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Lone Climber by Scott Darsney Reflections On Mallory & Irvine
A Pretty Amazing Trip
19 NOV 1999

I knew this would happen. The last time I enjoyed this particular view, I was headed off to Mount Everest and the search for George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Now, here I am again in Taos, New Mexico, mesmerized by the big view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains covered in their first snow of the winter. It would be fine staring at these mountains all day long if it were not for the spectacular and poetic view in the other direction. That would be the Rio Grande carving through the wide open mesa full of sagebrush and old volcanoes.

I just knew that staring at this place, with the sun beating down on me and great margaritas and Mexican food within easy reach, I'd get all reflective and contemplative. I've come full-circle again, as I knew I would... and now it will be important to get my thoughts in order before blasting off for a season in Antarctica and a mess of new adventures and climbs and partners and occasional epics.

"Not to say that any of us even dreamed that Conrad Anker would shortly knock our socks off with the historic find at 27,000 feet..."

I left this special place in early March of this past spring, and then flew from Seattle to get at Everest. The Mallory & Irvine expedition was a pretty amazing trip to be a part of, definitely not the kind of excitement that one normally can count on in one's travels. Even so, I think back to just before we'd done anything very exceptional in the eyes of the public... back to the hours before we found George Mallory, and I recall that we were pretty darn jazzed at the possibilities we faced.

"Not so hard to remember, even half a world away...."

(8 photos)


Not to say that any of us even dreamed that Conrad Anker would shortly knock our socks off with the historic find at 27,000 feet, but I guess we all had some sense that life was about to get very interesting. I just recall that it seemed a dream to be let loose at such an altitude with such strong partners and such capable support to go exploring on the North Face of the highest mountain in the world.

Some of the buzz was probably the fear of death, of course. I remember vividly not wanting to fall and die that day, but there was also a sure feeling that we were going to come up with some answers to the mystery that had been tugging at us all. And when our findings that day ended up exciting people all over the world, unquestionably, that too was a kick. But, in truth, it was a stressful kick. We were still locked in the big battle with Everest while attempting to address a thousand business conflicts and concerns that seemed to have sprung up overnight. And after what should have been a rest down low, when we headed back up the hill for a last big push above 8000 meters, we were aware that not everybody at home was full-on happy with what they thought we'd done to George Mallory.

We were confident we'd acted reasonably. Even so, had we not been pretty focused on our mountain in those weeks, we might have had our feelings badly hurt by some of the big name climbers back in the flat world hacking us up in the press. I noticed that these heavyweight climbing personas were at least able to get their views...and names...and likenesses...squeezed into the limited space available to condemn our supposed hype. They were able to point out that we actually stood to profit from our time spent in the mountains. Horrors.

Sarcasm aside, these would have been dangerous distractions for us to have focused on at the time, because we were tangled up in Mount Everest more than ever back then. I have to work at it a little bit right at this moment, with gentle breezes and hawks wheeling about and horses sipping from the pond a stone's throw away. But it isn't terribly difficult to remember the stressful days in May 1999, at 26,000 feet, that Andy Politz and I shared in a tent being battered by wind and ravaged by thin air. It isn't hard then to click forward a few days to a fairly hard and gut-wrenching summit bid. Yeah, the top and all that. Not so hard to remember, even half a world away.

"When we left Everest, I was torn up pretty good over what had happened that day. I knew that we'd survived a wild day at the top..."

But I also remember that the stress levels only built up a little higher in the days following our effort, as friends and acquaintances died on their own tries for the top while we descended to Base Camp. And I remember how difficult it got to try to explain my shortcomings and mistakes on our summit day to friends who expected only the best from me.

When we left Everest, I was torn up pretty good over what had happened that day. I knew that we'd survived a wild day at the top, but I knew too that my actions had contributed to the wildness. And I didn't have great answers as to why my body and brain had put my friends through hell that day. By the time we'd crossed out of Tibet and into Nepal, the stress was melting away, but I was faced with new puzzles.

How, for instance, did I want the public... who were pretty well focused on our efforts, if all our friends and relatives were to be believed... to view my second summit of Mount Everest? First of all, I don't really have some huge need for the public to understand my accomplishment, therefore, I was never sure that they needed to understand my troubles. When told before flying homeward that our lives would not be the same in the wake of such big exposure to media, I remember laughing hard. My life had not been the "same" before this particular trip. It had been an odd life all along. How might it get weirder now?

But I also knew that I wasn't going back to some easily accessible media hub, I was heading back to a house full of spider webs in the thick forests outside of Mount Rainier National Park. I was bound for my guiding job on Rainier's glaciers and very few people were going to be stopping me for autographs out on those glaciers anyway. So any celebrity that might come out of such an amazing trip was going to be purely by choice. I might have made that choice if I thought I had something significant to gain in the process... but I truly wasn't looking for a new job. Tantalizing as it at first sounded when people urged me to write books about things I'd seen and felt, it quickly lost its allure for me when the realization struck that I'd need to drop a few of my jobs to set myself on such a literary path. I've worked hard to amass my collection of guiding projects. I really like taking semi-normal folks to big crazy mountains and I'm not ready to throw all that away to sit alone at a desk.

"They found right away that my blood was not very red. Therefore it couldn't carry much oxygen..."

Back there in June on Mount Rainier, I really wouldn't have needed so badly to find out why I'd been feeble at 29,000 feet in May. In June, I was plenty strong on Rainier and gearing up for Denali. Most people would have given me the benefit of the doubt about Everest. People generally don't feel okay at 29,000 feet, and they shouldn't expect to. But I knew my experience wasn't attributable to that normal agony of rare air. I remembered something just wasn't right up there, as my lungs had shrunk three or four sizes, like I'd ignored the warning that a plastic bag was not a toy and had placed it over my head. I knew I had to go get checked out so that I would never knowingly put my partners in such danger again. I had to get checked out because I had every intention of going back to such heights.

So I went to the big city and got violated by doctors. They found right away that my blood was not very red. Therefore it couldn't carry much oxygen, therefore a guy like me would flop around like a carp on the kitchen floor, gasping for air if placed on some spot like the summit ridge of Mount Everest. Sweet. The cause was found to be dull and boring (Celiac Disease) and the solution even more so... the doc told me to cut out beer, among other things.

So I did that, and headed up to Alaska to guide a crew on Denali. It was a wonderful team, we broke crevasse bridges, we didn't take showers, we ate bad food, we climbed up and up and up. My team was strong, my assistant guides were the best, our stoves were still burning hot and clean at high camp, I was feeling strong and happy. July is a neat time to be in the Alaska range, and it was doubly swell for me because it was another one of those times and places where I was not likely to be followed by paparazzi and maddening crowds of Mallory story fanatics.

In July, the Kahiltna Base Camp gets packed away, the ranger station at 14,000 gets flown off, the helicopter pilot in Talkeetna starts looking for other work, and the West Buttress "crowding" begins to ease until eventually you get to be the only people on the whole darn mountain. I like that; it tends to sharpen my senses. It also makes me conservative. And on our trip this last July, when the weather just got worse and worse as we waited patiently at high camp for a break, and when the slopes to Denali Pass loaded up with avalanche potential, and when our food inventories got easier and easier to assess... it was time to rally round the conservative cause. No summit.

We put all our effort into a safe descent and the all-important late-season passage through the slightly broken lower Kahiltna glacier. We do the last bit out in the middle of what passes for the Alaskan night. It makes for eerie lighting, but it can often mean that the top couple of inches of the glacier might also be frozen up hard enough for walking on without poking legs and bodies into every crevasse in town. We were all keyed up for the walk out, it had been hanging over our heads, so to speak, for weeks and I remember it was just fine getting to tackle it at last. I stuck my legs in holes here and there, and I made my rope teams take some big and loopy detours, but we did marvelously when it all came down to it. We flew out to Talkeetna with only moderate fear and loathing of ski plane limitations and squirrelly mountain weather. Talkeetna welcomed us with booze and food and showers (for those who needed them after just three weeks) A good time was had by all.

Part II: Reflections...

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