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Surviving Alone and Blind on Mount Everest
By BRIAN DICKINSON, Stephanie Rische
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Brian Dickinson
All rights reserved.
EXPEDITION OF A LIFETIME
"I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
GROWING UP in the small town of Rogue River, Oregon, I never imagined that one day I would be planning a Mount Everest expedition. My family and I lived in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains, and I'd heard plenty of news reports about mountaineering disasters—especially the ones that occurred on the highest peak in the world. I was just a kid in the 1980s, when more climbers began ascending above 26,000 feet on Everest. That translated to more fatalities—and more media coverage. Between 1980 and 2002, 91 climbers died during their attempt to summit.
In 1982 alone, tragedy struck expeditions from four different countries. British climbers Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker disappeared while attempting to be the first to climb the northeast ridge. Then a Canadian expedition lost their cameraman to an icefall, and just a few days later, three of their Sherpas lost their lives in an avalanche. The American team wasn't exempt from tragedy that year either, as a woman named Marty Hoey, who was expected to become the first woman from the United States to summit Everest, fell to her death. Even a veteran Everest climber from Japan and his climbing partner died near the summit due to extreme weather before the year came to a close.
And then, more than a decade later, disaster struck again when eight people were caught in a blizzard and died on Everest. Over the course of the 1996 season, 15 people died trying to reach the summit, making it Everest's deadliest year in history.
As a child and a young adult, I was gripped by those stories, but it seemed insane to me that mountaineers would climb in such arctic and oxygen-deprived conditions. Why would people want to risk plummeting to their death or losing body parts to frostbite? Like most people, I was a victim of the media. Although only 2 to 3 percent of those who attempted to summit Everest lost their lives, the news seemed to report only the fatalities. Everest seemed like an impossible death trap that only a few elite individuals could conquer. And even then, they'd remain permanently damaged—physically or mentally—as a result of the experience.
But while I may not have had visions of climbing the tallest peak in the world one day, I was a very daring kid. I started participating in extreme sports as soon as I was old enough to venture out without supervision. Now that I'm a parent myself, I realize how much stress I put my parents through—especially my mom. My schedule was packed with organized sports like soccer, baseball, track, golf, and tennis. In between I rode my single-gear bike everywhere. On any given day in the summer, I would ride 10 miles away to the Rock Point Bridge, where I'd leave my bike in the ditch on the side of the road and jump off the 60-foot bridge into the mighty Rogue River.
My best friend, Joe, and I used to climb to the top of the peaks surrounding Rogue River and play a game we called "no brakes" on the descent, which basically entailed running as fast as we could down the steep hills and jumping over any rocks in our path. I'm not sure how I managed to make it through my childhood without breaking any bones, but I certainly spent a lot of time with scraped-up limbs and skin that was swollen from poison oak.
One day when my parents were gone, I took a dare from my older brother, Rob, to ride my bike off the back of the bed of my dad's old rusty truck. I high centered on the tailgate and fell headfirst into the gravel, ripping up my face. I ended up needing stitches under my nose and in my mouth where the skin had ripped away from my jaw. My face was a massive scab for a few weeks, and I could only drink from a straw.
That didn't stop me from seeking out extreme adventures though. Whenever I saw a hill or even a big dirt pile, I felt some innate desire to conquer it. During my senior year in high school, I went camping with my parents in Mammoth, California. While everyone else was fishing, I decided to head out by myself with some cheap rope to scale the rocky peaks, like I'd seen people do on TV. I successfully climbed one and decided to rappel down, using the belt loops on my pants as my harness. Not such a good idea.
As soon as my body weight tightened the line, all six loops snapped loose, and I was fast roping down 30 feet without gloves—meaning there was nothing holding me to the rope except my two bare hands. As I strolled back into camp with bloody friction burns on both hands and all my belt loops flapping, my parents just shook their heads. After years of having me return from various adventures with cuts and bruises all over my body, it took a lot to surprise them.
* * *
Now, almost two decades later, I still had the same inner drive to push myself to extremes, but I'd matured along the way and gained a healthy respect for mountains. On top of that, I'd learned a lot about climbing techniques, safety protocol, and proper equipment. No more belt-loop adventures for me.
It's hard to trace exactly when my love for climbing began, but it may have been the ascent I made as a teenager to pour my grandma's ashes on the top of the mountain facing her house.
She and my grandpa lived across the creek from my family, so I spent a lot of time at their house when I was growing up. When I was 14 years old, Grandma was diagnosed with cancer and went through a series of aggressive chemo treatments. The treatments didn't help much; they just made her last few months miserable. One of the last times I saw her, she was sitting on the couch with a little head scarf cover ing her frail head. She waved me over to the couch, and I sat down beside her.
Pointing with her bony finger at the mountains outside the window, she leaned close to me. "Brian," she whispered, "I want you to sprinkle my ashes on top of that hill."
She was sure she was about to die, and even though I knew it was coming, I wasn't ready. My family was going to San Diego to see my brother graduate from Navy boot camp, and I was afraid she wouldn't be there when we returned.
I was right. After the funeral, my best friend, Joe, and I headed up the mountain with the box of her ashes. When I reached the top of the mountain, I made a cross out of some tree limbs, poured her ashes on the ground, and said a silent prayer. Then Joe and I ran down the mountain in our normal "no brakes" fashion, most likely in an attempt to make things as normal as possible and to avoid the awkward emotions that were rising up inside me.
I took my climbing to the next level when I ascended Mount Rainier for the first time in May 2008. A friend and I signed up with a climbing group, and I was both excited and nervous to explore at a higher elevation than I'd ever been to before. I was also eager to learn some technical knowledge about glacier travel. Leading up to the expedition, I trained on Mount Si, a smaller peak near my house, and when the time came for our adventure, I felt ready.
During the three-day expedition, our group learned various mountaineering skills, including rest steps, pressure breathing, rope travel, and self-arrest. I was surprised how strong the wind could be as we made our way to higher elevations, but it wasn't enough to stop us. It did slow us down, though, and it felt like for each step forward, I took one step back. I felt the rise of nausea in my throat, and my muscles were screaming, but I was confident I could do it. I put my chin down, placing one foot in front of the other, and suddenly we were there. We'd made it to the top! By the time I made it back to sea level, it was official. I was hooked.
After climbing Rainier several times, I summited other mountains in the Cascade Range, including Mount Shasta in California and Mount Baker in Washington. Mountain climbing tested my physical abilities and mental sharpness like nothing I'd ever attempted before. And even though I'd grown up surrounded by mountains, being on top of them gave me a newfound appreciation for their grandeur. There's just something about standing at the top of a mountain that's like no other feeling in the world. It's hard to describe, but a sense of complete calm comes over me as I try to take in the beauty and vastness of God's creation.
In the past decade of climbing, I've gotten one recurring question from people who don't climb: "Why do you do it?" The reasons for climbing are unique to each individual, and if you were to ask 20 different climbers the same question, you'd likely get 20 different answers. For me, it mostly comes down to the way God has wired me. I have a deep drive to set big goals for myself and then strive to achieve them. If I don't, I feel like I'm not living life to the fullest and becoming the person God created me to be.
I've also found that climbing provides a spiritual solitude that I haven't experienced anywhere else. There's something about being up there on the mountain heights that shows me the vastness of God in a way that's hard to comprehend when my feet are on level ground. While I respect the mountains, I truly respect and am humbled by the Creator of those mountains. As I've studied Scripture over the years, I've discovered that mountains are mentioned about 50 times in the Psalms, so I must not be the only one who thinks they give us a glimpse of God's majesty.
You are glorious and more majestic than the everlasting mountains.
PSALM 76:4, NLT
Now that I'm a husband and a father, I get even more questions about why I climb. But honestly, I think that having a family makes me a better climber because it gives me an even greater sense of responsibility. That's not to say anything against climbers who don't have families, but I think that there's a unique kind of accountability that only mountaineers who are parents can understand. My faith and family always come first, so when I'm determining which peaks to summit and what climbing situations to put myself in, I always factor in my values. I pray about it and discuss it with JoAnna. Then, if I feel like God is leading me to go on a certain climb, I break my goal into achievable chunks to figure out what it would take to make it happen.
If I determine that the goal is selfish and would have a negative impact on my family, I scrap it. There are plenty of peaks around the world I'd love to climb, but I've abandoned them before I even got started. I knew that although they might have provided some sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, they would have taken away from family relationships and ultimately just fueled a compulsive drive to climb another mountain.
Here is my golden rule in climbing: I will never abandon my family. I had no idea how much that rule would be tested on the top of Everest on May 15, 2011.
* * *
Part of the reason I found myself on Everest that unforgettable day can be traced back to a simple conversation I'd had with a friend several years before. During a perfect summer night in 2007, my family and I were at the home of my close friend, Adam Henry. My kids, who were about the same ages as the Henry kids, were playing in the playroom upstairs, and our wives were at the table talking to each other.
Adam and I knew each other from work, and we'd already gone on some adventures together, such as rappelling, snowboarding, and mountain biking. But we'd never done any mountaineering before, so it felt completely out of the blue when Adam said to me, "We should do the seven summits!"
At the time, I hadn't even heard the term seven summits, and I didn't even recognize the names of most of the mountains he mentioned. I found out that in the climbing world, the seven summits refer to the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Dick Bass was the first to climb all seven summits in 1985. He came up with the idea together with Frank Wells, who at one time had been the president of Walt Disney Company. But in the 20-some years since, only about 200 people had successfully completed the task, which made the challenge all the more compelling in my eyes. Plus, it combined a few of my favorite things into one dream: travel, audacious outdoor goals, and adventure.
I barely hesitated before responding. "Done!"
Of course, the reality wasn't as simple as my one-word answer that night. It wasn't something I wanted to decide flippantly.
When JoAnna and I talked about it, her initial response was, "Okay ... but even Everest?" She shook her head, knowing that I was serious and that I'd probably already mapped out the whole trip in my mind. We talked about what it would mean for me and for our family, and we spent a lot of time praying about it and making sure it was the wise choice for us at this point in our lives.
Once JoAnna and I felt confident this was the right move, Adam and I started making plans. However, Adam's quest was over before it began. One day while I was training on a local climb, he took his motorcycle out on a motocross track in Bremerton, Washington. He crashed after landing a jump, breaking his back in multiple places. He was helicoptered to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, where several of his vertebrae had to be fused together. The doctors said he had a yearlong recovery ahead of him, so climbing at high altitude with a heavy pack was out of the question.
I continued to push ahead toward our goal alone, but I was grateful to still have his support and encouragement.
The first of the seven summits I attempted was Alaska's Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, or "the High One." I set out to tackle this 20,320-foot peak in 2009, but I had to turn back just shy of the summit due to high winds. The following year I climbed both Africa's highest peak, Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), and the highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus. Located at the southern tip of Russia, Elbrus measures at almost the same elevation as Kilimanjaro: 18,510 feet.
Next up would be the tallest of them all: Mount Everest.
* * *
Although I was already in good shape from the past few years of intense climbing, there were some extra preparations I'd need to do to make sure I was ready for Everest. Whenever I set a climbing goal, I tried to alter my training to conform to the specific conditions of the mountain I'd be climbing. For a mountain like Kilimanjaro, which has a high elevation but takes little technical skill, the best thing was to work on cardio since you can't really train for the elevation. For mountains like Denali and Everest, which are more than 20,000 feet, I added 60 pounds to my pack and did my best to climb three to four times a week. Sometimes I trained on Mount Rainier, which stands at 14,411 feet and is the most highly glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states. But most often I did my training on the various 4,000-to 5,000-foot peaks in my backyard in Seattle.
To emulate a heavy pack and to build up my climbing strength, I filled my pack with old laundry-detergent dispensers full of water. That way I could get a great muscle and cardio workout on the ascent and then dump the water at the top to save my knees during the descent. I tried to get on the trail by 5 a.m. to ensure that I didn't cut into work time or time with my family. I was usually back by 8 a.m. for my work meetings, with a Starbucks in hand for JoAnna.
On days I didn't climb, I ran six to eight miles on backcountry trails near my house or swam across local lakes, such as Lake Sammamish or Rattlesnake Lake. I'm not a fan of stationary training (treadmills, pools, and stationary bikes), so if I have a choice, I'll always train outdoors. Not only does this regimen keep me in physical shape, it also keeps me mentally fit. You can never predict what will happen on top of a mountain, but it will never be as climate controlled as a gym.
Another thing I focused on during my training was making sure I had a solid nutrition plan. I knew I needed to make up for the extra calories burned in my workouts, but even so, that wasn't an excuse to indulge in unhealthy snacks (except my weekly box of Chips Ahoy! cookies). For ordinary training days, my diet looked something like this: I started the day with a bowl of oatmeal and a latte; lunch was a sandwich or a can of ravioli; and dinner was usually steak, pasta, or fish. For Everest training days, I still ate three meals a day, but I needed to fill in the gaps with constant snacks since I was burning calories almost as fast as I was taking them in.
The physical preparations for the climb were a lot easier for me than the mental and emotional preparations. Having been on several extended climbing trips in the past few years, I knew that the separation from my wife and kids would take its toll. And the past expeditions had been three weeks or less, which was considerably shorter than the two months required to climb Everest. But when you're heading to Everest, there are no shortcuts. Between the distance, the extensive traveling, the high altitude, and the long process of acclimatization, the trip couldn't be completed in less than two months.
Excerpted from BLIND DESCENT by BRIAN DICKINSON, Stephanie Rische. Copyright © 2014 Brian Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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