Cho Oyu '97
Climbs 8K Peaks
Reality Check From the Himalaya
October 8, 1999
Here I sit, reunited in the warmth of my home and my friends and loved ones, having made a very difficult decision only a week ago to pull my team out of the Himalaya early, without even going above Camp III. This is the first time we had been turned back in six expeditions to Cho Oyu.
As I sit to write my wrap-up dispatch on our 1999 IMG Cho Oyu Expedition, the tragic news of the death of Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges in an avalanche on Shishapangma haunts my thoughts and my writing. At the same time, I hear that one of the other teams on Cho Oyu (of four guided expeditions, the only one that kept going) made it to the top of that mountain with two of their 10 clients, despite the bad weather and high avalanche danger that led me and others to abort our expeditions. While I'm glad to hear that they pulled it off safely, their decision to climb Cho Oyu also haunts me. I feel that guided expeditions are not where taking big risks or pushing the boundaries of mountaineering should take place.
Decision-making weighing the risks and the variables, deciding when to go up, how to go up, perhaps even whether or not to go up is the very essence of the challenge of mountaineering. Those decisions are often harder, more difficult, and more critical than the physical climbing itself. And those decisions must constantly be reviewed, renewed, and altered during the course of every climb, be it a two-day summit bid on Mt. Rainier or a three-month assault on Mt. Everest.
These essential decisions of mountaineering are processed through the unique mental systems of the individual climber. We each contain our own data base of history and experience, different levels of risk tolerance, and our own set of fears, hopes, and dreams. That is why one team will choose to climb when another, faced with the same conditions on the mountain, will choose to retreat. We see the problem through different glasses, and we're not coming from the same place; that's why every climb by every team is different.
Until leading the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition this spring, I was probably more well-known in mountaineering circles as the guy who turned around on three separate Everest expeditions, within 100 yards of the summit. I am, without a doubt, a very conservative climber, a conservative decision maker, and I can attribute that primarily to one thing. It's not that I'm smarter than the next guy, not that I value my life more than the next guy, but simply this: my 30 years of climbing has been indelibly inked by my 27 years as a guide.
As a guide, my perspective over the years has evolved to become primarily that of a leader whose first concern is the safety and well-being of every member of the team. I am not paid to "drag clients to the top of mountains" as commercial guides are so often negatively portrayed. I am paid to help make tough decisions that get team members back home in one piece. My teams hire me primarily to help them learn how to make those decisions using the specialized filters of my own years of experience on the mountain and to review the variables of our climb constantly, maintaining a balanced overall perspective of the goals of the group.
I hope the MountainZone audience has recognized that much of the criticism about 8,000m guiding which arose from the 1996 Everest disaster was unfairly applied to the entire profession. Taken as a whole, I think we're a pretty responsible group within the climbing community. Many of us are willing to turn around when it's the right thing to do. We want to help our team members reach summits, but more importantly, to build their skills and their confidence and have a safe, fun, rewarding mountain experience. I think we accomplished most of these goals this year.
As I conclude this year's reporting on the 1999 IMG Cho Oyu Expedition, I'd like to personally thank my team members Henry Hamlin, Frank Howington, Leslie Howington, Joe Coughlin, Ellen Miller, J.T. Thompson, Cory Heins, Dave Shaffer, Bill Smith; Guides Craig John and Jason Tanguay; and Sherpas Ang Nima, Tashi Dorje, Ang Passang, Pa Nuru, Da Nuru, Lakpa Gelje, Pemba, and Kami for their outstanding companionship and teamwork. They've given me another memorable season in the Himalaya.
Eric Simonson, MountainZone.com Correspondent