When the news broke of the earthquake in Nepal, my friend Megan was the first to call. “Dan didn’t make it,” she said.
Dan didn’t make what? I wondered.
I had met Dan in the spring of 2014, in the corner of a smoky teahouse in Nepal. We’d just endured the flight from Katmandu, marking the start of our Everest expedition. He was wearing aviators and a green snap-back hat that read “Toilet Hackers.” The room was filled with Everest hopefuls, and the caged adrenaline was palpable. “I’m Dan,” he said with a wide smile and too-firm handshake. I already knew who he was — everyone did. Dan was the head of privacy for Google X and working on a project to bring their famed street cam to the summit, what he later called adventure porn for armchair explorers. I was into it. He jumped right into the important stuff, the usual conversations of the modern Everest climber: “Which mountains have you climbed? How many companies have you sold?” After a few minutes of grandstanding, we both retreated to stacking our duffels.
A few days later, above the village of Namche, I noticed Dan struggling with the altitude. He paused to put his hands on his knees. “You OK?” I asked, expecting the typical alpha brushoff. I was surprised when he admitted feeling sick. “I threw up before breakfast,” I told him, helping him stand upright, a brief moment of vulnerability opening a door wide enough for us to recognize each other with a simple nod, like old classmates across a diner.
Shortly after we arrived at Base Camp, a 30-million-pound block of ice collapsed off the west shoulder of the Khumbu icefall, killing many. Dan still wanted to make the climb. Everest has a way of seducing you; the more the mountain eludes you, the more foolish you become. Much to my relief, the climbing season was canceled.
The following spring, I decided to take the season off. Dan decided to go back. On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake rocked Nepal, devastating parts of the country and triggering an avalanche at Base Camp.
“Dan Fredinburg died,” I told my wife.
“The Google exec?” she asked. “What was he like?” I closed my eyes and saw him a few feet ahead of me on the trek through Pheriche.
“He was, you know, a typical climber: formidable ego, hungry for life, slightly arrogant, a ton of fun.”
She paused, “He sounds a lot like you.”
Thinking about the comparison, I realize I’m not sure we liked each other. I did admire him. Most people don’t say their dreams out loud; Dan screamed of them, and then ran after them with boyish joy. How rare is it to encounter someone whose life is a reflection of their truest self?
And what attracts someone like Dan — wildly in love with life — to a place like Everest? He told me he was battling the boring, the mundane. I don’t know whether his legacy inspires me to live bigger, or warns me to live smaller.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my back porch, in the suburbs of Boston, drinking coffee with my wife, the sun coming through the trees. Is this the mundane? I wondered. In the moment, it felt like the summit.
When May arrives, I find myself Googling Everest, as one might a past girlfriend, looking for news about who is attempting from the north, who is climbing without oxygen. I’m not sure why, but I erase my search history. I close my laptop and walk over to the window, looking out onto my sleepy street of mailboxes and well-kept lawns and recycling bins. I might never really know which was the one that got away — me, or the mountain.
Mike Chambers is cofounder and executive director of Summits Education. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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