Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Manaslu Part 13

Tashi’s Boys

The Kathmandu Guest House has a manicured courtyard where tan coated waiters serve you Tuborg Beer in thirty two ounce bottles. It’s an international arena where tan Greeks flagrantly inhale cigarettes and blond Norwegians scribble furious notes into hardbound travel journals. I often wish that I’d been born into the era of the great modern explorers – the Tilmans, Shiptons, Hillarys and Thesingers – into a time when a man could, in all seriousness, wear knee high riding boots. Sitting at a small teak table on the lawn of the Kathmandu Guest House inhaling the tropical scents and feeling the sun on my face I dreamed myself into a sepia-toned world where I could be sure that each of my fellow guests had packed both a tuxedo and a high caliber rifle. You could easily pass a month here watching the scene through the bottom of a glass, but you shouldn’t, because this isn’t Kathmandu.

Travel is about empathy. I’m not referring to sympathy, sympathy is cheap while empathy comes at full price. Empathy comes from a day in the other man’s shoes, and this is the purpose of worthy travel. Worthy travel should wrench you out of your tightly controlled world and thrust you into the world of the unknown, the world of experience. Ignorant, narrow-minded opinions spring from those who haven’t strayed far from home, and Kathmandu is pretty damn far from home.

Outside of the guarded gate and whitewashed walls of the Kathmandu Guest House trishaw drivers peddle crudely welded three-wheeled taxis over red brick streets lined with children holding out softball-sized elephants that they claim to be carved from yak bone – nice if it were true.

We had met several of our Nepali crew at the airport; we met the remainder at the warehouse office of our trekking agent Tashi Sherpa. In addition to our three sherpas our entourage included a cook, three kitchen boys and a sirdar – a kind of foreman - all of whom were hired and outfitted by Tashi. An experienced Himalayan climber and an influential government official, Tashi cost us a grand sum, but it was a price that, in the end, was well worth paying.

“My boys will take care of you,” Tashi said in perfect English during our first meeting. The boys he was referring to were the three climbing sherpas he had hired to assist our expedition: Kusang Sherpa, Ki Kami Sherpa and Dhanjeet (AKA Khan Cha) Tamung. To many people sherpa is a generic term meaning a professional high altitude mountaineer, which is not entirely accurate. Sherpa is an ethnicity, not a job distinction, but because most Nepali climbers are Sherpa the term sherpa (with a small s) has become synonymous with professional high-altitude mountaineer. In point of fact, however, not all Sherpas are professional mountaineers and not all professional Himalayan mountaineers are Sherpa. For example, Kusang and Ki Kami are Sherpa while Khan Cha is Tamung, but all three are climbing sherpas. Nepal has a very interesting system where your surname denotes your ethnicity.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Manaslu Part 12

Now we had a team of nine – six American and three Nepali – and intended to climb Manaslu using four, possibly three, camps. Providing accommodations for every climber at every camp would require twenty tents and an equal number of stoves. This was out of the question. The first lesson in backcountry survival is to have adequate shelter; everything else is secondary. In the high mountains shelter means a tough, sturdy, yet lightweight, tent that can withstand one hundred knot winds and complete snow burial. Only a handful of tents meet these criteria and all are extremely expensive. We were a self funded expedition, and the cost of purchasing and transporting twenty tents would have placed us in bankruptcy. In the end we decided to purchase eight new tents and to bring two well-used tents as spares.

Our lack of funds, and sincere desire to climb the mountain under our own steam, coupled with a dose of common sense placed us in the middle ground between the expedition and alpine styles. I saw this as a very good place to be. We would bring enough rope to fix portions of the route, but not all of it, we would bring enough tents to establish three, possibly four, small camps and we would hire three local climbers who would be treated as equal members of the team, and not as a pack mules.

Unless you are planning a trip to the Himalayas any discussion regarding the organization of an eight thousand meter climbing expedition would prove quite boring. Suffice it to say that during the month prior to our departure planning, acquisition and packing became for me a full-time job.

We left for Kathmandu on April 7th, 2002.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Manaslu Part 11

My newfound habit of meeting Melony at the door, putting our four-year old son Sam in her care and then commencing my exercise routine tested the tolerance of an already tolerant wife. I had thrust Melony into another no win situation: the more I trained the better my chances of survival while the more I trained the less we saw of each other and the more responsibilities I pawned off on her.

In addition to the physical training, I both studied what little route info we could scrounge together and reviewed every mountaineering skill that I had developed over the past fourteen years. I inspected every piece of mountaineering gear searching for weakness and I developed field repair techniques, if some piece of equipment wasn’t deemed satisfactory it was tossed into the drawer and a new improved item was bought. My focus on Manaslu was complete; I didn’t have room for anything else. The more I ran, rode, climbed, studied and practiced the less accepting I became of weakness, and in the end I feel that became quite cold and dispassionate towards the trials of several of my companions.

We were going to climb a big mountain and we were going to need a big pile of food, fuel and equipment to do it. There are two schools of thought when it comes to high altitude mountaineering: expedition style and alpine style. Expedition style, some call it siege style, is where a large highly equipped team establishes a ladder of stocked camps and fixed ropes up the mountain. After everything is in place the summit team follows the chain of established camps up the mountain carrying very little in between. Acclimatization is accomplished through the up and down effort required to establish the camps and set the permanent ropes. Alpine style in contrast is a bottom to top climb up the mountain during which the summit team carries all the necessary food, fuel and gear in one continuous push. The alpine style climber acclimatizes by making forays up the mountain or by climbing neighboring peaks. The advantage of expedition style mountaineering is the safety of established camps and fixed lines, but it requires a large amount of gear which must be removed at the end of the climb, and expedition mountaineers must make repeated forays across dangerous terrain while stocking camps and setting lines. Alpine style climbers only have to cross dangerous terrain twice – once on the ascent and once on the descent – and have only a fraction of the gear requirements of expedition-style mountaineers, but climbing in such a daring – some say “fair” - fashion way requires a super fit and extremely competent climber.

As someone who didn’t know how his body would respond to the ravages of high altitude I wasn’t willing to expose myself to the dangers of strict adherence to the alpine style. But neither was I willing to lay siege to the mountain. In Nepal there is a large pool of for hire high altitude mountaineers, these fellows are commonly known as sherpas though many are not ethnically Sherpa. Sherpas are paid to carry loads, establish camps and fix rope and many of these professional climbers view as an unnecessary liability. It is quite common for foreign climbers to hire a number of sherpa climbers and then assign them the task of establishing a chain of camps and ropes up the mountain, this method leaves the other climbers free to acclimatize by moving up and down the mountain with little more than daypacks. The rewards of a summit reached only by having another man carry your weight didn’t seem to be worth the effort. We had to find a middle ground.

None of us had ever climbed with sherpas, so we spoke with mountaineers who had. Some swore by their hired companions while others stated that their sherpas were little more than an extra mouth to feed. With our small team of only six climbers it seemed to me that two strong sherpas would be worth their weight in gold. But what if one became sick or injured? We decided to hire three. Little did we know at the time that this would be our most critical and wise decision.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Manaslu Part 10

To go to Manaslu without Brian Sato was out of the question. Brian is a perfectionist and so far this trip was far from perfect. During the first two weeks of January 2002 we debated and discussed every detail of the trip, we speculated, criticized and praised. In the end the desire to climb an eight thousand meter peak and the realization that a “perfect” trip exists only within the mind trumped all other concerns and we both decided to commit ourselves fully to this expedition.

We had a small team which consequently demanded the complete and unwavering commitment of each member. Without an extraordinary effort by all involved, this trip wasn’t going to get past the dreamy talk overheard by the semi-drunk business travelers with whom we shared the lounge at the SeaTac Double Tree Inn. I desperately wanted this trip to happen and felt that the only way that we would even arrive at base camp would be through sheer force of will. This very critical decision seemingly went unnoticed by all of my teammates save Brian.


Grown men who play children’s games hold no stock with me, instead give me the great adventurers. Thesinger, Tillman, Shipton, Buhl, Unsoeld, Hornbein, these are the people who I aspire to emulate. When I committed to climb the world’s eighth highest mountain I vowed to arrive at base camp in the same manner as my heroes: fit, competent, and independent.

Brian had used indelible ink to inscribe the following quote on his foam sleeping pad; it’s by the alpinist Mark Twight :

“You must make yourself as indestructible as possible. The harder you are to kill, the longer you will last in the mountains.”

Good advice.

In order to reach the summit of Manaslu, and more importantly to come back down alive and intact, I knew that I must adopt a nearly psychotic attitude towards my fitness – not only physical fitness but technical and mental fitness as well.

The best way to train for climbing is to climb, and so I began carrying sixty pounds of water up Tiger Mountain - a three thousand foot hill near my house. I wore the same pack, boots, and clothing that I would take to the mountain in order to assess the fit and functionality of my personal gear. I ran endless cycles up and down the steepest and longest hills I could find and every morning I set a training goal and would not stop until it was reached. Occasionally I would force myself to exceed my prescribed goal. My rigid training schedule took its toll on my family.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Manaslu Part 9

We began meeting twice a month at a south Seattle hotel where we delegated the work and reported on our progress. We debated everything from the number of tents we would need to the calorie content of our on-mountain lunches. Shortly before Christmas Tom arrived for one of our debate sessions slash meetings with the burly owner of a rugged weathered face, his name was Dan Percival.

Dan had climbed the highest peak in North America – Denali, the highest peak in the Americas – Aconcagua, the highest peak in Africa – Kilimanjaro and now he looked towards the Himalayas. Youth is not requisite when it comes to climbing big mountains. Expedition mountaineering requires the skills and patience developed over years spent in the mountains and therefore nobody on the team flinched when Dan revealed his age as fifty-nine. If he reached the top Dan would be the oldest climber to summit Manaslu. I immediately liked Dan, he was modest, self-confident and, most importantly, he enjoyed good beer. Dan had come prepared to sell himself: he hadn’t begun climbing until age thirty nine, three years older than I was at the time, but despite a late start he had made some impressive alpine ascents as well as some very serious ice routes. What I especially liked about Dan was enthusiasm for and commitment to climbing Manaslu, he was willing to throw himself completely into this project.

Six climbers, only one of which I knew personally, seemed a skeleton crew at best. In the mountains it seems that a small tightly knit group of friends is preferable to a large assemblage of strangers, but as the calendar rotated into 2002 all that we had was a small group of strangers.

I never have been, nor do I want to be a solo climber. Going it alone defeats the main reason I go into the mountains – friendship. I am very blessed to have a group of friends, Brain is among these, who I know for a verifiable fact would risk their life in order to save mine. We all like to think of our friends as true blue and till death do us part, but how many of us have the facts to back up this conjecture. I do. I see this type of friendship as a kind of marriage. You are more than friends with your spouse because of the physical relationship that you share, and similarly I am more than friends with these men because of the hardship, disappointment and triumph that we have shared. I am as loyal to these guys as I am my own family. Whenever I look back on a particularly rewarding mountaineering experience I first see the faces of my friends and the inside jokes and secrets that we shared. Any mountain summit is useless if I can’t share it with a friend, and it is on this point that I feel my Manaslu partners and I had the greatest rift.

Both Brian and I share a background of climbing with close friends and consequently we both placed the highest priority on compatibility and camaraderie. Neither Brian nor I wanted to go on an expedition with strangers. This may very well be a self-confidence issue – I believe more in the strength of my group than I do in myself. Dan, on the other hand, held an opposite view. Dan is a very skilled mountaineer who has led many Boy Scout and other organized club outings and seemed very accustomed to venturing into the hills with strangers. As a pragmatic mountaineer Dan clearly saw the advantages of intimately knowing those who will accompany you to an eight thousand meter peak, but he seemed to place it as a nicety rather than a necessity.

In early January of 2002 I found myself in a position that I didn’t want to be in. By this time I had invested three months in the prospect of climbing Manaslu, but mostly my energy was expended in the form of thought and not action. Because we had not yet climbed together as a group my option to withdraw from the team remained intact, but the clock was running out. We planned to be flying towards Kathmandu in early April, which left us a mere three months to prepare and pack this entire expedition. Looking back I am amazed that we actually did it. I could remain undecided no longer; I had to either attack this thing with all of my energy or retreat.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Manaslu Part 8

The Team

For the past decade I’ve only ventured into the mountains with a very tight and close group of extremely competent and extraordinarily fit friends. Mountaineering is a game of trust, and when two climbers share a rope they literally, as well as figuratively, entwine their lives. After returning from my first trip to Denali in 1993, an expedition that consisted of Brian and two other close friends, Bill Hartlieb and Scott Saufferer, I suffered serious withdrawals from my teammates. For twenty seven days we had remained within one hundred feet of one another, and saying goodbye at the airport was accompanied with unexpected sadness and a very real sense of loneliness. It was a strange emotion that I believe was indicative of how close and interdependent we had become. This is how it should be. I was not going to go on the greatest climbing trip of my life with strangers, and I told Tom that before I committed anything to this trip I would have to meet and climb with every team member. Tom agreed.

I first met Scott Boettcher in the lounge of the airport hotel where we began holding bi-weekly team meetings. Six months my junior, Scott was both the youngest member of the group and the most physically fit. He didn’t just “participate in” or a “finish” ultra marathons he instead was a “competitor” a person who actually won those wild crazy races. By Scott’s own admission he was more of an athlete than a mountaineer, but he threw himself into a crash course on all aspects of mountaineering technique. When I first met Scott my main concern was that he had never been on a mountaineering expedition, and would he have the resolve to continue day after day. In the end Scott’s resolve proved equal, if not greater than any other member of the team, and I suspect that this was so due to his experiences as a long-distance runner. Training for and completing an ultra-marathon will certainly test your dedication and mettle as much as any mountain.

The final member of the committed team was Jerome Delvin, a police officer in the Eastern Washington town of Richland and a Representative in the State Legislature. Jerome is a small town conservative I am a big city liberal, but despite our political dichotomy we quickly found common ground and got along quite well. Mentally Jerome was the toughest of the group, and was able to push himself very hard physically without becoming disheartened or temperamental. All in all I felt very much as ease with Jerome and enjoyed his company greatly.

We now had five climbers committed to the notion of climbing Manaslu.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Manaslu Part 7

So it came to pass that on a rainy night in October of 2001 Brian and I met to discuss our shared future. Brian who had been to Nepal some years before was very much pro Manaslu. He saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity; the shadow of this big mountain had plunged our Tibetan plans into the darkness of mediocrity (some snappy English for ya). I wasn’t so hawkish. Overwhelming desire is the glue that holds these big trips together, and if I was going to commit to Manaslu I would have to commit every resource at my disposal. I would have wholly and entirely commit to the project. There was no happy medium, and saying yes meant risking all that I cherished. By the end of the night I knew what I knew at the beginning: that I had to go. In hindsight I see that I was going to say yes all along, but I guess I had to go through the motions.

I finally had to confess my intentions to Mel, who met the idea of her husband leaving home for two months in order to climb an eight thousand meter peak with silence. Melony used to climb, she knows the risks, and I couldn’t con her into believing that Manaslu was just another mountain, only higher.

If you discount this climbing stuff I’m a fairly decent husband. Mel and I have always been very compatible and not only do we love each other we also like one another as well. We rarely disagree and when we do the middle ground is found quickly. This is true for everything except my mountaineering.
My desire to climb Manaslu placed Melony into a Catch-22, if she had said that I absolutely could not go I wouldn’t have, but such an ultimatum would have placed a very large monkey wrench into the cogs of our marriage. On the other hand if she supported me she might just be supporting her way into single motherhood. In the end Mel said that she did not want me to go, but if I had to she wouldn’t stop me - she wasn’t going to feign support for something she opposed.

So there I was, a thirty six year old suburban househusband, a member of a six-man self-supported Himalayan mountaineering expedition.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Manaslu Part 6

I’m drawn to the sepia toned photographs and washed out Kodachrome images of the great Himalayan expeditions of the fifties and sixties. Many of these expeditions were organized along military lines with a few pre-chosen prima donnas supported by a host of just happy to be here worker bees. In the new millennium an expedition leader would be hard pressed to put together such a trip, but nonetheless I brought this paradigm to the meeting. I’d done some respectable climbing and had as good a resume as most, but I didn’t view myself as eight thousand meter material.

I liked Tom at the outset; he had come prepared, and spoke to the two of us as though he were addressing peers. I had arrived at the meeting a cynic, and consequently twisted every one of Tom’s words searching for that piece of convincing evidence that would provide me with a convenient face-saving way out. Tom didn’t oblige, and for the first time I allowed thoughts of Manaslu to begin their slow seep into my consciousness. At the end of the meeting Brian and I listed our mountaineering credentials; Tom immediately invited us to join the team. Once again this is not what I had expected. I had figured that Tom would take our resumes to the rest of the team, who would then hold a kind of secret meeting during which they would scratch their weathered chins, and make comments such as, “gee Tom I don’t know these kids seem a little inexperienced to me.” Nothing had come off as expected. Brian and I drove home in silence. My mind spiraled. Should I do it? How could I do it? Is it worth it? What it I don’t go? What if I do go?
Normally I think with my heart instead of my head, desire always trumps reality, but when it came to the prospect of spending two months and upwards of ten thousand dollars attempting to perform a dangerous and essentially useless task I didn’t have the luxury of such a cavalier attitude. On the first day of September 1990 I married my one and only girlfriend, Melony Matte, and from that day forward my life was no longer mine to lose. Prior to meeting Mel I viewed death with easygoing indifference. I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I hope there is because I know can stand tall and justify my life, and if there isn’t, well who cares because if you’re dead then you wouldn’t know that you’re dead because you’d be dead. So in my pre-Melony years I figured that I had death beat, you make the most of your life every single day, and when your number comes up it comes up. Mel’s arrival forced me into a more mature view of life and death. My marriage is a serious undertaking wherein the physical death of one would mean a kind of spiritual death for the other, and needlessly risking my life is, I guess for lack of a better word, a kind of sin. On a wet October day in 1997, my life became even less of my own. This was the day I first held my son Sam. To my son I owe my presence. So this is the conundrum of living recklessly: you go out and kill yourself so what you’re dead it doesn’t matter to you, but what about the damage to those you leave behind.

It would have been very easy for me to simply dismiss the idea and walk away.
The risks were high, the rewards few, so why do it? Adventure for adventure’s sake is becoming more and more of an anomaly in a nation where most decisions are governed by the shortsighted financial theory of maximum return for minimal investment – take as much as you can and give as little as possible in return. This bullshit Wall Street mentality doesn’t work in the mountains. Mountaineering offers very little material return on investment unless you profit from pain, exhaustion and disappointment. Many climbers have tried to explain their habit, some with pithy catch phrases others with elegantly worded prose, but in the end it all comes out the same – some are irresistibly drawn to adventure, while others are repelled by it. That’s just the way it is.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Manaslu Part 5

Climbing mountains is dangerous, there’s no denying that, but going to extreme altitudes is especially treacherous. Above seven thousand five hundred meters the human body is dying, and it ain’t dying slowly - if an airplane were to drop you off on the summit of Manaslu you would suffocate within a few minutes. One solution to thin air is the use of bottled oxygen a common practice on the world’s two highest mountains: Everest and K2. Using oxygen allows you to move faster and stay warmer, but the apparatus is clunky, heavy and unreliable, not to mention the logistical headache of ferrying oxygen cylinders up and down the mountain. In short sucking O’s causes more problems than it’s worth on all but the most extreme altitudes.

Oxygen or no oxygen in order to get to the summit of a high altitude peak you’re going to have to acclimatize - slowly ascending and descending in order to increase the number of red blood cells pulsing through your veins. Acclimatization is not an antidote, it simply means that you will die slower, and it is for this reason that mountaineers refer to the region above seventy five hundred meters as the “death zone.”

In the death zone the small mistake that would normally rank as an inconvenience can easily and quickly kill. You cannot afford to expend precious time and energy wandering aimlessly in a whiteout, you cannot lose a glove and expect to keep your fingers, you cannot afford to spill water on your sleeping bag. Going high is like running through an active firing range: if you do it too often, are too slow or simply unlucky you’ll probably die. The mountain doesn’t care who you are, how much money you made last year, or who you have waiting at home. The “it’s nothing personal” coldness of high altitude mountaineering is quite sobering.

Further research showed that it wasn’t until 1997 that an American climber, Charlie Mace, first reached Manaslu’s summit. As of the fall of 2001 only five American climbers had followed Charlie to the top, one of which was Ed Viesturs. At that time Mr. Viesturs had climbed eleven of the fourteen Eight Thousanders and was arguably the most competent high altitude mountaineer currently pursuing the high peaks. The common adjective attached to Mr. Viesturs is superhuman. It seemed as though Manaslu remained a considerable prize for American mountaineers, which made me quite surprised by the small scale of Tom’s project.

To be honest, I was only attending the meeting as a consideration to Brian, who I believed was only attending out of consideration for his boss. During the drive down we speculated that we would find a large highly funded team of super climbers who would only court two amateurs such as ourselves either to defray costs or, worse yet, consider us low altitude load bearers - a couple of strong backs with fat wallets, but not serious summit contenders.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Manaslu Part 4

Seven days later Brian and I sat in a McDonalds in Fife, Washington talking with Tom Fitzsimmons. Tom was physically big and professionally successful, but he carried himself modestly; my first impression of him was one of soft-spoken kindness. Tom’s climbing resume went back thirty years, and in 1980 he had nearly reached the summit of Mt. Everest via its difficult, and at the time unclimbed, North Face. Tom had also been very successful out of the mountains, and at the time was a member of the Governor Gary Locke’s Cabinet.

It all seemed very flattering, here was a Himalayan veteran seriously talking to me about climbing an eight thousand meter peak. Flattering but not realistic. Tom knew where and when: he wanted to climb Manaslu by its first ascent route in the spring of 2002, and his estimates of time and money: eight weeks and eight thousand dollars, proved surprisingly accurate, but I was disturbed by the short roster of committed team members.

Two months earlier Brian and I sat in the sparse living room of Daniel Mazur, one of America’s pre-eminent high altitude mountaineers, listening to his thoughts on how to assemble a big mountain expedition. Dan’s prediction that our most significant obstacle would be finding enough climbers to form a respectable team had certainly come true for us, and now it appeared that this was also the case for Tom. Like us Tom had a long list of “interested” climbers, but a very short list of “committed” climbers. Committed being defined as someone with desire, money and, most importantly, time.

In addition to himself Tom had only two committed climbers, but he viewed this as a temporary situation, and that soon we would be turning climbers away. This is not at all what I had expected.

Before meeting with Tom I had researched Manaslu. At eight thousand one hundred and sixty three meters (26,782’) above the level of the sea, Manaslu is the world’s eighth highest mountain. The summit was first reached in 1956, a feat that remained unrepeated for fifteen years. As of 1999 one hundred and eighty nine climbers had reached its summit, and over fifty had died trying. Of the fourteen mountains over eight thousand meters only one, Annapurna, boasts a higher death to climber ratio.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Manaslu Part 3

“Hey Mike, okay now hear me out, this is just a thought,” Brian was uncharacteristically cautious, which thereby made me more than a little nervous. “What do you think of switching our plans and going to Manaslu?”

“Manaslu!” I responded. “That’s an eight thousand meter peak. A little out of our league don’t ya think.”

As an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology Brian orchestrates and oversees the cleanup of toxic waste sites. The head of the Department of Ecology at that time was a fellow climber by the name of Tom Fitzsimons. Brian explained how he had run into Tom at a meeting, and as two climbers often do the pair got to talking about current plans: Brian mentioned Tibet, Tom brought Manaslu.

Tom, knowing Brian to be an experienced and competent mountaineer, proposed a possible merging of the two projects and since Manaslu presented a more challenging and ambitious objective it remained on the table.

Only fourteen summits exceed eight thousand meters; climbers know these as the Eight Thousanders. During the fifties and sixties the rush to put a man on the summit of an eight thousand meter peak reached nationalist levels with France, Germany and Great Briton all racing to plant a flag on a high Himalayan peak. The bodies of some of the most powerful and viciously tenacious humans ever to climb a hill litter these mountains. Climbing legends like Kukuczka, Buhl and Genet all died while descending eight thousand meter peaks, but it was the more recent deaths of Scott Fisher and Alex Lowe that had severely shaken my notions on how to survive in the mountains. Prior to the death of these two men in the high Himalaya (Scott on Everest and Alex on Shisha Pangma) I had believed that through fitness, competence and knowledge you could all but avoid an untimely death in the mountains. Scott and Alex were the best and yet both were snuffed like ants underfoot; their deaths taught me that life in the high mountains is a loaded dice game: yeah you might win on occasion, but play enough and the house invariably wins. How audacious even to contemplate such an intoxicating proposal.
Brian is as diplomatic as he is self-confident and over the course of an hour he managed to convince me that at least we should meet with Tom and hear his ideas. To be honest I felt more than a little blindsided, I had put four months of work into our Tibet trip, work that Brian was proposing that we simply throw away. The blow to my ego, however was a minor concern compared to the knowledge that my friend, Steve Steckmeyer, had, eleven years earlier, buried three of his companions at the base of Manaslu following a catastrophic avalanche.

I didn’t mention the idea to my wife.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Manaslu Part 2

An Idea

It was late September and I was taking yet another lap around my suburban lawn, hoping that this would be the last mowing of the season, when my three-year old son Sam peeked out the back door and waved his arms. I killed the walk behind mower to hear Sam yell, “dad it’s Brian Sato on the phone.”

Brain, a longtime climbing partner and friend, and I were planning a modest ski/mountaineering trip to an obscure mountain in the Chinese Autonomous Region of Tibet, and consequently had been talking quite a bit during the summer of 2001. I have long had the ability to identify and associate myself with people of superlative quality, and consequently my entire life has been one shared with the best of friends. When I first met Brian during an advanced mountaineering course I knew without a doubt that I wanted a friendship with this man. For several years we shared the occasional skiing or mountaineering outing, but it wasn’t until 1993, when together we climbed Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, that I realized he and I were indeed going to go places.

The mental and physical stress of mountaineering, especially expedition mountaineering, brings out either the best or the worst in people. Rarely do you return from an extended trip into the mountains without specific and ingrained opinions of your companions. In the case of Brian our 1993 expedition resulted in a fraternal brotherhood and marked the beginning of a very deep friendship. I find it difficult, maybe impossible, to explain the depth of friendships born in the mountains. I have on numerous occasions willingly placed my life entirely into the hands of Brian Sato. Over time when you place such extreme confidence in another man there develops a brand of love for one another – I know no other word for it. My family, my friends and my memories are all that I cherish, everything comes and goes.

Brian and I make an odd couple, I am stoic he’s outgoing, I am flighty he is fastidious, my life abounds in clutter and disorganization while Brian is meticulous and neat. For the most part we are happy opposites, but Brian does have one characteristic that I very much attempt to emulate – his compassion. While I care deeply about the welfare of my family and friends, I typically wander through life oblivious to the suffering of everyone else. Brian, on the other hand, has the gift of truly caring about and caring for those around him.

I picked up the receiver, “What’s up Mr. Sato?”