Everest’s Legacies: A Sucker Punch to My Goals


Really great movies will sometimes stay with me for a few days after watching, either because of exciting plot twists or because of the way I could identify with its characters. I recently watched the Movie Everest one lazy Friday night with my husband and for a brief spoiler, the movie is based upon the tragic events that unfolded during the blizzard on May, 10 1996 on Everest’s sheer slopes, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, and Josh Brolin. Now, I would not claim that the movie is great, and much like the film Titanic, you know the outcome, particularly if you were watching the news in 1996. It’s by far, not the best movie I have ever seen, but it stayed with me. It marinated with me for some unknown reason. Maybe it’s because I have hiked up a few (small) summits myself and I know a little bit about the euphoria of having endured something uncomfortable only to stand on higher ground where you believe God himself may have dinned for breakfast just hours earlier and may be lurking around any rock. It’s a place where you can feel you have conquered and yet feel conquered at the same time. It’s exhilarating.

The actors who portray the eight lives lost in that blizzard of ’96 and the one life miraculously spared, lingered with me. Not having the patience to read the account of that day in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, and with the curiosity to understand the motivation of the real people hoping to summit the highest peak in the world on that particular day eating at me; I decided to google answers. For the next two hours I studied images of brightly colored and marshmallowed climbers suspended above 10 story crevaces by bolted ladders, peacefully sleeping corpses covered in snow drifts, and even tribute poems for the lost. One in particular was written in the memory and honor of Hannelore Schmatz, age 39 whose life was claimed by Everest in 1979 after summiting. She descended via the South East Ridge and lost her life while trying to bivouac and rest. Her body remained preserved by cold, propped up against her backpack, her long hair blowing in the wind, and eyes open, for years while hikers travelled by her on the South Ridge. To be respectful, 2 Sherpas attempted to move her and “commit” her remains to the mountain, when they fell to their death. The more I searched, the more I was intrigued by victory after victory or sadness after sadness. Reportedly over 250 lives have been claimed by Everest and over 4,000 people have summited. This peak remains a famed and sought after mission for approximately 800 climbers a year, making it significantly less remarkable than when Edmond Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to do so in 1953. Yet it is still every bit as terrifying and alluring to it’s climbers.

As I chased the stories of the valiant voyagers surrounding Everest, I was compelled to rethink any goal I’ve ever set for myself. I was genuinely surprised at the blaring lessons that lay in the wake of their experiences and it’s worth outlining.

Only lead others to greatness if you are willing to sacrifice greatly for your followers

The risks to those climbing many of the esteemed summits of the world, are imminent and include acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), Hypothermia, avalanche, falls, and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) in which the brain swells with fluid and leads to confusion, then death. It’s a true marvel that any mountaineer can summit this beast and live. I truly believe the reason for the great numbers of successful climbers is due to the leadership and skills of the mountain guides and Sherpas who prepare the trails and the groups of people each year at a great risk to themselves. In the movie Everest, actor Jason Clarke plays the role of Rob Hall, a mountain guide and founder of Adventure Consultants who by the time of his unfortunate death during the storm of ’96, had led 39 people to summit Everest with no fatalities. Dr. Kenneth Kamler, with the national Geographic team and the only physician on the mountain the day of the storm in ’96 reports, that Rob contacted base cam at the “Hilary Step” (below the summit) to report he was with climber Doug Hansen. Doug was a postal man from Seattle who had the fortune of attempting Mount Everest only because the students of an elementary school raised money to fund his trip. If an ordinary mailman could climb Mt Everest, then you can do anything you set your mind to right? The year 1996 was Doug’s second attempt to summit Everest. In the movie, he reaches the summit with Rob and descends well past the safe time to do so as a storm rages upon them. Dr. Kamler’s account is saddening to me as in a video he reports the message given to Rob to abandon Doug on the mountain. No help was arriving as the storm was too dangerous. He was told to descend to camp IV and save himself as it was better than two men dead. His reply to others at camp was, “We can both hear you.” Rob was able to bid his wife farewell and name their unborn child via satellite phone before he ceased by Doug’s side. He refused to leave Doug alone to die on that mountain at a great cost to himself and his family that I cannot even fathom.

Exercise the courage to turn your back on your goals

We live in a hyper goal driven day and age in wester society in which we are told, “we can do anything we put our minds to!” “Remember your why!” However, the quiet legacies of Everest’s victims and victors beg us to rethink this. Always question your “why” for any goal or achievement and keep that why in check. If our reason for a goal is faulty or begins to go awry in the process, we should dig deep for humility and courage to abandon the goal or reinvent the reason for the journey.

 Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, reported to HuffPost that, “Climbing Mount Everest was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.” He had the great misfortune of witnessing the effects of the blizzard and reports experiencing PTSD from the events that unfolded as the mountain exercised his right to rage with no heed to any life. His testimony begs others to rethink their quest to embark Everest and he sheds a more skeptical perspective on such a life changing experience. For some, it does not hold any magic. Set goals that scare you, make you uncomfortable, make goals that stretch you, but when a goal owns you and holds your well-being for hostage, run. Failure to execute a mission does not, in every circumstance, make one a failure.

Living in the shadows are heroes; Some goals remain at the trailhead

I’ve saved the best legacy for last. There are few things as wonderful as hard work sprinkled with a pinch of humility and there are few women as beautiful and charming as Everest’s namely archivist of Himalayan adventures. Elizabeth Hawley was born in Chicago and worked as a researcher for Fortune Magazine when she resigned and embarked on a trip around the world. After her trip, she returned to Nepal in 1960 where she remains to this day painstakingly documenting every Himalayan adventure and maintaining the database. Hawley has never embarked on a mountain, she has never seen the base camp of Everest, yet she has fostered friendships with some of the greatest pioneers including Edmund Hilary himself and has earned a revered respect from mountaineering experts for five decades. At 92, she is considered one of the most important figures in Himalayan mountaineering and the legacy she will leave behind her is a simple one of commitment and hard work. She may never receive fame and public recognition beyond what her biography reveals Keeper of the Mountains, The Elizabeth Hawley Story (McDonald, 2012), but filling her shoes may be as insurmountable as the tallest summits of the globe.

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