More Than a Mountain: Fifty years after climbers first reached its summit, Everest is still an inspiration

APRIL 29, 2001: 6,462 m up Mount Everest. I awoke with a start at the stroke of midnight to what I thought was the end of the world — or at least the collapse of the world’s tallest mountain. Instead, it was the loudest thunderclap I’d ever heard — during an incredibly windy snowstorm. A sure sign of impending disaster.

I was on my second ascent of Everest, this time with my friends, Leo and Deryl Kelly. As can often be the case, death haunted the expedition. Five hours after the storm, I heard the unmistakable sounds of sobbing through the thin nylon walls of my tent. I went to our mess tent at advanced base camp where I found the most emotional Sherpa I’d ever encountered. “What’s the matter, Dorje?” I asked in my best broken Sherpa. “You’re not still afraid of the thunder, are you?” He was too distraught to respond, so our cook, Shyam, interjected. “Is not possible,” he said. “The god may be dead.” The “god” in this case was Babu Chiri, an Everest legend. The 35-year-old Sherpa — who had climbed the hallowed mountain 10 times, scaled it faster than anyone, and survived without bottled oxygen on the 8,850-m high summit longer than anyone — had set out from camp the day before, and had not returned.

Dorje, Shyam, and I madly rushed out in search of him, only to discover we were too late. Climbers from Babu’s team had spotted his boot at the bottom of a 13-m crevasse, his body below, bent in impossible directions. Normally, the remains would have been left there, but this victim’s body was different. To the masses in Kathmandu, Babu was the equivalent of John F. Kennedy, Michael Jordan and the Pope combined, and as such he deserved a hero’s send-off.

Sherpas believe it is bad luck to touch the dead, so I was called upon, along with friends from Great Britain, the U.S., and Argentina, to assist in the grisly task of retrieving the body from the crack in the ice. It was incredibly sobering, and for the moment, I decided my trip was over. Still, despite his expertise, Babu had taken a shortcut and had done so alone and without keeping in radio contact. I woke up the next day realizing I could learn from his mistake, and decided to continue assisting the Kellys in their dream to reach the summit.

It looked like we might never get the chance. For three weeks, we waited out the worst weather in over 30 years. It finally cleared and, with only days remaining on our permit, we found ourselves at the infamous Hillary Step, the last major obstacle before the summit. Imagine climbing straight up the corner of a seven-storey building, which is only 30 cm wide in certain sections. Fall to your left, and it’s 2,400 m to the camp in Nepal; drop to your right, and it’s a quick trip to Tibet — three kilometres straight down. Crank the temperature down to – 40 [degrees] C and magnify the UV levels 10 times so that exposed skin burns as it freezes. Add a jet-stream wind with ice pellets, suck out two-thirds of the oxygen, and perch yourself higher than most planes fly. That’s a little of what the Step is like — and then there’s a series of seven false summits before you reach the top.

Nearly 200 climbers have died in the effort. Scaling Everest may be the most taxing human-powered endeavour imaginable — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But that’s exactly why we do it. It’s under these incredibly stressful situations that we learn so much, and, we hope, return home with increased skills and attitudes to truly make a difference.

The view alone makes the experience invaluable. The apex of the planet is the size of a coffee table; as I gaze to the east, a surreal Tibetan sunrise shoots the colours of the spectrum from the horizon to the heavens. To my left, Everest’s symmetrical black pyramid traces its shadow on the Nepalese Himalayas, now appearing as ghostly islands punching through an ocean of cloud. Looking up, despite the hour of the day I see nothing but black. This is both the furthest from human help and the closest to outer space I will ever be.

On May 24, 2001, the earth was bending in every direction below my feet. I was relaxed, relieved, and anxious to return home to Calgary. That day, I was humbled and honoured to become the only Canadian to reach the summit twice (my first time was on May 13, 1999). But I certainly was not the first to complete the climb. On May 29, 1953, a previously unknown New Zealand beekeeper and a small Nepalese climber became the first two people to reach the summit. Since then, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who died in 1986, have inspired generations of climbers — and, for that matter, many others with seemingly impossible dreams. In October 1982, Laurie Skreslet and Pat Morrow became the first and second Canadians to accomplish the feat. But it came at a terrible cost: a cameraman and three Sherpas died on that expedition. Since then, only 20 Canadians have been on top of the world (two more are currently attempting the climb). That makes for an extremely select group, considering more than 300 Canadians have won Olympic gold medals.

And the next 50 years? The world’s highest mountain will do what it did before: fuel the dreams and passions of those who strive to test the limit of human athletic potential, and inspire others to continue toward their own personal and professional Everests.

Dave Rodney is a keynote speaker and tour guide.

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