Pete Athans Interview Pete Athans Among climbers, Pete Athans is a household name. The leader of the Everest Millennium Expedition has spent the past 15 years climbing in the Himalayas, but it's on Everest where he's made his mark: with five successful round trips to the summit, no Western climber has more. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that during the early and middle '90s, the so-called golden age of guided climbing on Everest, he has led a number of clients to the top of Everest, thus fulfilling many personal dreams.

"Those peaks actually describe the amphitheater known as the Western Cwm, and make up an Everest Trilogy, if you will. It's never been done before, and that's frankly one of the reasons it holds interest for me..."

Athans will return to the highest mountain on earth this spring, not just to try for a sixth successful summit on Everest, but to complete nearly a decade of geo-physical work for Bradford Washburn of Boston's Museum of Science. Athans and his team hope to reach the summit, and to operate sophisticated GPS equipment on the summit to gather sufficient data to determine the exact height of Mount Everest.

But for Athans, there's another attraction: he hopes to lead the first ever successful Everest "Trilogy," ascents of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, the three Himalayan giants that make up the Everest massif.

"The climbing objectives dovetail neatly into the science objectives," Athans told The Mountain Zone. "The climb to the summit is our first order of business, and to run the GPS equipment for Brad. Then we'd like to climb Lhotse, at 27,890 feet, the fourth highest mountain in the world, and then Nuptse, at 25,850 feet. All of those peaks actually describe the amphitheater known as the Western Cwm, and make up an Everest Trilogy, if you will. It's never been done before, and that's frankly one of the reasons it holds interest for me."
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Athans, who assisted Brad Washburn's geographical studies early in the decade by placing laser-reflecting prisms on the summit of Everest, said the primary effort this year will be to run a more-accurate GPS device on the actual summit long enough to gather definitive data.

Pete Athans

Pete Athans
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(28k) (56k) (T1)
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"That will give us an exact figure for how high Everest is at this point in time," Athans said. "And that's more than just interesting, because what that might tell us is something we don't know about plate tectonics, and the rate at which the entire range is rising, or moving. We hope to learn something about the movement of the Indian sub-plate. It will also conclude the work we've been doing with Brad for nearly a decade, which has a nice feel to it right here at the end of the millennium. Brad can use this data with other preeminent geographers around the world and close that circle, if you will."

A return to the Khumbu region of Nepal will be decidedly old hat for Athans, who has spent almost as much time in Nepal as he has in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. In fact, Athans has spent so much time in Nepal, he has acquired what few other high altitude climbers have: a fluency in Nepali, which has enabled him to enjoy, and flourish in, the Sherpa culture perhaps more than any other Westerner.

"Early in my climbing career," said Athans, "I got to know some Peace Corps volunteers while I was climbing in Nepal. So from 1984 to 1986, I was able to acquire a pretty good understanding of the local language. That, I think, has given me unique inroads into the culture, and the warmth, of the Sherpa culture."
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Athans climbing resumé reads like a history of modern American climbs in the Himalaya. After having made a number of successful ascents of less well known mountains in the range, Athans turned his attention in the early '80s to Annapurna South and Makalu. In 1985, Athans first went to Everest to make an attempt on the West Ridge. He returned in 1986 to try Everest from the North Side during a season in which no one summitted. He was back in 1987 for an unsuccessful attempt — no one climbed Everest that season — for the express purpose to put the first American woman on top of the peak.

Taking a "vacation" from Everest in 1988 for an attempt on K2, Athans returned to Everest in 1989 as climbing leader of a team that successfully reached the summit — although Athans himself, suffering from pneumonia during the entire expedition, did not reach the top. He did reach the top in 1990, however, on the same expedition that saw Scott Fischer and Wally Berg make the first American ascent of Lhotse. That was the first expedition to successfully attempt and climb two 8,000 meter peaks.
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In 1991, Athans participated in a unique expedition: an attempt to give Sherpa climbers an opportunity to climb Everest without having to support Western climbers. It was on this Sherpa Everest Expedition that Athans began to hone his photography and filmmaking skills.

From 1992 to 1995, Athans guided Everest for Alpine Ascents International, a period of time Athans likens to a Golden Age that saw more successful summits by clients than any other period before or since. More than 30 climbers reached the summit during those years under the aegis of Athans and Alpine Ascents.

In 1996, Athans was caught up in the tragic events on Everest that have been well documented in books such as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Athans and Alpine Ascents founder Todd Burleson (with Ed Viesturs and David Breashears of the IMAX Everest crew) were instrumental in saving several stranded climbers, and eventually escorted Texas physician Beck Weathers and Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau to safety.

"Losing our friends like that was a sobering reminder of how dangerous it is to guide a peak like Everest..."
Athans returned to Everest yet again in 1997, but not to guide. He had an opportunity to use his filmmaking skills for NOVA in a project called Into the Death Zone. Featuring Ed Viesturs and David Breashears, the film has won "Best Climbing Film" at the Banff and Telluride film festivals and a journalism award from Columbia University.

Athans says his decision not to guide in 1997 was not necessarily a result of the tragedy that transpired the previous year. "After all those years of guiding," Athans says, "I wanted to pursue some of my other interests — writing, photography, filmmaking. The NOVA project enabled me to do that, and to work with people such as Liesl Clark of NOVA and David Breashears.

Pete Athans

"That being said, I think anyone who was a guide on that mountain during 1996 could not come away unaffected by those events. It was devastating to all of us. These people, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, were our competitors, but they were also our friends. Losing our friends like that was a sobering reminder of how dangerous it is to guide a peak like Everest. Even though our own team was safe, and had been safe in previous years, it was still a sobering experience," Athans said.

Leading the Everest Millennium Expedition, Athans said, is in some ways the culmination of his years on Everest:

"Not only do we hope to conclude the work we began for Brad in 1992, but it will give me a chance to do some shooting, some writing, to even be a part of a film that's being made in conjunction with The North Face and NBC. As expedition leader, it's also an opportunity to take the point, to be driving the decisions to get the job done, both in regard to the science work and the mountaineering."

Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff