines of the hotel. Surreal, but definitely tantalizing. In that brief encounter, a serious long-range goal was born.
After returning from my second tour of duty in Iraq, I started the conversation up with my friends at Mountain Madness. I spoke to Chris about her upcoming trip to China. On November 1, 2006, I returned to IBM and was eventually placed on a U.S. Coast Guard job working in Elizabeth City, NC. As I flew back and forth across the country from Seattle to NC, I happened to glance at the front page of USA Today sometime in December and my gaze stopped at a quick one sentence quip at the top: “Hope withers for climbers lost in China”. As soon as I returned home I did an Internet search, and learned that the same day I had traded e-mails with Chris in China was the last day she had been heard from. Over the next few weeks I learned that she and Charlie (her climbing partner) had pushed into unclimbed territory in China and were swept away in an avalanche on unclimbed Genyen Peak. She lived as she passed, in unique settings living her dream with people celebrating her and leaving behind one hell of a legacy.
In the wake of that tragedy, Mark Gunlogson, the president of Mountain Madness and no slouch in his mountaineering experiences himself, continued to talk with me about climbing opportunities as time wore on. Inevitably, Everest came up. We spoke about it and then spoke about it some more. Other climbs and opportunities arose, and when we talked about a USMC climb to Aconcagua, he kindly offered to assist with logistics support for that trip and even offered to assist with Seattle Mountain Rescue however he could. He mentioned that the 2008 Everest climb would include another hard-charging team of strong climbers led by Willie Benegas, an Everest veteran with six summits under his belt and a tremendous amount of experience. The story goes that in 2007, he climbed to the top with his team, safely returning and then turned around with another teammate and made the summit a second time. After working with Mark and ensuring that everything was going to work out timing wise, I committed to joining the Mountain Madness team and take on the Nepal-side South Col Route. I quit my job in December and started to get ready.
So now the difficult part begins. Preparation, training, and coordination. Long hours in the gym, trips to REI and Feathered Friends, and calls dealing with sponsorships. Three months may seem like a long time depending on where you are (3 months in Iraq was not a right around the corner timeline), but in planning and preparing for this event, it will be over in the blink of an eye and then I’ll find myself on a plane crossing the international date line en route to Nepal. I’m extremely pleased with all the support and encouragement I have received from friends and family, and haven’t even bothered to think about know-it-alls who think that the South Col route isn’t that tough, or pish-posh the use of Mountain Madness to get to the top. In response to those people, go slay your own dragons and grow a set so you can speak from experience. As for me, I’m pretty damn psyched to take on my next adventure and am truly amazed at how the stars came into alignment for this, in the manner that they did. To me, this is more about me climbing for those who can’t; seeing things that others may never have the chance to; and in a small manner, this is an adventure for all of us to celebrate and experience together.