Friday, September 19, 2014

It's Not About The Mountain

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 need.

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Will The Real Civilized Culture Please Stand Up

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 their hearts.”

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 ( 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 Tripoli, Lybia”
“Ukrainians place blame of downed commercial airliner squarely on Russia”
“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. Nothing more.

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 world.

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.

Climb High

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Music and Mountains… A Binding Force

The third weekend in June…
It just has a ring to it.
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 a week.

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.

Climb High


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

High Loss… And the Sherpa Voice

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 Thin Air).

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 battle there.

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 Sherpa coalition…

·      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 $20k.
·      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 mountain.

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 smaller numbers.

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.

Mingma Nuru Sherpa
Derji Sherpa
Dorjee Khatri
Then Dorjee Sherpa
Phur Temba Sherpa
Ang Tshiri Sherpa
Nima Sherpa
Tenzng Chottar
Phurba Ongyal Sherpa
Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa
Chhring Ongchu Sherpa
Pasang Karma Sherpa
Asman Tamang
Ankaji Sherpa
Pem Tenji Sherpa
AAsh Bahadur Gurung