Early in 2013 I was accepted as a team member of a 2014 expedition to climb Mt. Everest in Nepal. The expedition was led by International Mountain Guides of Ashford, WA, and ended after the tragic ice fall avalanche on April 18, 2014. The mountain was officially closed 5 days later on April 23, 2014. The following is my story of how I discovered the sport of mountaineering and eventually was able to qualify for the team and attempt to become the oldest American to climb Mt. Everest at age 68.
As you age you do not have to become “old.” Physically you can continue to experience vitality, vibrancy, exuberance, and even the strength-of-your-youth, as your age increases. The Prescription: Continue to be active. Do not ever stop. Find something physically challenging, and do what you say you will do consistently, and with intensity.
This journey started in 1985, at the age of 40, when I met Steve who introduced me to mountaineering. We started with climbing Pyramid Peak (9,987 ft.) in Desolation Wilderness, CA. It eventually became my favorite training hill (4,000 ft. of elevation gain in 4 miles) that I have climbed over 125 times. In 1986, after a year or so of tackling Pyramid, Steve felt I was ready for Mt. Shasta (14,179 ft.) in northern California. Nine years later and 3 failed attempts I finally reached the top in 1994 at age 49 – my “Everest” at the time. “I must be a pretty good climber” I thought. “Let’s go climb Mt. Rainier for my 50th birthday.” Well, I made it to the top of Mt. Rainier (14,410 ft.), but barely got back down, totally exhausted. I realized how out of shape I was for climbing and decided then and there to get myself in serious climbing shape. When I got back home I searched for a training hill and found one (1,000 ft. in 1/2 mi.) in Auburn, CA. I made a decision to climb it every Saturday, and did for over 12 years. At work I parked my car a mile away and climbed 15 flights of stairs to my office in downtown Sacramento every day. In addition, I set an annual goal of leading a climb of Mt. Whitney (14,508 ft.) in southern CA. At that time, world-class mountains like Denali (20,320 ft.) and Everest (29,035 ft.) were not even on my “radar screen.” I was totally consumed with just getting myself up my training hill 2 or 3 times every week and Mt. Whitney every year.
On this climbing journey I have discovered that if I remain open to all possibilities and take appropriate action, good things happen. Without me even knowing it the universe was at work in my life. Jason, my guide on Mt. Rainier, continued to encourage me to climb higher with him. Finally, in 1999, 4 years after my summit of Mt. Rainier, I went with him to Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft.). Then it was on to Everest Base Camp (17,598 ft.) in 2001, Mt. Elbrus (18,510 ft.) in 2002 (failed) and back again in 2003, and Orizaba (18,697 ft.) in 2004 (an ice storm turned us back 300 feet from the top). The mountains just kept showing up. My action was to go find out if I could do it.
In 2004 I went on my own to Ecuador with my friends Greg and Jim to climb Cotopaxi (19,347 ft.). After I got back I was feeling pretty good about successfully climbing Cotopaxi, and it was then that Denali first showed up as a real possibility – my new “Everest.” I went back to Ecuador in 2007 with Jim, Greg, and my nephew Mark, to refine my skills. But the only mountain I was able to get done on that trip was Guagua Pichincha (15,696 ft.). I went to Ecuador sick with the flu and just never recovered. We got “blown off” of Cayambe (18,996 ft.) and no one summited. A couple of us made it up Cotopaxi (not me), and icy conditions turned our team back 1000 ft. from the top of Chimborazo. I never even left the Refugio that day because of the flu bug.
When I got back home Denali started becoming a frequent thought. It was like I had to find out what it was like to climb this mountain. Could I do it? I read a lot of the stories/books about what could happen up there. It was somewhat/very frightening. Yes, monkey mind was extremely active. Regardless, I went forward with the goal of climbing Denali the next year, 2008. I hired a personal trainer to get me in the best shape possible so that fitness would not be an excuse. I also signed up for a Denali expedition seminar on Mt. Rainier to learn as much as I could about how to climb the mountain. The seminar was sponsored by International Mountain Guides (IMG) and led by Greg, who would later become a very significant guide/friend in my life. The good news was that I passed the seminar and qualified for Denali. But that didn’t do a thing for monkey mind – I’m too old, it’s too cold, I’ll fall in a crevasse, I’ll die. And on and on and on it went. But I decided instead to focus on the goal, climbing Denali, and not focus on monkey mind. It could keep on doing its thing. I just wouldn’t pay attention. So I left for Alaska in June 2008 with IMG and guides Greg and Mike. Being there was exhilarating, but the unknown brought up the most fear for me. Is this the day I fall in a crevasse? The thought was relentless. And my heart just wouldn’t settle down. But I just kept going and going, 20 miles to the top. On the flip side was the spectacular scenery – the knife-edge cornices and the vistas with clouds below us. It was everywhere, and it kept me energized. And finally after 12 days I reached the summit. It was July 7. My second “Everest” had been conquered.
I returned home to Sacramento, but this time without an “Everest.” I had just climbed it. So what’s next? But more important, what did I learn from Denali? I learned that I could do this despite the fear and anxiety. I just had to keep on doing what I said I would do, and do it without knowing the outcome. The universe will take care of that. I had no control over the outcome. I only had control over my decisions and actions. So it was back to my training hill and Mt. Whitney. It was about this time that the Seven Summits started to become a remote possibility. Just a fleeting thought, but I had already done three. Then early in 2009 Aconcagua in Argentina showed up. I had just knocked off my “Everest” in Alaska. I could surely climb this one. So I had to go find out if I could. I signed up for a 2010 expedition with IMG and my guide friends Greg and Mike. Little did I know then, but Aconcagua would prove to be more challenging for me than Denali. I didn’t have the fear and anxiety that I had on Denali, but the climbing conditions, the length (40 miles up), and the altitude (22,841 ft.) combined for a formidable opponent. But I persevered and got to the summit on February 14, 2010.
I came away from Aconcagua with a new respect for high mountains. There is nothing down here that can prepare you for being up there. One exception might be a lot of hard anaerobic work. The big take-away lesson for me, however, was to not take any mountain for granted – be prepared, and no amount of training is too much. With that in mind I began thinking that another personal trainer could take me to the next level. I was thinking Seven Summits, but not very serious yet. I just knew that a personal trainer would really help my preparation, regardless of the mountain. About that time TJ showed up. His expertise is strength training and it was just what I needed. We have been working together ever since. We concentrate on upper body strength and I work on my own on the leg strength. It has been a good combination.
Toward the end of 2010 I started thinking about climbing each of the state high points. Not sure where the idea came from, but I was thinking that the Seven Summits may not ever be within my reach because of the cost, and I had already done Denali, Rainier, and Whitney, why not the state high points. I checked the internet to find out which high point was the next hardest. It turned out that Granite Peak in Montana was the next most difficult mountain after Denali and Rainier. I arranged for a guide service to take me up in August 2011. On that trip I met Eric from Pennsylvania and Ann from Kentucky. We had a great trip and we all summited. While we were coming off Granite Peak we decided that we all wanted to climb together again the next year, so Gannett Peak in Wyoming was chosen. None of us had climbed it and it just happened to be next on my list of high points. We hired a guide service out of Jackson Hole, WY and had a good time bagging that peak almost a year to the day of when we bagged Granite Peak. On the way home from Gannett Peak I swung over to Idaho and climbed Borah Peak in a one-day climb.
About the time I got back from Gannett Peak the Seven Summits were on my mind again. One day I was talking with my trainer wondering how I could raise the money for Everest. I thought I had enough for Vinson, but I would have to raise the money for Everest. I definitely had the Seven Summit fever, four down three to go. We discussed some options and I started calling my guide friends to see how they raised money. What I found out was that they had been able to get $5,000 from this sponsor and $2,500 from another sponsor, and so on. But I needed about $100,000. It seemed like a daunting task. My friends rallied around the idea and even said they would hold bake sales and car washes. Seemed like a long shot, but the universe was now aware of my intention.
For me the climbs of international mountains have always been an excuse to visit some really incredible places. So it didn’t surprise any of my friends when I said I was going to Antarctica in December 2012 to visit the Emperor Penguins and climb Mt. Vinson. For me the penguins were the highlight and Vinson was the excuse to go. Vinson was going to be my 5th summit of the Seven Summits with just Mt. Everest and Mt. Kosciuszko remaining. I left home with a lot of confidence – “I got this, it is only 16,067 ft.” What I learned a long time ago is that the mountain lets you climb it. You don’t climb the mountain. And that was precisely the case on Vinson in 2012. The lack of sleep that I experienced in visiting the penguins reduced the energy that I needed to climb Vinson and I hit the wall at 15,000 ft. and just didn’t have enough energy to go any further. I literally had run out of “gas.”
An unexpected but interesting phenomenon occurred to me on the way off the mountain. I was very disappointed because I had not reached the summit of Vinson, but at the same time I had this huge sense of relief because my quest for the Seven Summits seemed to be over. I couldn’t afford to come back to Antarctica and it would be nearly an impossible task to raise the kind of funds needed for Everest. There was some comfort in knowing that I had given it a pretty good shot.
Back at Union Glacier the universe had a different idea about my quest for the Seven Summits. I was just finishing lunch in the mess tent and was about to walk out. Near the door was a table with an empty chair at the end, and the rest of the table was full of people celebrating something. I had to walk by this table to get out of the tent, and I normally would have just walked by, but the celebrating and this empty chair just looked too inviting to pass up. So I sat down and started to talk with the guy to my left. “What’s all the celebrating for?” I asked. “Oh, we just got back from the south pole, what about you?” “I just got back from Vinson.” “How was it?” he asked. “I didn’t make it, I ran out of gas.” “You look about my age, you must be about 50,” he said. “No, I’m 67.” I said. He looked again at me and said, “Really?” We kept talking for a few more minutes and then we got around to what other mountains I had climbed, and I said I had been to Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Denali, Aconcagua and Everest Base Camp, but never could afford to go to the top. He paused and then said, “Well, I’ll fund you.” And without any hesitation the very next thing he said was, “and I mean it!”
Within that instant Andy changed my life. My journey to Everest was not over. Andy was meant to be in that tent at that time and I was meant to sit down in that empty chair. That’s how the universe works. We shook hands and that is all there has ever been of any formality about our relationship. He is a man of his word, and all fees and expenses are being taken care of. I developed a Prospectus for our Everest Project that he approved and then I started getting into the best shape of my life. He is a man of his word, and all fees and expenses were taken care of.
My training consisted of working with TJ on upper body and leg strength in preparation for Everest, working out in my own gym on leg and core strength, cross training on a road bike, walking with a 65# pack in my neighborhood, hill climbing with a 65# pack, and just doing a lot of climbing. I did 14 mountains 10,000 ft. to 14,505 ft. during the summer of 2013, and went back to Mt. Vinson (16,067 ft.) in December 2013 and summited on January 5, 2014.
In March of 2014, I left for Everest. Five weeks later on April 18, the fatal avalanche closed the mountain and ended my attempt to become the oldest American to summit Mt Everest.