Coming to terms with my Everest quest
After a fellow climber dies, I see the mountain differently.
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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