Top of the World
Mount Everest climb raises money for the Barrow Boys & Girls Club
The Khumbu Icefall, as seen from Everest Base Camp (17,600’).
Photo courtesy of ASRC
I’m lying in a wind-battered tent at 26,000 feet, taking a slow drain from an oxygen bottle—hoping a fresh supply of Os will be enough to breathe some life back to my tired legs, back, and shoulders. For the past five and a half hours we’ve been on the move—climbing and scratching our way up the Lhotse Face, across the Yellow Band, and over the Geneva Spur to a football field sized notch under the mountain’s final pyramid. While the body is resting, my mind continues to race; I know this break is short lived. In a few short hours I’ll be charging back into the tempest to attempt a goal years in the making: to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world.
The Barrow Boys & Girls Club is located inside the Ipalook Elementary School.
Photo courtesy of ASRC
Not Taken Lightly
The idea of climbing Mount Everest had been slowly percolating—the topic was raised, if only briefly, during expeditions to Denali and Aconcagua in 2007 and 2009. Interest, and the inevitable self doubt, came to a full boil in the fall of 2012 after being invited by a relative whose Everest plans were already in the works. At forty-six, would I have what it takes to attempt the granddaddy of them all? Could I possibly step away from my family for two full months? Would I still have a job when I got back? Faced with now or never, I kept the door to this opportunity cracked open while I explored my options.
First in mind would be to use the expedition as a way to raise funds for a local nonprofit, preferably one serving Alaska’s North Slope—the region represented by Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, or ASRC, where I serve as communications director. After a short search, I found the perfect match in the Alaska Boys & Girls Clubs; after all, my son and daughter had been club kids, my wife handled government relations for them on the corporate side, and as importantly, there was an active club in Barrow.
A Club in Need
The Barrow Boys & Girls Club, tucked inside Ipalook Elementary School, has more than 130 members and can be especially busy in the summer months. Clubhouse manager Selina Booth knows the facility has made a difference in the community, but believes more could be done.
“Those after school programs aren’t funded like they used to be,” says Selina while taking a break from her other duties as division manager for the Barrow Police Department. “There just are not a lot of opportunities for kids, so they get restless and bored and then they look for things to do and sometimes they exhaust their resources and then they start getting in trouble.
The club is not just a rec program. We value the Iñupiat values and we teach kids cooperation and team building and we just do a number of things—arts and crafts and a number of activities that encourage kids to work together and cooperative team-building. Kids are having fun and they’re learning without realizing that they’re learning.”
After visiting the facility during Kivgiq in mid-February and hearing about the need firsthand from its clubhouse manager, I knew I had made the right choice. With ASRC in my corner and additional sponsors lining up, final commitments were made.
The weeks that followed passed in a blur, the expedition—accurately called Going to Extremes—eventually dominating every thought and every free moment. There would be gear to buy, flights to coordinate, and websites to manage. Early morning runs and training hikes. Doctor checkups.
Media interviews. Talks to schools and kids. In a blink, the month of March had come to an end—if there was any more planning and packing to do it would simply be too late. And just like that—ready or not—with a series of duffel bags in tow I was being shuttled to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to begin what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime. After an emotional goodbye to Noelle and the kids, I was on my way.
Ty meets a new friend in the community of Tengboche (12,600’), during the trek to Everest Base Camp.
Photo courtesy of ASRC
From the south side, the journey to the highest point on earth begins in the bustling city of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and with connecting communities included, home to more than two and a half million people. After an overnight stay—long enough to trade US cash for rupees and pick up a cheap mobile phone—the team was delivered to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla aboard an aging De Havilland Twin Otter. At 9,300 feet, this short, steep landing strip marks the introduction to the Khumbu region and the trek into Everest base camp. Here, the team would leave motorized transportation behind—from this point, whatever you needed, whether it was gas for your stove or sugar for your tea, it’d have to be carried in on either two or four legs.
It didn’t take long to discover that Everest doesn’t give up ground or elevation easily. The well established base camp trail, snaking up the Chatra Gorge, took us on an up and down chase of the Dudh Koshi River—topping out at Namche Bazaar, a scenic Khumbu metropolis cut into the steep mountainside at more than 11,000 feet. Lined with mountaineering shops, restaurants, and even a pharmacy, Namche Bazaar would be an extended stop while we acclimatized and picked up a handful of souvenirs. This time would also be spent shivering in my down sleeping bag while recovering from a GI bug, an all-too-common affliction along the base camp trail for trekkers and climbers alike.
By the time the team had arrived at Everest base camp two weeks after leaving Lukla, we had climbed the nearby 20,000 foot Lobuche Peak, been blessed by eighty-two-year old Lama Geshe in a Pangboche monastery, and had grown quite accustomed to Sherpa tea, the trailside coffee substitute that accompanied nearly every meal. Now at our new home at 17,600 feet, a new set of challenges came into focus. Straight ahead was the Khumbu Icefall and above that the heavily crevassed Western Cwm and steep Lhotse Face. Finally, the real climbing was about to begin.
A trip through the Khumbu Icefall has been compared to the climbing equivalent of Russian roulette, and it may not be an exaggeration. Rising 2,000 feet, the jumbled snow and ice blocks (some the size of apartment buildings) are constantly on the move—threatening to give in to gravity and unexpectedly topple. From high above, massive seracs along the western shoulder are also looming—sections that calve off have been known to send a deadly blast of avalanche debris across the entire route. By the time we would leave Everest, the team would scurry through the Icefall and its dozens of ladder crossings more than six times.
For weeks, we crept higher and higher up the mountain to acclimatize, coming down to base camp after each rotation to rest and recover. Eventually collecting enough red blood cells to spend time at Camp III (24,000 feet) on the frozen Lhotse Face, this would be our final round trip before the anticipated summit bid. Craning to investigate the Yellow Band, the distinctive sedimentary sandstone guarding the path to the South Col, any sense of overconfidence melted away. The route was already arduous, and from what it looked like, was about to get even more demanding.
Any questions about the rock and ice above Camp III were answered less than two weeks later, the team kicking up the Lhotse Face for what we hoped would be the last time. On this run, however, we’d spend the night on a trickle of bottled oxygen—a somewhat awkward but welcome respite from the thinner air. At first light we were back at it, the teeth of our ascenders biting into the fixed lines that traverse the wall of ice. Hour after hour would tick by, the progress slow but continuous. At around noon I shed my crampons for the final walk to the South Col, was welcomed with a firm handshake, and crawled into a nylon dome to force down calories and regain some well-needed energy.
The sound of the tent being unzipped startled me to attention. “You packing?” I looked up to see climbing Sherpa Lakpa Bhote crouching inside the vestibule. A half-hour early, Lakpa was already dressed in his down suit, climbing boots, and pack—and apparently in no mood to wait.
“Yes, packing,” I said from under my oxygen mask. “Just give me ten more minutes.” Shortly after seven, after rigging my pack with a new oxygen bottle and stuffing in summit banners, heavyweight mittens, a camera, and water—I wished my tentmate, brother-in-law Dave Mauro, luck and crawled back out into the wind. The summit was up there, somewhere, and we intended to find it.
The last of the daylight had faded by the time Lakpa and I donned the crampons and began stomping up the Triangular Face. By headlamp we passed a few climbers and settled into an uneasy rhythm—step up, take two or three breaths. Repeat. Stopping at the Balcony (27,600 feet) long enough to switch oxygen bottles and grab a candy bar, we got back into line and began the push to the South Summit nearly 1,000 feet higher. As expected, it was going to be a long night.
Reaching the small platform of the South Summit requires more maneuvering through rock, its reward an unforgettable panorama of the surrounding Himalaya stretched out in all directions.
As I start skirting across the knife-edged Cornice Traverse, the most exposed and intimidating section of the entire route, the sun is just beginning to make an appearance—the first rays outlining the curvature of the earth in a wafer-thin line of brilliant red. Reluctantly, I don’t stop to capture the scene, but I know it’s made a long-lasting impression. Somehow I’ve climbed to an elevation reserved for passenger jets, and it’s a long way down.
The summit may be in sight, but it’s well-protected by a 40-foot rock wall known as the Hillary Step. Though I’ve known about the obstacle for months, solving this high-altitude riddle proves to be a surprising challenge, the path seemingly clear of adequate hand or footholds. On the second or third try I clumsily clear the Step, pick my way through a section of loose rock, and aim for a pile of prayer flags dancing in the breeze.
The uphill battle is now in its final stage and with each step the summit and its gathering crowd of other climbers becomes more in focus. The time passes slowly as I think of family, friends, and sponsors who were rooting for this moment—until finally the upward steps in the snow peter out. Turning around, I give a high five to Lakpa, shed my pack and take a seat on the roof of the world.
Ty Hardt is the Communications Director at ASRC.