BackTalk; Climbing Everest: Risking Death for a View From the Top

New York Times June 24, 2001

By JONATHAN E. KAPLAN

Only on Mount Everest is failure heroic. After more than 28,000 feet of climbing, Owen West had only 900 feet more to climb to reach the summit last month. But he could not make it.

”I just broke down and lost it,” he said, in recalling his experience. ”I was angry because my body let me down.”

With its epic summit of 29,030 feet, Everest has been the source of fascination and challenge for climbers as far back as George Mallory’s quixotic quest in 1924. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, his sherpa guide, were the first to reach the summit in 1953, an achievement that has launched thousands of expeditions to Nepal. In 1997, a book about a harrowing Everest climb, ”Into Thin Air”, was a runaway best seller and inspired a recent film.

West, too, became captivated by Everest. At 31, he took time off from his job trading natural gas futures at Goldman, Sachs to pursue his passion for the world’s highest peak.

”I had climbed to 14,000 feet as a Marine Corps captain,” he said during a recent interview after his return from Nepal earlier this month. ”I’ve never done anything like this before. Just being on Everest is the mother of all wake-up calls.”

West paid $35,000 to be a part of the 2001 Himalayan Experience Everest Expedition. The team included 10 clients, 4 guides, 7 sherpas, 3 cooks and 2 Tibetan yak-men.

In late March, the team set out to climb Everest’s North Col, a more difficult route than the South Col, in part because mountaineers are forced to spend a full day above 26,200 feet, an altitude known as the death zone. It is the point where more cells are killed than reproduce and the body starts to die. At that altitude, West said his resting pulse was over 160, a heart rate far higher than when he runs marathons or triathlons.

West’s failure to reach the summit came on a near-perfect day atop Everest. After enduring weeks of deathly cold weather and 60-mile-an-hour winds as loud as a jet plane’s roar, May 23 was a balmy 9 degrees above zero. Winds were blowing around 20 miles an hour. After several hours of strong climbing, West vomited for the first time. He pushed on only to continue vomiting, which induced bouts of hyperventilating.

Standing on a ridge 10 feet wide with a 10,000 foot drop-off, West said he remembered the promises he had made to his wife, Susanne, and himself that he was attempting the climb for the adventure of being on Mount Everest. He was not there to get to the summit.

”Altitude is a silent killer,” he said. ”It’s sneaky. You constantly have to reassess how you are feeling.”

West had strict physical guidelines to adhere to if he were to make the summit, and he was not meeting them. He was risking dehydration, a frequent cause of death at high altitudes, so he turned back. On the way down, West saw an Australian and a Russian climber struggling up the mountain. Both died; the Russian literally fell off the mountain.

Still, turning around was a frustrating, if easy, choice. ”If I didn’t turn around, I might have gotten stuck up there with others,” he said. ”I have never been uncomfortable with my decision. I had a 60 to 80 percent chance to summit. Those are great odds as a trader at Goldman, but not with your life.”

The promise of heroic achievement and the potential for a terrifying death are the yin and yang of Everest, which has a casualty rate of 10 percent. This year alone, five climbers died attempting to scale the world’s tallest mountain peak. Two more would have died if not for a fearless rescue team and good luck. On West’s team, of the eight who attempted to reach the summit, he was the only one who did not make it. A Frenchman, Marco Siffredi, even snowboarded back down Everest.

”Any other day that trip, Owen would have summitted Everest,” said Chris Warner, one of the guides. ”His bad day just happened to be that day. The decision took a lot of courage.”

West remains respectful of the mountain’s powers. ”Everest is Everest and it bites back,” he wrote in an e-mail message. ”Andy Lapkass, one of the guides who was rescued from the top of the mountain, is the strongest guy I know. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody.”

Despite his disappointment, West said he felt as electrified up there as he ever has; his senses were acute as a cat’s whisker. He is undeterred by his failure and yearns to return.

”I learn more from failure than success, because when things go your way you have a tendency to take achievement for granted and slip into laziness,” he said. ”When you fail, you obsess over where things went wrong.”

West said he needs five years to save the money. And he has to again persuade Susanne, who is less than thrilled about the prospect of her husband’s returning to Everest.

”I think he may end up going back,” she said. ”But it would be really hard if we had children.”

She understands the pull of this ultimate challenge for her husband.

”He likes pushing his body to the point where his mind has to take over, to push to where your true nature comes out,” said Susanne, who was on the mountain with West for three weeks. ”In those stressful situations, Owen is very calm and good- natured.”

These traits have stood West in good stead during workdays that reach fever pitch from the time the market opens at 8 a.m. to when it closes at 3:10 p.m.

”I hate to use this word, but Owen is very ‘Zen,’ ” said Rita Nagel, a vice president at Goldman, Sachs. ”When some traders start losing money they get nervous. Owen stays very relaxed.”

The frenetic pace suits West, a restless soul with enormous reserves of energy. ”Owen is addicted to adrenaline,” said Nigel Jones, West’s roommate at Harvard and a fellow Marine Corps officer. ”Frankly, if there were a war that Owen could find, he’d be there without a doubt. In the absence of war, this is next best thing.”

West is also addicted to setting goals and meeting them. He returned to work at Goldman on June 3. This October, his first novel, ”Sharkman Six,” will be published by Simon & Schuster.

Everest, though unconquered, was — and perhaps will be again — the experience of a lifetime.

”The adventure itself was extremely fulfilling,” West said. ”I had to climb Everest. So many people talk about it; so few do it. I have this feeling that life is rushing by me and I don’t have time to do everything.”

Jonathan E. Kaplan is a freelance writer in New York City.