So Close to the Summit

IT just didn't seem right. I could see the summit of Mt. Everest so clearly, and after years of planning, months of packing and climbing, it was ending with one radio call. We would not reach the highest peak in the world. We were on the Wyoming Centennial Everest Expedition, more commonly known as Cowboys on Everest, and five of us had been in the communications tent when the call came down the mountain. We sat in silence.

Outside the tent, the icy summit of Everest was shining in the afternoon sun. It looked so close, so peaceful, but we knew better. We had all been high on the mountain and had felt the power of the 80-mile-per-hour winds that threatened to pitch us off the mountain, had felt the ice crystals that ripped into our faces. We knew about the tents that disappeared in an instant, driven by gusts of wind into the thin Himalayan atmosphere, taking the sleeping bags, food, stoves, fuel, and personal equipment with them.

Still, it was Everest, and our 34-member team had committed itself to reaching the top.

Perhaps the radio call was just a bad joke and in a few minutes we could all laugh and continue planning the next day's work. But it wasn't a joke, it was the end of a dream.

The dream started 10 years ago when Courtney Skinner decided to organize an expedition of climbers to attempt the route that had claimed the lives of Mallory and Irvine in 1924. Skinner, who had spent five seasons in Antarctica, has a strong sense of history, and during his planning of the Everest expedition he remembered Admiral Byrd's journey toward the South Pole. Byrd had taken an Eagle Scout, hoping to inspire him to accomplish greater things in life. The young boy, Paul Siple, later won a Nobel Prize.

With this as a model, Skinner decided to provide two scholarships for high school students and another for a teacher. He also saved places for a geologist, a photographer, a writer, a cinematographer, an artist, and medical researchers. These people, through their various mediums, would, Skinner thought, be able to bring back the Everest experience in more detail than any previous expedition.

With the team chosen and equipment and food packed, we left Wyoming the end of July. Landslides, earthquakes, washed-out bridges and roads, all caused delays, and we took 25 days to reach base camp. There we began the slow process of moving supplies up the mountain and establishing the camps. Within two weeks we had set up camps to 21,000 feet and were ready to tackle the difficult and dangerous North Col, a 2,000-foot wall of broken ice blocks. For days, climbers battled the deep snow and steep ice. At last they reached the top of the North Col at 23,000 feet, and two days later a team set up a tent at Camp V near 25,000 feet. We then spent 15 days trying to reach that height again, but were blasted back down the mountain each day by severe winds.

I watched climbers stumble into camp, unable to remove their own boots and backpacks, unable to eat, unable to sleep. I saw them try to cope with the high altitude. And I saw them help each other and become close friends.

When the radio call came to retreat from the mountain, we had been climbing on Mt. Everest for 57 days. By that time, it was not so much a climb but a way of life. We were bound to that mountain, and the thought of leaving seemed foreign, unreal. I felt a moment of disappointment. Then I realized that all 34 climbers were still alive. Not only that, but everyone still had his fingers and toes. Everest is not always so kind.

Then I thought about the incredible effort the team had put forth. Months of hard work in bad conditions, weeks of hauling loads up steep slopes in sickness and days of body-pounding winds. We had pushed the limits of endurance and had reached a point high on the north ridge. To push farther might possibly mean a chance at the summit, but it could mean a tired climber's making a tragic decision or a storm stranding a climber up high. Yes, the dream was over, but memories of good friends, good effort, and a safe return would be better lifetime companions than images of injury or death.

For most expeditions, their sole criteria for judging success or failure is whether or not they reached the summit. Not so for Cowboys on Everest. Since returning, the students, Mike Jauregui and Luke Omohundro, have gone on to college and are sharing their experiences there. Sue Cobb is working on a book. Medical researchers Sheri King and Ross Greenlee are compiling statistics from their research and will publish their findings. Geologist Doug Burbank has original data on fault lines in the Everest region and will date rock samples with a new system to give him insights into the formation of the mountain and will write journal articles on his results.

Steve Marts recorded video footage of the entire climb and will seek a publisher for the team video. Jeb Schenck is organizing a professional slide show with a musical background and will take that on the road. Artist Dave McNally is back in his studio creating a traveling show of oil paintings to coincide with the celebration of the Wyoming Centennial and, as the teacher scholarship recipient, I am talking with student and civic groups about the Tibetan people and Mt. Everest.

When Courtney Skinner called on the radio and said, ``Today we begin an orderly withdrawal from the mountain,'' our dream of standing on the summit of the world died, but through the work of the many specialists on the team, our dream of sharing the Everest experience is very much alive.

During the expedition, each of us had to face the problems of the monsoon rains, the washed-out bridges and roads, the frustrations with the Chinese government, and the dangers of high-altitude mountaineering. In meeting these challenges, I believe that each of us climbed internal summits and, in his own way, is a better person for having been a part of the Wyoming Centennial Everest Expedition.

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