Danville Express

Cover Story - July 6, 2007

Ultimate mountain

Laboring up Everest, inch by freezing inch, triggers profound change in climber

by Natalie O'Neill

On the day of his grueling assent to the summit of Mount Everest, Curt Myers suddenly found himself completely alone.

As he inched toward the 29,035-foot peak in the wee hours of the morning, at an altitude that makes even tiny movements utterly exhausting, he looked up to find not a single member of his mountaineering group - including his guides - in sight.

A thin blanket of snow covered the ground from the day before, burying the fixed lines, which directed guides on what path to take to the top. The trail was essentially hidden.

"We were having some route-finding issues," said Myers.

The previous night, his guide had made the decision to trudge ahead of the group in order to blaze the trail, brushing the snow off the ropes to find the way. Following close behind him, Myers was doing his best to keep up, while the rest of the team lagged behind.

"At one point I looked up and the guide wasn't in sight. Then I turned around and the group wasn't there," he said. This was the moment during the entire climb, he said, that he felt closest to death.

A surge of adrenaline swept through his body. In these extreme natural conditions, where lack of oxygen from altitude can cause impaired judgment, brain damage and death, absolutely no mountaineer should climb solo.

Now that Myers, who grew up in Danville, has been back in town for nearly a month, he says that moments of uncertainty and risk like these have forced him to reevaluate his life. In the end, his guide was waiting a few hundred yards up ahead for him, out of his view. But a close call, or even the feeling of a close call, can really put things in perspective.

"I used to work a lot, 80 or 90 hours a week. Now I've backed off to spend more time with my family and my girl," he said, explaining how he's changed since the voyage.

Myers, a sturdy strawberry blond 27-year-old, had his trek to Everest partially funded by SimplexGrinnell, the fire protection and alarm company where he works. The company announced its mantra - to help employees meet their personal and professional goals - a few months before his trip. And Myers thought this would be the perfect opportunity to hold them to it.

He pitched the idea to his supervisor, who then proposed it to the Human Resources department, and the company decided to give him time off work, along with helping him pay his way to the peak.

To get accepted to his particular mountaineering group, he had to send a resume of all the climbing he's done, which included four of the "seven summits" - Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua, Mount Elbrus and Mount McKinley. His team was highly experienced, which is important for safety, Myers said, since you are roped together for the bulk of the climb.

"You're total strangers at first. You kind of go, 'Nice to meet you. Don't let me die,'" he said, noting the immediate bond among his team members.

"If one person has a problem, the whole team has a problem," he said. Of the 15 in his group, nine completed the summit, including him - an unusually high ratio.

On Everest, climbers are no strangers to the idea of death. Myers encountered several frozen bodies on Everest, at points too high to be taken down, and one close to camp was a continuous reminder of the fragility of life in such precarious conditions.

Before Myers left, he took out a new life insurance policy - but not without being rejected 19 times, after admitting his plan to climb the mountain.

Risk-taking is one element of the climb, but there's another factor that's not so glamorous. Most people don't know that many days of the trip involve waiting - and lots of it, he said. Mountaineers spend long stretches at camp, hoping for weather to clear and for paths to become less clogged with hikers.

Transitioning from the exhilarating to the mundane is often mentally and emotionally taxing for hikers. These slow days take patience and are better with good company, he said. Myers' team, which was mixed with English and Russian speakers, spent time playing chess, reading, talking and taking photographs while at base camp.

"There were typical days. We weren't hanging on the edge of a cliff the whole time," he said. "I read every single English book there was."

The time at base camp allowed them to recuperate and for their cuts to heal with more oxygen in the air. But even at camp, the altitude and the sub-zero temperatures made everyday movements strenuous.

Myers describes the air at 27,000 feet by using an example of a normal task, like walking from your house to your car.

"You would have to take a break once you got there," he explains, because the altitude is so draining.

In addition, the temperature was so cold that when the mountaineers had to relieve themselves, they could not leave the tent. Myers recalled that even the women used funnels and "pee bottles," a frequent joke among his teammates.

To build up their bodies for the summit, the team spent weeks ascending high and then climbing back down to camp. Each time they ascended, they would push themselves a little higher.

"You climb high, sleep low," Myers said of the acclimatizing.

While the down time often requires more mental endurance than physical, some sports psychologists speculate that mental toughness is just as crucial as physical strength when it comes to climbing mountains.

Many climbers apply positive thinking and the use of mental imagery to succeed in extreme elements.

Motivational-specific imagery has often been successfully used for goal-orientated sports accomplishments, states "Athletic Insight," an online journal of sports psychology.

Danville psychologist Sara Denman agreed that some highly successful athletes are better able to positively visualize their physical accomplishments. She added that extreme sports enthusiasts have a higher desire for adrenaline than others.

"It's neurologically based," she said, "Some people produce less adrenaline and have a higher need for it."

Myers, who has been called goal-oriented more than a few times, said when he got to base camp he became extremely focused. The second he got there, the view of the mountain "brought him back down to earth" and the reality of it all set in, he said.

"It's funny to watch people drive up to (base camp). Everybody stops right there and gets out of their car. And they realize, 'OK, that's the mountain I'm climbing.' They stand there with their mouth open, going, 'Oh, man, what did I sign up for?'" he remembered.

Myers' father Chris says he's seen Curt's determined, highly motivated streak since he was a boy. As a 10-year-old, he loved the outdoors and went on Boy Scout campouts with his father.

"I believe it's heredity. I'm the same way and so was my father," Chris Myers said.

"You can direct him but you're not going to stop him," he said.

This is the case for many mountaineers, Richard G. Mitchell Jr. writes in "Mountain Experience: the Psychology and Sociology of Adventure." According to Mitchell, climbers often "seek leisure in a ... gratifying no-compromise situation, where outcomes depend directly on their own actions," he wrote.

In Curt Myers' opinion, it does take a certain type of personality to want to push yourself to these physical extremes. You have to be driven and motivated, he says, adding that he often finds Type A personalities in the mountaineering community.

On the mountain, this drive can put both help and hurt you. "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, a first person account of an Everest climbing disaster in which several climbers lost their lives, describes how hikers are blinded by the goal of getting to the top. When an intense need to meet your goal starts to get in the way of safety decisions, this is where it can work against you, Myers pointed out.

"That was a pretty big fear of my family - that I was going to hike myself into trouble," he said.

You have to know your own limitations, have experience, and not take unnecessary risks, he said. He also added that the widely used "turn around time," a time at which climbers must turn around no matter how close they are to the summit, can get people into dangerous situations.

"That gets people into trouble, because they have that 10 o'clock or 12 o'clock in their mind," he said, explaining you should turn around earlier if your body tells you to.

In Myers' mind, he knew he would not come home without completing the summit. But he also knew rushing it could mean his life. If staying longer and waiting for the right time was what he had to do, he was willing to.

"I have to trust that he analyzes it with skill," his father said.

Another part of the best selling novel Myers said he found accurate is that when people get into dangerous and deadly situations, there are almost always several lapses of judgment leading up to it.

"I attribute a lot of it to a series of poor choices," he said of many people who have died on the mountain.

Even with the preparation, Myers returned home from the adventure 20 pounds lighter, with slight nerve damage in his fingers from the cold.

"I just got feeling back in my pinkies, so that made me happy," he said.

One member of his group had to be rescued because of fluid in her lungs, and he witnessed several rescues from other teams. His Russian guide even helped take down a mountaineer who had been abandoned by his group and was hours away from death.

In addition, Myers confirmed that certain parts of the mountain are littered with trash and oxygen tanks. When you have so many people climbing at such high points, it's hard to get the place cleaned up, he said.

Sherpas, an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal, have begun to clean up discarded oxygen tanks and they are given a cash reward for every tank they bring back, he said.

As natives to the environment, Sherpas are known as mountaineering experts. They are strong and highly skilled at climbing in thin air.

"Their lungs are bigger, their hearts are bigger. They're supermen," Myers said.

Nepalese and Tibetan culture, along with traveling with his Russian teammates was enlightening, he said, but it was no match for the nature. And it was no match for the sense of accomplishment he felt at the top.

"I like the country and the culture and the different people - but I'm there for the mountain," he said.

For Myers, there's nothing like the view from the top of the world to put things in perspective.

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