Storm Over Everest

Why I Climb

Photo on Left: Sunset on Mount Everest.  (photo Courtesy: Callie Taintor Wiser), 
Photo on right: Crossing a crevasse on Everest.  (photo courtesy: David Breashears)

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 think when I was 5 years old and a grownup asked, "What do you want to become when you grow up?," my answer was always, "I want to be an adventurer." It wasn't specific about mountains. That was not an inspiration in Denmark; that wasn't part of the environment I come from.

I really have this desire to go and be out for a month, sort of use my body and my brain actually in a very crazy, stupid, routine manner, where every day I have to put all effort into maybe moving one foot in front of the other to get to where I want to go, to prepare for going where I want to go next. Really utilizing my body and my brain, in some sense, [in a] very primitive and goal-oriented way, but not a complex way, because it's not a complex world, really.

Climbing for me was the perfect therapy from the culture that I'm a product of, from the childhood and the socialization that, of course, was also very ingrained in me. So breaking free, again, in a different manner of all the inner parents that [were] holding me back, all the expectations of what is a young woman supposed to be like: What can she do? What can't she do? Can she be strong? Can she be courageous? Can she be out there without lipstick and long nails and all the things that sort of puts value on me in society?

If I wanted to get to the summit of any mountain, first of all I needed to do it myself. I couldn't manipulate the mountain, and the mountain didn't expect any sort of gender-role behavior from me. So what I needed to actually get to the summit of a difficult mountain was to develop as a whole person and also as a mountaineer: putting in the very, very hard work and fighting my own fears and fighting my own weaknesses to become good enough to take the next step without anything interfering.

Beck Weathers
A pathologist from Dallas, Weathers had been a serious climber for close to 10 years; prior to the 1996 Everest expedition, he had summited six of the seven continents' highest peaks.

photo of Beck Weathers

[When you climb], you wind up with a mixture of things that you're running toward and things that you're running away from. Probably at different times, one of them is the driving force.

My original push into mountaineering really occurred because I'd spent most of my adult life in profound depression. And I mean John Wayne'd it; I never let anybody know about it. I discovered that if you drove your body hard, when you did that, you couldn't think, and that the lack of thinking as you punished your body and drove yourself was amazingly pleasant.

It would be hard to think of something that allows you a better outlet for pushing yourself physically than climbing does, especially the kind of climbing where you don't get the exhilaration of sport climbing of technical rock, but you just get the grind of hour after hour of just shoving forward.

I liked that sense of stripping away everything in my world except for that feeling of the physical push and the mindlessness of the focus of stepping right in front of you, step after step. That was so peaceful, and the more I did it, the more I saw the other parts of it. And over time, the escape began to go away, and the anticipation replaced it; that you would discover that you weren't getting rid of pain, [but instead] you were seeking a sense of happiness and camaraderie, and the great enjoyment of being in a rare and beautiful place. And I went from running from to running toward. …

One of the great attractions, to me, of climbing is that it does take me completely out of my normal existence. The values, the things that demonstrate that I'm a good guy or a successful guy or any of those other things -- those are stripped away. On each outing, you've got to re-earn that sense that you've done well; that in the presence of individuals who are going to judge you just on what you do that moment, that trip, you can't impress them with the fact that you've done other things in other walks of life that are of value. They're going to look at you on this trip, and they're going to see, how did this person behave? And you hope that you're going to wind up being the kind of individual you want to be.

But you're also frightened that you'll discover that you are wanting, that you're lacking, that you really don't measure up to your own view of how a person should respond. And that makes it very challenging. But it also makes it very humbling, because the fear is there that you're going to fall apart and not be a good guy.

John Taske
A 56-year-old doctor and former Australian army officer, he had begun climbing a few years earlier. On the 1996 Everest ascent, Taske (along with Lou Kasischke and Stuart Hutchison) decided to turn back after realizing it would be impossible to get to the summit by the set turnaround time.

photo of John Taske

I left the military about 1991 after 16 years. It was mainly a decision because my wife -- she'd had enough of 13 postings in 16 years, and at the time, I thought it was a good thing to do.

But I didn't realize how much the military meant to me. ... [A]ll of a sudden, I lost all my mates. All the people that I'd just basically taken for granted over the last 16 years who had been with me in Vietnam and been with me on other exploits in the military, I'd lost them, and I found this very hard. In fact, I probably had my midlife crisis at that time, and searching around for something to do, I looked at climbing.

I was a late starter, but it gave me something similar to the sense of what I'd had in the army, which was comradeship, taking risks -- not big risks -- calculating the risks, working hard to minimize the risk, and then achieving something against odds with a group of like-minded people who you would put your life on the line for and they'd do the same for you.

... The great thrill in life is to tackle something which people think is incredibly risky and almost impossible. Then you work at it. You train; you plan; you go through the what-ifs: What if this happens? What if that happens? So you massage out all the possible risks and deal with them until you've got left a risk that you think is acceptable to you. And then you go for it, and if you succeed, you've seemed to succeed against very solid odds, when in actual fact, because of the work you've done, it's not as hard as people think. And that's where I get a great kick, and where a lot of soldiers do, too. You tackle things, and through professionalism and training and discipline, you can achieve them.

Everyone that tackles a big mountain has to be a supreme optimist, a bit of an egotist, and certainly, to some extent, I suppose, arrogant. But once you're in the mountains, particularly a massive mountain like Everest, you have to see the awesome power and the beauty of nature and realize just how fragile human beings are when pitted against this overwhelming strength. And yet we continue to do it. It's part of human nature to pit ourselves against almost unbelievable odds and hopefully survive, and it will ever be thus.

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

… In California in the '70s, there were the two choices: You could go to the beach and be a surfer girl, or you could go to the mountains and be a mountain climber girl. This was before Title IX sports, ... you know, women having sports teams and things like that. But surfing in California in the '70s for girls meant sitting on the beach and posing while their boyfriends were surfing, and then when they got out of the water, then you told them how great they'd been surfing that day. The girls didn't surf. But going into the mountains, you couldn't be a deadbeat on an expedition.

Yosemite was very close to my family home, so I spent a lot of time there as an adolescent, first with a little youth group … called Youth Science Institute. And we would take progressively longer trips doing treks into the Sierras. Eventually, when I was 16, I climbed the Grand Teton and was thrilled by that achievement and the view from the top. I think it was then and there that my love for the mountains and for climbing them was really born.

In the mountains, I had a sense of independence. I had very controlling parents as a teenager, but in the mountains, I could be free to be myself, and I could be responsible for myself, and I loved that.

I think as much joy and satisfaction that I got out of reaching the summit at the Grand Teton and on other expeditions that I would do, I got an even greater thrill out of being part of a team that worked together to achieve a common goal. ... I love [the organizational] part of an expedition. ... Not only planning an expedition, as I have done for most of the mountains that I've climbed -- I love that, but I also love working out the economies of knowing how much to spend of my own energy during a day and to save it and to pace oneself throughout the whole expedition and preparation for summit day.

It was exhilarating, and a memory that will stay with me the rest of my life, standing on top of that 13,700-foot peak, the Grand Teton, and looking out and seeing the whole world, as I knew it anyway. And yet there's something very humbling about standing on top of that peak, because you know when you're at the summit, you're only halfway home.

Lou Kasischke
He had summited six of the seven continents' highest peaks. But on the 1996 Everest expedition, Kasischke (along with John Taske and Stuart Hutchison) decided to turn back after realizing it would be impossible to get to the summit by the set turnaround time.

photo of Lou Kasischke

... I didn't climb because I wanted to get away from something, and I don't think I climbed because I needed to prove anything. It was something that I just enjoyed doing. All the planning, all the preparation, all the training I liked as much as the climb.

In the beginning, ... you think it's a big deal to stand on top, and you always want to stand on top. And I collected the summit rocks and did all the things that a lot of people do. But as you mature and become a more serious climber, you kind of figure out why you're there. You're not there to possess something; you don't possess anything by going to the top. You experience it. And if you do anything, you give. You give respect and you give reverence to the place you've been. So it's an experience that I'm not running away from anything to be there, and I'm always glad to be back home. But I lived for the experience of it. ...

I get a sense of fulfillment, sense of accomplishment. I did something hard. I planned for it, and I did it. But I have those same feelings sometimes when I don't reach the top. In the beginning, you think of not reaching the top as failure, but not after a while. Turning around is simply part of climbing, part of respect. So if you go with the right attitude, the right value system for your sport, respect your sport, respect yourself, respect the mountains, come back. And yes, I do have pictures around here. Maybe in a sense they represent trophies in a way, but I also know that they just collect dust, and when I look at my pictures, I see my experience; I see my friends; I see holding hands. I see not saying, "Look how great we are," but, "What are we going to do tomorrow?"

So I don't think I take from the mountain. I don't think I take, possess anything. It's a feeling -- and I learned this as an endurance athlete, too -- the reward comes from within. It's how you feel about yourself: Do you respect yourself? Do you have respect of others? And you never find success without those feelings. So I'd say if I take anything from climbing, reaching the top or not reaching the top, it's just an inner sense of reward. That's the reward that stays.

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

Everest and all mountains are just vehicles for us as human beings to feel good about ourselves or to give ourselves the credibility that we're looking for, the esteem that we feel that's missing in our lives. Mountains are things that other people can relate to and identify with, so to have a picture of you on the summit of some prestigious mountain is a very easy way for some people, I assume, to get over the lackings or longings in their own lives. It may be scuba diving or it may be 100 other avocations and hobbies. But mountains carry great respect with people around the world, so it doesn't surprise me at all that many people use mountains to find this in themselves.

In many ways, that's what I did myself. I found that rock climbing and mountaineering gave me great self-esteem and made me feel aware and alive, and I really liked what happened to me when I went to mountains.

I think everybody has a place in themselves that mountains can fill in that same manner. So it's very hard for me to judge that somebody we label as a trophy hunter is maybe wrong in what they're doing. You know, they're trying to fill a need in their own lives and using the mountains. I guess my only reservation about doing it in that way, I almost feel sad for them, because they're missing so much more of what the mountains are all about.

And it's not about just standing on top. I can't diminish how important it is to set forward a goal like climbing Everest and get to the top. But at the same time, it is not the only thing. Some of the greatest climbs I've been on personally have been climbs where I haven't made it to the top. I've learned more about myself and about the world and my friends and why I do these things. But it certainly leaves ... a yearning, though, to go back and try to fulfill that. There's something about getting to the top that closes that door, that chapter.

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

When I was in Taipei, I had to work every morning from Monday to Saturday, so my workmates and I would go hiking on Sunday. Sometimes it's just a picnic or camping. I found the air I was breathing there was so much different than the air I was breathing in the office; it just felt good. Sometimes when you are on the top of the mountains, you can see the whole city of Taipei.

So I thought, it feels so good even on these small mountains, and there are so many big mountains in Taiwan, I should go. After I went to the bigger mountains, I saw a lot of leaves, trees, flowers and grass without pollution. It's so clean. It's so beautiful, so I started to like climbing higher mountains. Then I found walking is not enough; I should learn some techniques. And so I went to learn climbing, and then ice climbing and snow climbing.

It's very hard to find someone who knows it and learn from them. I have to do a lot of work to search for the information. Twenty or 30 years ago, I spent $30 to ask a Taiwanese lady who just came back from Germany to buy me a book about climbing in Germany. She sent me a book, but it's in German; I couldn't understand. But I saw a lot of pictures of climbing, and I loved it. So to be able to read that German book, I went to some German-language classes. After, I still wasn't good at German, but learned how to use a German dictionary, and then understood roughly what that German book is saying.

In a bookstore in Taipei I found an American book about climbing; that book is translated into Chinese, now in Taiwan. That book is about teaching people how to climb, rock climb and do the ropes. I felt like I found the treasure.

From then I started to be obsessed with climbing. Whenever there was someone who was giving a lecture about climbing or who was showing some pictures of climbing, I would go see it. ... [M]y sight was getting wider and wider, knowing that climbing in Taiwan is just like a basic level; I have to go to Hong Kong or Korea or Japan to see how people climb there, to learn the techniques. Then I went to Europe, America, Nepal, Himalayas, India and Tibet.

Norbu Sherpa
Hired as a climbing Sherpa for Adventure Consultants, Norbu had summited Everest several times, including twice in 1993.

photo of Norbu

[This is] what to do [if] we don't have education. Climbing is our profession and also how we make money to survive. We don't get job to work in the office in Kathmandu, so that we go as climbing Sherpa to survive.

I have one son and one daughter. Money earned from mountain climbing is used to take care of children, take care of my mum. Also, my brother had died; he has one son. I have to pay his son's fee at school. ... I could not get chance to study, so I have to give good education to my children.

Of course we feel [that climbing is dangerous]. If you do that, that is your job, so you have to go. We don't expect anything bad will happen to us. If it happened, we have insurance. [The family] uses that money to survive. They either use that money for farming or invest in other activities. This is what they do to survive.

Guy Cotter
A climbing partner of Rob Hall's, Cotter was guiding an Adventure Consultants team on neighboring Pumori, from where on the night of May 10 he was in radio contact with Hall who was still high up on Everest. The next day Cotter moved to Everest Base Camp.

photo of Guy Cotter

I think climbing, at high altitude especially, is like holding a great big mirror up to yourself, where you're forced to recognize all your strengths and all your weaknesses, and if you're going to carry on doing it, you've got to do something about it. Otherwise, if you've got lots of weaknesses, and people find you hard to handle, you're probably going to end up climbing solo.

My father was a mountaineer. He was on the first New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas back in 1951, where he and the leader of the expedition, a guy called Earle Riddiford, climbed to the summit of a 7,000-meter peak in the Garhwal region called Mukut Parbat. Two other members of the expedition were Ed Hillary and George Lowe, who didn't summit on that peak, but [when] they came down from the mountain, they got a telegram from Eric Shipton saying, "Two of you can come on the Everest reconnaissance." So a bit of a fight went on, I think. My father decided to pull out of the whole discussion. He didn't have the money; he was the youngest one of the team; he extended all those resources just [going] to Mukut Parbat. So it ended up that Earle Riddiford and Ed Hillary went on the reconnaissance to Everest with Eric Shipton, and that was when they first found the way through the Khumbu Icefall and went ahead in an attempt on Cho Oyu.

So I was kind of brought up with it. We often had family holidays into the hills; we went tramping, which is the New Zealand term for trekking, on a regular basis from when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

Helen Wilton
The Base Camp manager for Adventure Consultants in 1996, Wilton had first trekked to Base Camp with Rob Hall after winning a 1989 radio contest.

photo of Helen Wilton

I think that the mountains have much more of a spiritual aspect than most people would admit. Even if you don't have any particular belief, it's special to be in the mountains. It makes you feel different. It's uplifting, and they're wonderful and terrible at the same time, as your experiences there often are. And it polarizes people. Some people turn around and say, "Well, I'm never doing that again," and other people are hooked, and they'll come back again and again.

There's something more to it than just putting one foot in front of another and getting to a place. Rob [Hall] was right about happiness being on the journey. It's the experience that counts; it's what happens to you when you're there. It's what being in the mountains does to you, makes you think about.

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posted may 13, 2008

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