Climbing Mount Everest Interview with John Beede
Hey there Travel Tarters, today I’ve got an interview for the adrenalin junkies out there who are thinking about Climbing Mount Everest. I’ve got someone who has literally and figuratively reached that summit and done the monumental climb in Nepal, which is the highest mountain in the world at 8850 metres (or 29,035 feet). His name is John Beede and he’s mad about mountain climbing.
I recently watched him being interviewed for the Australian version of 60 Minutes on television, and decided to hunt him down for an interview. And he was silly enough to say yes!
John still has his fingers, and they are in many pies – In the motivational speaking circuit, he’s known as ‘The Climber Guy’ (check out his website, Climb On Success) and delivers 30-50 presentations per year, teaching goal setting and leadership techniques to high school, college, and corporate groups. He’s written 3 books (for example, Climb On! Dynamic Strategies for Teen Success) and he’s got more online businesses than he can keep track of. He pretty much goes after what he wants and doesn’t muck around, and that’s why he has achieved what he wanted.
He’s also one half of the brains behind the insanely comprehensive Money For Traveling website that provides some great tips on how to score travel-related jobs, projects and businesses.
We have a saying in Australia that reflects this no-nonsense attitude – ‘We’re not here to f*%$ spiders!’.
Anyway, here it is! You can follow @johnbeede on twitter.
Climbing Mount Everest Chat with John Beede
The Travel Tart: Hi John, thanks for the time to chat. Just to kick things off, can you please tell the readers out there in the broad expanse of internet land who manage to find this interview in amongst all of the cat videos and adult sites about yourself?
John Beede: HA. Nice Aussie phrase. Trust me, no spider sex is going to happen here. Me? I have an acute sense of awareness regarding the brevity of life… but at the same time, I don’t buy into BS like “live each moment like it’s your last,” because then we’d all be hedonists, drinking ourselves silly and leaping off of cliffs and whatnot. Instead I believe in engineering and pursuing monumental moments over the course of my life. Everest was one of those moments that took years of engineering, planning, and training.
The Travel Tart: This might seem like a simple question, but exactly ‘how’ do you climb Mount Everest? I’m guessing you just don’t turn up with a backpack, a pair of hiking boots and just start walking up the side of a rather big hill!
John Beede: Nope, you definitely don’t! Everest has it’s critics who argue that Everest has lost it’s appeal. They say there are people who just ‘show up’ with their boots, backpack, and then pay someone to carry them up. In my case, I don’t agree with them; I invested close to 17 years training, dreaming, saving, visualizing, preparing, gear testing, and climbing literally hundreds of crags, cliffs, and mountains to develop the skills I’d need. I wanted nothing to be a surprise on the mountain.
The Travel Tart: Congrats on summiting. This was obviously a long term goal of yours and hats off for going for it and achieving it! I did notice on the 60 Minutes show that you immediately walked into the ‘Everest ER’ tent there as soon as you had completed the climb. I hope you didn’t need any of your extremities amputated!
John Beede: Rest assured, all 21 digits are in place (The Travel Tart: ha ha, 21 digits…!). I did go to the Everest ER for HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). It started after I had already summited and was back safely at Camp 4. HAPE is the biggest killer on the mountain, so says the Everest ER. Your lungs essentially fill with fluid and therefore stop sending oxygen to your blood. My case was moderate; I was still able to make the descent to base camp and the trek out on my own two feet.
The Travel Tart: On the 60 minutes interview, you mentioned that your oxygen tanks had failed and you had to go without for about 30 minutes on the final ascent. Would this be the biggest ‘crap your pants’ moment of your life? That’s considering you had seen a couple of bodies on the trek of those who didn’t quite make it.
John Beede: Yes, both of my oxygen bottles leaked… which was, in my opinion, the reason for the HAPE. Without doubt, the worst luck of my climbing career. Though it did get me a spot on “60 Minutes,” and more importantly, and interview with The Travel Tart! Each bottle was meant to last 10 hours on a 3 liter per minute flow rate; and that’s rather generous.
The first tank was empty just 90 minutes or so into the climb. That sucked. It wasn’t the style of ‘crap your pants’ moment you’d have if you were skydiving and your parachute didn’t open. It was more of a “awww crap, I might have to turn around,” moment. Never did I feel out of control or that I pushed myself beyond the risks that are necessary and inherent to the climb. I have enough skill and experience on mountains to keep a cool head and come up with solutions for most any situation that arises… this one included. However, I was just exhausted from climbing without the oxygen. It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t been above 8000 m (about 26,000ft) to comprehend what it’s like.
The best I can describe it is when you’re dreaming and you *think* you should do something but you just can’t get yourself to do it. To take one step required 3-5 breaths depending on steepness. Plus, my hands and feet were rapidly going cold, my vision was tunneling, and I didn’t have much motivation to fix those problems. The fact that I knew I was becoming indifferent made me snap into action and force myself to take it seriously. I kept saying to myself, “get your head in the game. This is serious.” That was my experience when I climbed without the gas.
To my understanding, less than 200 people have ever climbed the peak without oxygen and made it back alive; that makes perfect sense after those 30-45 minutes of hell. And yes, there are bodies of other climbers who failed to get down safely. They are on the summit day climb, definitely not on the trek. Hands down, they were the worst part of Everest. It’s gruesome of course, to climb past bodies. But it’s something I mentally prepared for; I knew I’d see them, and I’ve sadly seen other climbers, even friends of mine, die on other mountains. So while it was still heart-wrenchingly terrible to see those lifeless people, I didn’t have the shock factor that other climbers experienced. If nothing else, they are frozen sentinels, reminding others what is at stake. Anyway, the second bottle leaked at a slower rate and we didn’t notice the issue until above the Hillary step, which is only 15-30 minutes away from the summit. We resolved it, but the wasted gas meant I’d have to drop my O’s 1 liter per minute. That’s the flow rate for most Sherpa, who are genetically superior to you and I when it comes to the thin air at altitude. So I was acutely aware that getting down would be the major struggle of the whole experience.
The Travel Tart: The show mentioned that about 600 people make the Mount Everest Climb per year (with some paying special packages of $100,000 complete with chopper support!). And you also said that there were about 15 people at the summit when you climbed it. Is there a danger of Mount Everest becoming a tourist trap?
John Beede: That’s a question with many layers! Crowded climbs definitely make for dangerous climbing… and when it’s crowded with neophytes, it becomes even more dangerous, but compared to say, Mt. Blanc, the Matterhorn, or even Denali and Aconcagua (all other large mountains), I didn’t find Everest notably crowded.
In 2013, they are estimating over 600 summits from both sides of the mountain. Not everyone is on the same route, so the average year will see something around 400 on the South side and 200 on the North side. Not everyone is summiting the same day, either. And then you’re also counting Sherpa in that number, who are the real heroes of the Himalaya. So realistically, you had 300ish Westerners summiting this year, on different routes, over the course of several days. Not great, but still not horrible.
Critics call it the ‘Yak Route,’ and argue that you can pay Sherpa to carry you up. Some say Everest has lost it’s appeal and there is a highway to the top. The one thing these critics all have in common is that they are sitting at sea-level on their blog-happy asses spitting venom at people who are out there pursuing their dreams.
I’ve never once met someone who has actually climbed the mountain and calls it anything less than an enormous undertaking. Yes, with technology and experience, we have some extra protection from the elements and better understanding of weather and logistics for the mountain, but when it comes down to it, the challenges and dangers aren’t that much different from 60 years ago when Norgay and Hillary made the first ascent.
With that said, yes, there are definitely people who have no business being up there. True, none of us actually *belong* at that altitude. We are all slowly dying – with or without oxygen. I’m no high-altitude guide or guru, but I believed my skills were sufficient to get up and down safely and that I’d present no danger to anyone else. I do believe that there are climbers every year who present a very real danger to themselves and others because of their inability, but that’s not unique to Everest; that’s mountaineering.
The price tag inherently stops the climb from becoming a ‘tourist trap’ anytime soon. No gift shop is going to be built at Camp 4 anytime soon and much to my dismay, there was no day spa at the top of the Khumbu Icefall.
Less-than-reputable agencies will charge $15,000-$25,000 USD on the south side and some wonderful companies charge up to $100,000 USD for services that many climbers deem to be worth it. But no matter the price paid, every person takes every step of the climb, and that is not something to scoff at. I never once felt that Everest is full of a bunch of rich guppies who are buying their way to the top.
The Travel Tart: The highest altitude I’ve been up to is 5000 metres in Bolivia. I did find that at this height, the thin air was starting to mess with my head a bit. One of my friends did the trek to Everest Base Camp with his wife. He’s an engineer and apparently he asked his wife to check his engineering papers – even though he didn’t have any on him, and his wife is a doctor! What’s the weirdest thing you have said which has been caused by high altitude?
John Beede: In Peru, my friend hallucinated and saw a school bus full of monsters driving vertically up a cliff.
The Travel Tart: Sounds like some Hollywood screen writers may need to write their scripts at altitude for some creative inspiration! Anyway, I have friends who are mountain climbing addicts. To me, it seems to be a similar drug high that surfing (or travelling) provides. Here is a hypothetical – if you had to give up beer or climbing to save your life, which one of these vices would you sacrifice?
John Beede: Well, I don’t think mountaineering gives the same adrenaline rush you get from surfing, and I don’t think climbers are a bunch of adrenaline junkies. Climbing is slow, methodical, oftentimes very peaceful moving meditation. We aren’t all base jumping off of the summit or trying to surf down on avalanches. With that said, I would give up beer. After all, there’s still wine and Makers Mark.
The Travel Tart: One of my life goals is to score the most expensive travel junket possible and hitch a ride with Richard Branson into space on Virgin Galactic and have a Space Beer with him. With your motivational speaking background, do you have any tips for me that I could have a crack at?
John Beede: My other passion is kitesurfing, so I know Branson is decent rider and a mega-fan of the sport. He pushed to get it into the Olympics, in fact. I’d say learn to kite, join the Australian Olympic team, then invite Branson to the ‘secret Australian training spots’ that he’d never otherwise discover, and trade services: you train him to kite race he takes you to space.
The Travel Tart: Awesome tip John! I’ll store that one in the memory bank! And finally, where and when did you realise that you loved travelling?
John Beede: My parents took me camping as a boy. I fell into a river in the middle of the night while attempting to fish. When I was miserable and shivering, trying to dry off by the fire, I realized, “this is STILL better than school!” Hook, line, sinker.
More Climbing Mount Everest Stuff
You can check out the entire 60 Minutes interview. It’s worth looking at!