on the Documentary Channel
Written by March to the Top expedition leader, Ben Webster. He is currently in Nepal preparing for the upcoming climb in October.
I'm sitting in a teahouse just below Everest base camp after a day of shooting the preliminary footage for March to the Top. I thought it would be a good idea to write about the tragic events taking place here and to put them in context with regards to the True Patriot Love fundraising climb on Island Peak this October as well as the accompanying documentary March to the Top.
Let me first express my sadness at the loss of life that has left a pall over the entire Khumbu region. No one comes to Everest expecting to perish but it's well documented that Everest is a dangerous place. From year to year circumstances and mountain change which effect the objective risk in trying to summit and this is why some years the death toll on Everest is higher then others. Having led five very large professional expeditions on Everest, I can write first hand on the myriad of variables that affect a climb each season. The trickiest part in these affairs is the tight rope that is walked daily in balancing the objectives of the expedition with the safety of all the individuals you are responsible for.
One of my proudest memories from my Everest years was in 2004 when I was filming a mini series for the Discovery Channel. My team was able to get the necessary footage to tell the story including from the summit and return to base camp unharmed. They did this while simultaneously rescuing four climbers from other expeditions who had gotten into trouble at the upper reaches of the mountain. Goals met and people saved, very rewarding.
I worry that in the subsequent media coverage of Everest tragedies this year that non climbers will get a distorted view of the risk involved in ascending a Himalayan peak. That all mountains will be painted with the Everest brush as it were. The thing to understand is that not all mountains are created equal and should be judged accordingly. Some are higher, harder or more dangerous to climb than others.
In the case of the True Patriot Love Foundation climb the objective is to summit on Island Peak which is vastly different proposition than climbing Everest. Though it sits beside its more famous brother, it is substantially lower at 6,189 meters compared to Everest's 8,848. This is important because some of the deaths on Everest this year were as byproduct of being in extreme altitude or what is known as the 'death zone'. This area sits above 8,000 meters where most climbers use supplemental oxygen while climbing. This will not be in play for the soldiers on Island Peak.
Another variable that differentiates the two mountains is both the season and stability of the climb. The traditional climbing season on Everest is the spring where each day gets progressively warmer before the onset of the monsoon that ends all climbing. The rational is that when a climber attempts to summit at roughly 8,900 meters it will be when the weather is at the warmest. The problem is the intense heat that warms the upper regions destabilizes the glaciers and snowpack lower on the mountain making avalanches a daily occurence. Several of the deaths on Everest this season were attributed to exactly this scenario. The spring also brings more volatile weather patterns as the monsoon approaches.
As for Island Peak, it is historically a stable mountain and with the soldiers climbing in the fall, post monsoon, the weather tends to be quite stable. The temperature will be getting progressively cooler each day which should help solidify the route. The hope is that by the time they attempt the summit, the mountain will set up to be very safe. But always in these things, mother nature will have the final say and climbing decisions in October will be dictated by this fact. Heavy snow fall and/or avalanche risk will all be evaluated before any climbing is attempted.
What I think is important to emphasize however, is despite the lower risk levels involved in attempting Island Peak as opposed to Everest, that it should be understood that Island Peak is a fantastic Himalayan climb in its own right and a worthy challenge for the True Patriot Love Foundation team. It will push the soldiers to their limits and by doing so help them along on their individual journeys of self discovery post treatment. Make no mistake, Island Peak will ask questions of these climbers and its precisely because of this fact that the gains from the exercise will be realized. If military life has taught these soldiers nothing else, its the truth that anything of value in life comes at a cost and not without risk.
In my opinion, this holds true for Island Peak but not for the obvious reason. The soldiers will risk by simply taking part. They'll risk by taking the abstract, "Would I climb a mountain? Could I climb a mountain?" to the real by getting on the plane to Nepal. You see, the hardest step will not be the last the soldiers take to the summit but will be the first. Why? Because they will have had to get to a place where they can accept being taken out of their comfort zone and everything that it implies as part and parcel of the climb. That they will have to put themselves out there figuratively by their physical exposure on the mountain and metaphorically by having cameras from March to the Top document every step. They'll accept this as payment for their own self development while still serving other recovering soldiers by helping to raise funds for True Patriot Love Foundation.
Will all the soldiers make it to the top? I have no idea but that's precisely the point. They're are no guarantees, just as there are none in life and yet the soldiers are willing to try. And trying is everything. Its how we learn, how we grow. As Albertans are fond of saying, 'its not wether you fall off the horse that matters but wether you get back on'.
The Island Peak soldiers are trying to get back on that horse. Hopefully, Canadians will rally to give them a leg up by following their journey and leaving a little money behind.
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