What's going on with Jeff Evans and the world of MountainVision... Here you will find my own personal diatribe regarding thoughts and stories I encounter in the world of adventure travel, climbing and mountaineering...infused with the themes that are the cornerstone of my MountainVision message...Teamwork, Vision, Commitment and Leadership.
Typically when a team arrives on top of a well-earned
mountain summit, the moment is met with a loud chorus of yee-haws, high fives
and bear hugs. I’ve been a part of many of those scenes on summits all over the
world over the past 20 years.
Not this time…
The 2014 Soldiers to Summits capstone expedition culminated
last week with a summit of Mt Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
At 14,505ft, it stands as the highest point in the contiguous United States.
When I first accepted the role as the expedition leader for this years capstone
trip, I have to admit that I was a little uninspired with the choice of
Whitney. Clearly it doesn’t carry the allure or prestige of a Himalayan peak or
the exotic nature of a mountain down in the Andes. However our main sponsor,
Wells Fargo, had requested in their support of the expedition that we keep our
training and peak objective within the borders of the lower 48 states.
You bet… we can do that.
In preparation for our final expedition in the Sierras, the
team came together for two separate training exercises in the Rockies of
Colorado. It quickly became very clear to me and my leadership team that this
year’s group of injured veterans was remarkable. We had selected well. Each of
them embodied the characteristics that we strive to recruit for each of our S2S
experiences… maturity, a willingness to grow and heal as well as a solid,
collaborative energy. More so than any of the past iterations of S2S, this team
was ready to charge forward with solid intent.
We came together as a team during our trainings… we came
together as a family while we were trekking towards Whitney.
The week we spent together deep in the Sierra backcountry
gave us the opportunity to embrace the mountains and each other…learning, growing and healing along the way.
The mountains don’t always give us what we want but they always give us what we
As the morning of September 11th dawned, all
twenty of us stepped on to the summit of Whitney just as the nautical twilight
was starting to cast its glow over the horizon. We took those final steps and
gazed east, watching the day dawn over a country that is still hurting from
those devastating events 13 years earlier. We paused to remember those that
were lost both on that day and as a result of conflicts that sprang from the
events of 9/11. In fact, the vast majority of the men and women on this trip
had enlisted or were brought back in to active duty as a result of that
horrific day…. their lives changed forever.
I’ve been on bigger and bolder mountains. I’ve been on tougher
and colder mountains. But I have never been as proud as I was that morning
standing on top of that mountain with those men and women. Quietly. Solemnly.
We hugged each other… one by one. Very few words spoken.
Many subtle smiles exchanged with a knowing glance. We knew why we were there.
We were there to remember. To honor. To heal.
Because it’s not about the mountain. It’s about the people. Climb High Jeff
Just returning from a month of globetrotting to various
remote corners of the world, mixing mostly work with a little bit of play. I’m
grateful to all of the good people that I was fortunate enough to share time
with scampering around some wonderfully inspiring alpine settings. I never tire of witnessing my clients/friends
embrace the beauty and challenge of movement through mountainous terrain and
interfacing with the hardy local folks.
This month was truly another wonderful collection of vivid
memories and images of local villages and homes speckled on the flanks of
mountains and hills on 2 different continents. The simple life that appears
before us as we tramp through some of the more secluded regions seems so
rudimentary to most of us… with their lack of running water, cell phones and
grocery stores. It’s easy to look across the valley at one of the thatch roofed
homes with sheep and goats milling about and feel a bit of despondency for the
inhabitants at how tough their life must be.
“It must be so hard to live in such a primal way. Bless
And then, if you’re lucky, you have a face-to-face encounter
with one of the locals. You see the wide smiles and note the sense of comfort
in their eyes. You feel that they need very little to be happy. Food, shelter
and family. Undoubtedly they experience pain and sorrow due to disease, crop
failure and lack of health care, but they exude this sense of being satisfied
with what they have in front of them.
On the second leg of my work month I was in Peru with a
wonderful group of Gold Star women (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_flag)
that are the living, breathing definition of resiliency. Recounting the
characteristics of these amazing women and their fortitude is another story
entirely.One of these women has been
sponsoring a Peruvian child for several years and decided she would try to meet
the child and his family while visiting the Cusco region on our adventure.
After many phone calls and much effort from her and the sponsor agency, the
meeting was arranged. The rest of the group was invited to watch and listen in
as the meeting took place. At one point during the meeting it was conveyed to
our group that this was the first time this family had left their hillside
village. The first time they had been transported by vehicle. The first time
any of them had ever been inside a building or seen Americans (or white people
for that matter). This beautiful family of 5 handled this “strange” encounter
with dignity and calmness. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must have been
to have a group of 12 Americans sitting across from them in a hotel lobby,
smiling and asking questions about their lives. The children walked 3 miles
each way to school everyday… rain, snow or sun. They lived modestly and trusted
that the earth and Pachamama would provide all they needed to survive. These families value the opportunity to go to
school and aren’t afraid to work for it while we complain if the bus is late to
pick up our kids or our plane is delayed an hour (try walking from LA to
Chicago the next time your plane is late).
Unbeknownst to them, the world went on bustling and
careening around them.
On this same Peruvian trip I was required to medically evac
one of the participants from 13,500 ft due to a very significant medical event.
After a fairly touch and go 24 hours, complete with early morning horseback
rides and hospital visits, I finally tucked her into a hotel room in Cusco and
retreated to my own room for some much needed rest. Not sure why, but I was
inclined to turn on CNN just to see what was happening in the world.
Innocence is best served in the dark.
“500 Palestinians are now confirmed dead in Gaza”
“Israeli soldier taken hostage and tortured”
“50 combatants killed while battling over an airstrip in
“Ukrainians place blame of downed commercial airliner squarely
“Another commercial airplane disappears over Algiers”
“Female correspondent sexually assaulted by mob”
The news cycle played out. Then as it began to repeat… I had
had enough. It was all just vitriolic pain.Every word contentious and coming from a place of anger and hate. Our
“civilized” world was in complete disarray with no end in sight.
I reflected back to that sweet, wonderfully naïve Quechan
family that would not even be able to relate to all the pain that their fellow
humans were inflicting on each other. They were, at that moment, just lying
down with the sunset, awaiting another day of planting, harvesting and grazing.
As these travesties against humanity take place, these
families go about their business just as they have for thousands of years,
oblivious to the pain, sorrow and violence that is taking place around the
I’m not suggesting that western society should disavow our
technology and cultural advancements and resort to a more “underdeveloped” way
of life … nor am I suggesting that I would trade my comfy life with my
campesino friends. I would simply ask each of us, me included, to reflect on
the simple nature of life and how we can become more civil with each other. Our needs are fundamental… food, water,
shelter and love. If we could live more simply and allow others to achieve
their basic needs, the world be a much more “civilized” place.
Just to utter the phrase fires me up and has me reflecting
on all of the countless memories I have collected over a cumulative 50 + days
and nights on the Rocks.
For close to 20 years now the third weekend in June has been
carved into my calendar with a permanent sharpie.It’s as constant as my ever hastening
birthday and my painful IRS payout. My expedition and work schedules always
have a mandatory block out over this sacred holiday.For the most recent nine of those years the
grandparents get a UPS delivery of a little kid that needs a home and food for
You see, the third weekend in June means 9,500 of my friends
descend on Red Rocks for a multi-night run of southern rock & roll music
that we know as Widespread Panic.
Panic, as well as the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers,
have played a constant soundtrack to my life… I have taken them with me on every climbing
expedition and adventure I’ve ever been on. They’ve coaxed me up big hills and
lured me back home again. They’ve lifted me up to far away places and then
gently lowered me back down again. They’ve provided me the venue to meet some
of my dearest, lifelong friends… in fact this is how I met my best friend, who
happens to be my wife and baby-momma. These bands have been with me since the
beginning and they’ll be with me till I die.
The live jam band music experience is very precious to me.
Each show is like a mini adventure with my friends. We put our team together… trustworthy and
solid participants all of them… carefully vetted from years of sharing
experiences together. We plan and strategize on how to optimize our experience,
delegating logistical responsibilities amongst the group. We establish all the
gear and equipment we will need to execute the weekend… professional style.
We enter the venue with a mysterious sense of the unknown,
hoping the band takes us to the place we are looking to go. At times we reach
the summit and bask in the bliss that only a highly functioning band can
provide. Other nights, the band takes chances and comes up short. We are left
shy of the elusive summit…knowing all the while that all summits are not
achievable every time you head out. We will try again tomorrow and perhaps the
winds will take us in a different direction and we will stand on top. When we
descend from our journey we are excited to discuss, dissect and critique our
experience… by doing so we relive some of the most precious moments. Then we are
faced with the task of trying to explain our experience and rabid approach to
our friends and family that don’t quite get it.
“You went and saw the same band three nights in a row?”
“Umm… yeah. It’s different every night.”
“OK…whatever you say.”
And suddenly it dawned on me… this whole live music
experience and what goes into it is fundamentally kindred to the other constant
in my life… climbing mountains.
I have been strategizing, planning and executing large scale
climbing expeditions for 20 years now. Putting together teams, strategizing
routes, compiling necessary gear and equipment, getting excited about the
potential of summits and understanding the expectations of sometimes coming up
short. Sharing an experience with my teammates that is binding and pure. Returning
from big trips and trying to provide a thoughtful answer to the ubiquitous
question, “How was your trip?”
Sounds familiar, right?
I find that many of the things I love about adventuring and
guiding expeditions are also found during the third weekend in June.
The adventure we share together… whether on a 26,000 ft peak
or seeing the band at Red Rocks… is about that shared experience. We go through
it together and come out the other side a bit changed. We look to our left and
right and know that even though we are in the same venue, the person next to us
is having his or her own subjective journey. And we are doing it together.
The third weekend in June is quickly approaching. Hard
saying how many Panic shows this will make for me… lost track around 200.
The Monday after the shows I will depart for Africa to guide
my 14th expedition up Kilimanjaro. Then directly to the Andes of
South America for my 12th time in that range.
I keep going back to the same places… because each time,
it’s a unique adventure. I’m guaranteed to have a different trip…each time. The
venue stays the same but the people make the experience.
The music and the mountains bring us together and provide
the backdrop. The backdrop where the real magic happens… the fellowship and the
camaraderie. We go for the experience… we stay for the people.
It’s been 5 days since thousands of tons of ice ripped off
the west shoulder of Mt Everest, cascading down on to the Khumbu Icefall. The
impact of that glacial collapse will be felt for generations…emotionally,
financially and politically.
As has been duly reported, at the very moment of collapse there
happened to be about 50 Sherpa making their way up through the icefall, just a
short stroll from Camp 1. They were doing everything they could to limit the
exposure to the massive hanging glacier that looms over the left side of the
Icefall… early morning departure to avoid the heat of the day and moving
quickly through the “shooting gallery” where the objective danger is
unavoidable. Everyone who has stepped
foot on Everest knows that this “hanger” rips regularly… so much so that
Russell Brice pulled his Himex team off the mountain last year based on the
word from some of his most senior Sherpa that this particular hanging glacier
was too unstable to travel under.A year
later, Russell seems like a gallowly forecaster.
Clearly a glacier can calve at any moment but typically the
chances of a massive collapse are much higher in the heat of the day after the
sun has beat down on the surface and had a chance to heat up and change the
adhesive qualities of the ice to the rock and itself.In the game of mountaineering, it’s
impossible to eliminate all risk and that is one of the allures of the sport. Living
in our insulated and safe cocoon of modern society, it’s refreshing and
exciting to enter into a realm that you can’t alter but so much. The mountains
make the rules. We simply do what we can to decrease the objective dangers as
much as possible. In this tragic incident, the mountain decided to shed its
skin atypically, at the worst possible moment. Of the 25 that were hit by the
ice, 16 were killed. Three bodies are still buried and will most likely remain
that way. This event was twice as deadly as the night that eight climbers died
in 1996 (recounted in Jon Krakauer’s, Into
It’s difficult to imagine the degree of impact this event
has had on the Khumbu community, primarily from an emotional perspective but
also with regards to the economic and sustainability issues of the dangerous
work these men perform every spring.
Thirteen of the sixteen killed were from the down-valleys
within a couple days walk of Everest. The other three, although carrying the
title of high altitude climbing guide, were not from the Sherpa clan and
therefore lived further away from the mountain. And although news travels fast
in the valleys of Nepal, I’m guessing that we heard of the incident here in the
US through news outlets and social media prior to some of the deceased’s
families. As the news spread throughout the tight nit communities of the Khumbu
and beyond, the anger, tension and frustration peaked from years of watching
the lion’s share of the millions of dollars of expedition money end up in the
pockets of fat cats from the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism (MOT) and not the men
who actually perform the dangerous work. As the dollar has saturated the Khumbu
Valley over recent years, so has the disparity of where it goes. With the
typical guided client fee coming in around $60,000, lots of people are getting
rich… and many of those are not the hardy men that are taking the most risks on
the mountain. The “muscle of the mountain” Sherpa typically pulls in between
$2,000 and $6,000 for a season on Everest, which stacks up quite well when one
considers that the GDP in Nepal is just over $500 annually. That being said,
the job they perform is incredibly tough and ridiculously dangerous. Twenty-seven
Sherpa have been killed on Everest in the previous 5 years. It has been stated
recently that in the past 10 years, Everest-working Sherpa have a death rate 12
times higher than that of US military personal serving in Iraq in the heat of
When a Sherpa is killed while working on Everest, the family
of the deceased is compensated an anemic $10,000 USD from the insurance kitty
that is coffered by each of the international guide services. In addition, the
MOT provides each family a $400 funeral compensation. This most recent tragedy
has brought this issue to a head and created a leverage point for the Sherpa
“union.” Their demands are well thought out and worthy. Some of the thirteen points of demand from the
·Increase the MOT funeral payout to the families
of the deceased climbers from $400 to $1,000.
·Provide same $10k payout to permanently disabled
Sherpa from the most recent incident.
·Increase death insurance payout from $10k to
·Establish a monument in Kathmandu to honor
Sherpa that have been killed on the mountain.
My guess is, with as much money that’s at stake here…the
Everest outfitters and MOT will gladly buy into these demands. Everyone knows
that the mountain would essentially “shut down” without the work of the Sherpa.
And if it weren’t for the fact that so many families in the Khumbu Valley
depended on the Western dollar, I would say that allowing the mountain to
return to its natural state would be a good thing. But alas, far too many
stomachs rely on the men setting the way for Western folk to climb the
On our NFB Everest expedition in 2001, the mountain was a
far different scene than it is today.Fewer teams, less chaos and only couple of “guided” groups. It seemed to
be a happier time on the mountain… just prior to the influx of commercial
outfitters and novelty climbs. The clown-show that exists now has evolved into
a tension filled, oxygen guzzling, conga line of rich folks that feel the draw
of climbing the highest mountain in the world. Westerners now typically consume twice the
amount of oxygen as was used 13 years ago which means that the Sherpa have to
carry and stock the high camps with large amounts of heavy bottles… both up and
down. This translates to twice the number of trips through the dangerous
Icefall for the Sherpa than that of the guided clients. Twice as many
opportunities to run into a lethal wall of ice.
Last years “brawl on Everest” was another indication that
the balance, at least in the eyes of the Sherpa, is out of whack. One gets the
sense that after years of performing the backbreaking and sketchy work every
year to help the western “climber” (for many, this is a undeserved title) to
the summit of the world’s highest mountain, the Sherpa community is finally
demanding respect and deserved compensation.
So now there is talk of cancelling the entire Everest
season. This is a terrible but yet understandable outcome from a very confusing
and tense time in the Valley. Many westerners will forfeit their “one shot” at
glory and dozens of Sherpa will go home with only a small percentage of their
typical seasonal wage. The Sherpa are waiting for their demands to be met but
are also quite hesitant to step foot back on an angry Chomolungma… stepping
over the buried bodies of their brothers, cousins and friends. And in an act of
trying to save face and show the world that they care, the MOT has dispatched a
liaison team to provide diplomacy at Basecamp in hopes of talking the Sherpa
guides into finishing the season.
Undoubtedly, there will be many Westerners that will offer
to pay willing Sherpa to continue the season in spite of the wholesale opt-out.
And undoubtedly, many will take the bait to feed their families with money they
had previously counted on. My sense is, the season will go on, albeit in
It’s a chaotic time within the Nepalese mountaineering
community. I can only hope that through this tragedy the Sherpa voice will be
louder and the compensation for such badass work will be duly received.