A Nebraskan climbed Mount Everest…and it almost killed him

Robert Kay on the summit of Mount Everest (photo courtesy Robert Kay)
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June 22, 2016 - 9:22am

Lincoln businessman Robert Kay spent years trying to reach the top of the world. Last month he did it. Mike Tobias talks with the first Nebraskan to summit Mount Everest.

It was like watching a character die in a television show, Robert Kay said. Except it was real.

Kay thought he was dying.

“It was a detached sensation,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel scared or upset. I know where when I'm going to die and it's right here in a few seconds. Not many people get to know exactly where and when they're going to die, and I do and that's interesting. It didn't seem terrifying at the time.”


Robert Kay talks about reaching the summit of Mount Everest

Robert Kay talks about the criticism of Mount Everest climbers


Robert Kay in his Lincoln office (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Kay shortly after his climb (photo courtesy Robert Kay)


Kay and Sherpa guide Sange before the final climb to the summit (photo courtesy Robert Kay)


A view from the top (photo courtesy Robert Kay)


Kay shared the summit with approximately 50 climbers (photo courtesy Robert Kay)


Start of the slow descent from the summit (photo courtesy Robert Kay)



"The World's Top Motorcycle Dealer" - Robert Kay's climbing blog

"Eyeing Everest" - NET New profile of Kay from his 2014 Everest attempt

"After the Deadly Everest Avalanche" - 2014 NET News interview with Kay

Climber Alan Arnette tracks Everest climbing on his blog

He was on the way down from the summit of Mount Everest, his body quickly losing a battle with high altitude in the so-called “Death Zone” of the world’s highest mountain. Sherpa guides trying to help Kay decided they needed to change his oxygen bottle. But cold hands and ice slowed the switch.

“When they unhooked it, it felt like somebody immediately just had pushed my head underwater. I started spasming and I'm laying on the ground on my side and it hurt so bad. I thought ‘this is it.’”

Chasing a Dream

Kay is an adrenaline junkie. It’s reflected in his business, Star City Motor Sports, which sells motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and jet skis. An athletic-looking 50-something with a bit of an accent that hints at his Australian birthplace. As a teen he read a book about Mount Everest, then saw it when his family traveled to Nepal. Kay knew then he wanted to climb it.

The road to the top was long. He prepared by climbing the highest mountains in every other continent, and all of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks.

“The primary reason for the rest of it was to prepare me for Everest,” Kay told us before his third attempt at Everest in 2014, “and it’s been a fantastic way to prepare. I’ve seen people in cultures and scenery and things I didn’t even know existed. Had a fantastic time. It’s just a great way to see the world. You meet very interesting people. But Everest, for me, it’s the bottom line.”

Weather, frostbite and an avalanche stopped his three previous attempts at Everest.

Going Up

Kay almost turned back this time. After weeks of acclimating to altitude and making his way up a series of tent camps, strength-sapping 85-mile-an-hour winds almost forced him to quit with the summit in site.

“Tents were truly blowing away with people holding onto them,” Kay said. “One tent lifted off the ground with three people sitting inside it. You’re at 26,000 feet, winds this strong and probably well below zero for the temperature, so (a) dangerous situation.”

He messaged his wife “my climb is over, I’ve never suffered like this.”

But things changed overnight. “I was getting some calories in me. Some fluids in me,” Kay said. “I was dry. I was warm. The weather was nice. All of a sudden I realized it's doable. I can get this thing done.”

Kay and his climbing team, including his longtime Sherpa guides Sange and Pasang Oongchu, started for the summit at 8 p.m. local time. Everest climbers go up in the dark so they can come down in daylight. The single file line to the top was slow and crowded. The nearly 12 hours it took Kay to reach the top was longer than usual. But he made it.

“Highest Person in the Entire World”

What’s it like to be on top of the world?

“All these different emotions. I was elated, super happy to be up there,” Kay said. “It is spectacularly beautiful. I got a little bit teary-eyed. It is something I've been working for almost 40 years. And little bit of like a loss, you know. I've reached this goal that I've had for so long. It's almost like you lost something.”

It’s an odd thing. After spending years dreaming and preparing, and weeks climbing, you get to the summit and leave quickly. That's because the longer you stay, the greater the risk of not surviving the climb down. Kay said he was there about 20 minutes.

“Mostly I was just thrilled to be there,” Kay said. “Thrilled to be there with my friends Sange and Pasang Oongchu. We're all shaking hands and hugging and taking pictures. It was very crowded up there. That detracted from it a little bit. There was probably 50 people on top when I was there.”

“But it was so cool to be up there. You're the highest person in the entire world.”

“You’ll Just Never Wake Up”

Kay said he felt good until he was an hour or so into the descent, which was still bottle-necked by slow moving climbers.

“It wasn't bad at first,” Kay recalled. “I was just, ‘oh I’m a bit breathless.’ By the time I got to the south summit, which again should have been 20, 30 minutes of walking, it took me two hours. I realized then that I was in trouble. I would sit down for a rest and take 50 breaths. I would count 50 hard breaths and feel no improvement at all.”

More Everest climbers die on the way down from the summit than the way up. That’s because they’ve been at very high altitude for a long time, and deadly altitude sickness conditions called HAPE and HACE can set in. That was happening to Robert Kay. Fluid was filling his lungs and swelling his brain.

“I set a goal of I'm going to take 30 steps before I sit down again,” he said, “and it seemed like most of the time I couldn't reach 30 steps.”

“Words can't describe how tired you feel. You want to do one thing, you want to sit down (and) go to sleep, and yet from all the things you have read, your experience and the lessons you've learned from others' mistakes, if you sit down and rest for a long time you are never getting up again. Especially if you should fall asleep. You'll just never wake up.”

His Sherpa guides and other climbers knew Kay was in trouble. They kept him moving.

”There's a rope the whole way,” Kay said. “It's got anchors every 100 to 200 feet and they would unclip me from the rope, move my safety line across the anchor and re-clip it for me to save me the energy of bending down and doing that sort of thing. It sounds like no big deal at sea level; at 28,000 feet it's a big deal.”

They carried him, even dragged him through a difficult 11 hour trip down to the safer 26,000 foot altitude of the highest camp area. Medication and more help, including a rescue sled and helicopter ride, got Kay off the mountain and into a Kathmandu hospital for treatment.

“I didn't feel good but I knew I wasn't going to die,” Kay said. “I felt a whole lot better.”

Reflections, and the Future

It’s been three weeks since his mid-May summit and we’re talking with Kay in Lincoln. He’s noticeably thinner. Weight loss, 35 pounds for the already lean Kay, is a norm for Everest climbers. There’s an occasional cough, but he doesn’t expect any long term health problems from his ordeal. Sitting in his office, surrounded by a museum-like collection of all things mountain climbing and Nepal, Kay is reflective about his life or death decision to summit.

“Had I known then what I knew after the fact I would have turned around much earlier,” Kay said. “But at the time I felt good.”

Kay said slow summit traffic that day was his demise. “I think if I summited three hours earlier than what I did and got down an hour and a half faster than what it took me, I would have been back down to high camp before the symptoms of HAPE and HACE really became evident to me.”

“So you can look back and go, ‘well I got to the edge and I didn't step over.’ I pulled back just in time and it all worked out. But it was too close for comfort. I've already decided I'm done with 8000 meter peaks. I don't want to get back in that situation for somebody else to help me or for myself.”

Kay said he’ll now “enjoy slowing down just a little bit,” which in the immediate future will include a lot of skiing and motorcycle riding.

Everest Criticism

Everest climbers have vocal critics. They say rich westerners simply pay a lot of money for local Sherpas to risk their lives and do all the hard work of getting people to the top. Kay says there are some climbers who shouldn’t be trying Everest. And yes, it would be an impossible task without the expertise and strength of the Sherpa guides. But Kay bristles at criticism he says comes from people who’ve never been there.

“The average Everest climber could be your average next door neighbor,” Kay said. “He’s just a normal person. He saved his money, maybe he sold his car and he took on some debt to do it. Maybe got sponsors, whatever he had to do. To a man everyone seems to be absolutely impressed with the Sherpas. Not just their strength on the mountain, which is legendary, but their personalities and their friendliness. They become your friends.”

Kay speaks from the perspective of someone more connected to Everest and Nepal than most. By his own count he's spent more than a year in the country, many of these on non-climbing trips. He used part of this climb to raise money for Tiny Hands, an organizing working to fight the trafficking of thousands of women and children from Nepal into India each year. And he and his wife Patty have two daughters adopted from Nepal. Kay plans to bring his Sherpa friends to Nebraska for a visit in the near future.

Robert Kay may done with Everest, the dream that almost killed him. But the mountain and Nepal will always be in his heart.



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