Eyeing Everest

Prayer flags above Dingboche. Lhotse and Island Peak in the background. (photo courtesy Robert Kay)
Robert Kay talks to students at Lincoln's Lux Middle School before leaving for his latest attempt to climb Mount Everest (Mike Tobias/NET News photo)
Listen to this story: 

April 30, 2014 - 3:25pm

Ongoing coverage of Lincoln resident Robert Kay's third attempt to climb to the top of Mount Everest, as well as updates on the tragic accident that has claimed the lives of 16 guides, mostly Sherpa.


NEW (April 30) Lincoln climber Robert Kay is in Kathmandu, Nepal, working his way back to Nebraska. He's personally updated his blog with reflections on the accident, the aftermath and the tension at Everest Base Camp. The full blog is interesting reading; here are a few portions.

The timing of the accident

"I have since been told that there was a large crevasse that needed two ladders to descend into. From there the route crossed the bottom and used three more ladders to climb up the other side. My understanding is that two of these ladders were damaged, forcing a bottleneck of Sherpa to form while they waited for replacements to arrive. It was at this worst possible moment that part of the hanging glacier on Everest's west shoulder broke free and roared through this area like a runaway train.

The aftermath at Everest Base Camp (EBC)

"We spent many hours watching as people placed their own lives in danger to do all they could to rescue the fallen and also watching helicopters fly between the accident site and EBC, first with the wounded and eventually with the deceased. Base Camp became a very somber place as we slowly realized the enormous scope of the tragedy. But then things started to change. Grief turned to anger for a vocal minority of mostly younger Sherpa and by the end of the day we watched a mob form and start to parade through EBC demanding that all the other Sherpa join them in their demands. Eventually they drew up a list of 13 demands and presented them to the Nepali government. Most of the demands were quite reasonable and in fact were already being met by the more responsible guiding companies such as our own Altitude Junkies (Kay's team). These demands were for things like helicopter rescue, medical and life insurance, etc. The grievances became unreasonable (in my opinion) when they demanded that no one be allowed back on the mountain. Everyone agreed that any Sherpa staff member who decided he was unwilling to climb should be free to make this decision without any repercussions. The problem was that many of the Sherpa, and 100 percent of the Altitude Junkies Sherpa staff, still wanted to climb, but they and their families were directly threatened and intimidated into not doing so. We rapidly went from a scene of mourning to a union vs management feeling."

What Kay calls "Everest myths"

"What about the accusation of bucket-list, super-wealthy, middle-aged white guys ticking something off their list for bragging rights with no concern for the virtuous Sherpa dying around them to make this possible? I suppose that guy exists, but in three expeditions to Everest, three other Nepal climbs and virtually an entire year in the country during the course of 12 trips here, I've never met him. To a man, everyone I've met has nothing but respect and admiration for the Sherpa members of their team and for the Sherpa people they meet all along the trek and climb."

"What about the disparity of income and net worth? Of course it exists, but prior to Westerners climbing in Nepal it was far worse than today. Hillary's porters in 1953 were paid one-eighth of a Rupee per day and one Rupee per day for work above about 22,000 feet. Today the porters get 2,000 to 4,000 Rupees per day, and climbing Sherpa who work above Base Camp earn 8,000 to 12,000 or more Rupees per day whether they are actually climbing or just resting in camp. (95 Rupees are worth about $1 as of today.) Of course there has been some inflation, but the point remains that climbing and trekking has been very good for the earnings of almost all Sherpa people. Climbing has lifted the average Sherpa family from subsistence farming to being among the wealthiest of all the Nepalese."


(April 27) An update on Robert Kay's return from Everest Base Camp to Lincoln, posted on his blog by his wife, Patty: "Robert and the Altitude Junkies team walked down to Pheriche where they were transported by helicopter to Lukla. The helicopter Robert flew on was needed for some other transport, so Robert and five of his fellow Junkies are spending the night in lovely Lukla. The airport there is backed up with the mass exodus from EBC (Everest Base Camp). Normally teams trickle out as their climbs end which is manageable.The closure of Mount Everest for climbing is obviously the cause of the delay in Lukla. The six remaining team members will travel via helicopter to Kathmandu tomorrow morning (Sunday) at 7 a.m. Nepal time from the Hilary-Tenzing Airport. That's the airport with the short runway that goes uphill for landing and has a steep drop off with an immediate left hand turn for take-off. I am very thankful that Phil (Altitude Junkies team leader/owner) arranged for helicopter flights in and out of that airport. Thanks Phil! Robert is in good spirits. This delay is fine with him as there was a nice curry dinner waiting to be eaten in the comfort of warmer weather, a much higher oxygen level and a roof overhead. The delay will allow him another night of mountain quietness and beauty. Obviously, Robert didn't want the dinner to get cold so our conversation ended with the ring of the dinner bell therefore my information for you is limited." (Read the full post HERE)


(April 24) Robert Kay's third attempt to summit Mount Everest is over. Nepal's government has closed climbing from the south side of the mountain, through Nepal. This morning, Patty Kay (Robert's wife) posted on his blog that "he had finished spending several hours with the Sherpa in respect and sympathy for their loss of family and friends and is now beginning to pack and arrange for helicopter transport out of EBC (Everest Base Camp). Robert is extremely disappointed but is moving forward quickly now that the decision has been made. He is organizing and packing his gear, doing the same for a fellow climber who is not at EBC (medical emergency), and getting out. It will take at least a week for his climbing gear bags to reach Kathmandu. He will only take essentials on the helicopter and hopes to leave tomorrow. Right now he just wants to get out of a very unpleasant situation."

"It is cold and miserable and there isn't a reason to be here longer," he told her.

In the latest post on his blog, respected Everest climber and blogger Alan Arnette has a detailed, interesting analysis for the complicated factors that led to closing the south side of the mountain, as well as the future of Everest climbing. "Climbing in Nepal has changed forever,." Arnette writes. "Some western guides are questioning if they will ever return to Everest based on safety.Others are wondering if they can trust the political environment ever again. I have not heard one operator question the loyalty of their Sherpa as almost anyone looking at this situation feel they are the loser with lost work and income. Without a doubt, climbing Everest can be made safer but it will change the way the mountain is climbed. Guides will have to dig deep in reviewing their programs as to who they take on as clients, their experience, and skills. The price will almost definitely go up, perhaps significantly thus further reducing the number of climbers on Everest." (Read all of Arnette's latest post HERE)


(April 24) The Mount Everest climbing season for teams attempting from the Nepal/south side (which includes Lincoln climber Robert Kay and the Altitude Junkies team) is probably over, according to the latest post from Everest climber and respected Everest blogger Alan Arnette. "International Mountain Guides, IMG, who has the largest team climbing from the south side of Everest, has ended their season. While there has been no official comment from the other large teams including Asian Trekking, Himex and Altitude Junkies, the IMG decision most likely ends all attempts from the south," Arnette wrote. "IMG fields a very large team of Sherpa who are key in fixing the line to the summit. Without their support, other teams would struggle to find the manpower, although it would still be possible with excellent cooperation. However, time is running out to attempt a summit."

Arnette also notes that: "I’m told there is not unity within the Sherpa community and this is driven by a few young, very vocal climbing Sherpas who are using the media very well. The primary reasons for the Sherpa’ discontent range from increased pay and life insurance for all Sherpa, support for families of climbing Sherpa killed on Everest to having an equal position along side commercial guides to showing respect for the victims of last week’s serac fall. Also, many people, Sherpa to Western Guides felt the Icefall was unsafe this year."

(Read all of Arnette's latest post HERE)

Yesterday, Robert Kay's wife Patty posted on his blog that she has "received several calls from Robert over the past few days. Emotions at EBC (Everest Base Camp) are very unsettled. Robert has asked that I wait for another 48 hours or so before commenting on the fate of this climbing season on Everest as it is difficult to say what is rumor and what is fact right now." (Read the full post HERE)


(April 23) - The future of the Everest climbing season from the Nepal side is still uncertain, according to reports (climbing continues on the north side, through Tibet). This was posted today by Phil Crampton, the leader of the Altitude Junkies team that Robert Kay is climbing with: "There is some uncertainty around Base Camp at the moment to how things will progress this season. The Sherpa community are meeting daily to decide if they collectively wish to continue to climb this season. Our team members have been amazing with this situation and only want what’s best for our Sherpas and will respect their decisions. We know of some teams planning to leave base camp in the next few days and we applaud their decision in these difficult days ahead. The Junkies will spend the next few days allowing our Sherpa team and team members to reflect on the events and make their own personal choices as we did after the tragic avalanche that took many lives on Manaslu in 2012. Everest can be beautiful one day and cruel the next. Whatever moods she throws at us, one thing is for sure; we will still honor her by attempting to climb on her flanks in the future." (Read all Altitude Junkies Everest 2014 posts HERE)

Everest climber and respected blogger Alan Arnette reports that Crampton and another climbing team leader flew from Base Camp to Kathmandu to meet today with Nepal's Ministry of Tourism, which governs climbing on Mount Everest from the Nepal (south) side. Arnette also writes today that "the Everest 2014 south side season is still uncertain; no decisions have been made to stop or continue." He estimates that 30 climbers and two teams have left, and that "an undetermined number of Sherpa have quit but not too many." (Read Arnette's latest posts HERE)


(April 22) - Early Sunday morning, while he was on a cell phone in his tent at Base Camp, were were able to interview Kay about the avalanche, what's happening now on the mountain and what's next for the climbers. "Some of the Sherpa at their home villages for a few days just to kind of spend time with their family," Kay said. "Other Sherpa are here, hanging tough, making calls to home. There’s one Sherpa who is agitating for everyone to go home, and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen just yet. Everyone’s nerves are raw. People are making rash decisions." 

Read the full interview and listen to the story HERE. Listen to the story BELOW.


(April 21) - The accident Friday which claimed the lives of at least 16 Sherpa "has changed Everest climbing forever," according to Everest climber and blogger Alan Arnette. Read why, and what's happening now on the mountain, here. Tomorrow, listen to NET Radio for a phone interview we did with Robert Kay from base camp.


(April 19) - Lincoln climber Robert Kay was nearby when an avalanche in the dangerous Khumbu Ice Fall area of Mount Everest (just above Base Camp) killed 17 climbers, all Sherpa reportedly working to prepare the trail for other climbers. This morning Kay provided this account of the accident via text: “There is a glacier hanging above the ice fall on the west shoulder of Everest, and part of it broke off about 6:45 a.m. Friday morning (Nepal time). We were on the trail that winds through camp; it's about three-fourths of a mile from one end to the other. I heard it break loose and watched it fall into the ice fall and immediately knew we had a big problem. We saw people coming down and they looked quite shocked. At the same time rescuers headed-up, including Phil (Crampton from Altitude Junkies, the team Kay is climbing with) and six of our Sherpa. Unfortunately very little could be done as they were all buried deeply. Helicopters arrived after about two hours and took the injured down to Base Camp in several trips. They began carrying the dead using a long line. The confirmed fatality count is 17 Sherpa and many more injured. The injuries range from cuts and bruises to broken limbs and internal injuries. Base Camp became a very somber place. Rumors were flying around and no one knew for certain what was true or not. Our team joined the Sherpa in their tent after dinner to show our support and respect. We were there for several hours. Things seem a bit more normal today, although many of the other teams Sherpa have gone home for a few days. Our guys are staying here. Phil says the place is safer now that the weak portion has fallen and I think he is right.”


(April 18) “A very sad day,” is how Scott Bigelow of Lincoln described Friday, when an avalanche of ice killed at least 13 climbers, all Sherpa guides, on Mount Everest. Bigelow is in Nepal, after accompanying his friend Robert Kay of Lincoln during the beginning portion of Kay’s third attempt to climb to the top of Everest. Bigelow had left Kay and was in the process of hiking back down from Everest Base Camp when the accident happened Friday at approximately 6:30 a.m., Nepal time. “My Sherpa guide heard about it,” Bigelow told NET News in a phone interview late Friday night (Lincoln time). “It’s amazing how the word traveled down the trail.” During his time at Base Camp, Bigelow had seen the area where the accident happened, the Khumbu Ice Fall, but had not climbed there. “That’s kind of the most dangerous part of the mountain. I think it’s a well-known risk,” Bigelow said. Bigelow said accident has been hard on the close-knit Everest climber and Sherpa community. “A lot of them know each other, and at least know where they’re from and who they work for,” he said. “(The Sherpas are) incredibly strong, hardy people. They have so little yet they’re always helpful and happy. They’re so incredibly, physically tough.” Bigelow said he talked briefly with Kay after the accident. He said Kay and other members of the Altitude Junkies team he is climbing with were not injured, but witnessed the accident. “They were actually going up to go into the ice fall,” Bigelow said. “He (Kay) saw the avalanche come down and knew that whatever was in the way of it was not going to fare well.” Bigelow said from a mental standpoint, it’s been a tough couple days for Kay. Bigelow has one last day of hiking to the village of Lukla, then will begin a series of flights back to Lincoln. Before the accident he had climbed to the summit of Lobuche, a 20,000 foot peak near Everest. “Still one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Bigelow said. “Wonderful people here.”


(April 18) This post from Everest blogger Alan Arnette provides more information on the accident, which he says technically was not an "avalanche" but an "ice release," as well as the impact on the close-knit Everest Sherpa community. Arnette reports that 13 Sherpas "are known to have lost their lives and another four are missing and will probably be presumed dead at some point." He also reports that "there will be no climbing for several days to honor the dead and to allow the route to be rebuilt." Arnette had previously interviewed Robert Kay in 2013 for his blog.


(April 18) From Altitude Junkies, the outfitter Kay is using for this climb: "Dorjee Sherpa, Pasang Ongchu, Kami Nuru, Ang Gelu, da Kusang, Samden and Phil Crampton from the Altitude Junkies assisted with rescue efforts today, but are now back in base camp. It is a solemn time at base camp."


(April 18) News agencies are now reporting that the avalanche on Mount Everest has killed 12 climbers, all believed to be Nepalese Sherpa guides, with three other climbers still missing. Two Lincoln climbers, Robert Kay and Scott Bigelow, are both safe. From Robert Kay's blog, posted by his wife, Patty: "Robert just called to say there was a terrible accident at EBC (Everest Base Camp) and that their team is unharmed. The mountain is in a state of confusion now so Robert asked that I not post any of the rumors floating around. He just wanted us to know that they are safe." From Scott Bigelow's blog, posted by his wife, Maggie: "I just got off the phone with Scott. Hearing his voice for the first time in 10 days was even sweeter given the tragic circumstances on Mount Everest. He is in Monjo village and is one trekking day away from Lukla where he flew in via helicopter. They are showing it on the news in Nepalese and he said it is very solemn in the dining hall right now. Scott couldn’t say enough kind words about how wonderful the Sherpa people are. Such a tragedy." The accident, believed to be the single deadliest ever on Everest, happened at approximately 6:30 a.m. Friday, local time.


(April 17) The Associated Press is reporting that officials say as many as five climbers "are feared missing after an avalanche swept the slopes of Mount Everest" at approximately 6:30 a.m. Friday, local time. Robert Kay of Lincoln and partner for part of the climb, Scott Bigelow (also of Lincoln) are safe. From Patty Kay, Robert's wife: "Robert just called to say there was a terrible accident at EBC (Everest Base Camp) and that their team is unharmed. The mountain is in a state of confusion now so Robert asked that I not post any of the rumors floating around. He just wanted us to know that they are safe."


(April 16) From Patty Kay, Robert's wife: "Robert was able to call from EBC (Everest Base Camp) this morning. The weather at base camp is very cold. Robert took a five hour hike today. He is well and fit, so that is good. His friend Scott (Bigelow) left EBC last Saturday with his Sherpa guide, Ghumbu, to climb Lobeshe East. Robert said he thinks Scott should be back down and hopes to receive a report from Scott soon."


(April 10) From Robert Kay: "We had a great day today. In the morning we climbed Gokyo Ri and enjoyed phenomenal views of Cho Oyu, Changtse, Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu, Cholatse and Ama Dablam, plus dozens of other amazing peaks that I cannot name. It's a good day when you can see four of the world's six highest peaks at the same time. I only needed one hour, 16 minutes to climb Gokyo Ri, while the normal time is two to three hours. We had lunch at the Namaste Gokyo Lodge and they gave us kata scarves when we left. We then crossed a big glacier and are in Dragnag at the Cho La Resort Hotel. We plan to cross the pass tomorrow. It will be a tough day, nine or more hours. I feel strong but my shoulders are sore from my pack. It's quite cold tonight and is snowing."


(April 8) From Robert Kay: "We have just arrived in Gokyo after a nice walk from Maccherma. It is about 15,700 feet in elevation so it's high but not that big of a deal. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. There are huge peaks all around us plus a nice lake (ice covered at the moment). We are staying at the very nice Namaste Lodge and they have pretty good WiFi. Tomorrow we plan to walk up Gokyo Ri, the big hill next to Gokyo, where we should have some amazing views of Cho Oyu, Everest and maybe Makalu. We will likely take an extra night here so Scott can acclimatize a bit more." (Note from Patty Kay, Robert's wife: "Scott is Robert's friend from Lincoln who will travel to base camp with Robert as part of his first trip to Nepal.")

(Picture of Gokyo Ri, from Scott Bigelow's blog)


EYEING EVEREST

The story of a Nebraska adventurer with a passion for the world's highest mountain (April 8 NET News Signature Story)

Kay in his office at Star City Motor Sports (Mike Tobias/NET News photo)


Kay climbing Mount Everest in 2013 (photo courtesy Robert Kay)


You can also follow Kay on his blog, "The World's Top Motorcycle Dealer."

It’s not easy to keep the attention of a cafeteria full of easily-distracted seventh graders at eight in the morning. But for more than an hour Robert Kay captivated students from Lincoln’s Lux Middle School with pictures and tales of faraway places, adventure and danger. Tales of climbing on the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest.

Kay was about the age of these kids when he read “Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak” by French mountain climber Maurice Herzog. The book has been called “one of the great mountain-adventure stories of all time,” detailing the climb but also gruesome frostbite, snow blindness and near death on the mountain. “I’m 15- or 16-years-old reading this book, and I’m thinking this is fantastic, which make no sense at all,” Kay recalled. “It shows you that teenage boys aren’t real bright. I decided then and there I was going to climb Mount Everest.”

By this age Kay had already seen the world’s highest mountain. Born in Australia, his family vacationed, then lived in Nepal for a couple years. As a teen they moved to Colorado, which further fueled his passions for mountains, skiing and climbing. But Everest still seemed like a distant, unlikely dream.

Flash forward to a few years ago. By this time Kay owned a Lincoln motorcycle dealership and his kids were getting old enough that he felt ready to start his pursuit of Everest. He started intense workouts, and started climbing all the other continental high points. He’s also climbed, and sometimes skied on, many of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, and he’s been to the high points in 49 of the 50 states.

“The primary reason for the rest of it was to prepare me for Everest,” Kay said, “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. It’s the most important thing that I’m aiming at right now for my climbing.”

He’s tried two other times. In 2010, Kay got within 1200 feet of the peak before a storm forced him to turn around. Last year, the threat of frostbite stopped him 1400 feet from the top. Seemingly short distances, but when you’re close to 29,000 feet that’s several hours of climbing, sometimes past the remains of climbers who didn’t make it back. Eight died last year alone.

Some of the equipment Kay will have for his latest Everest trip (Mike Tobias/NET News photo)


Kay (left) at highest point in Africa, one of the continental summits he has climbed (photo courtesy Robert Kay)


Kay in his tent during one of his previous attempts to summit Mount Everest (photo courtesy Robert Kay)

“People do get summit fever,” Kay said. “They push on when they shouldn’t. I hope I wouldn’t be that way. I’ve not been that way the last two times and you’ve got to have a conversation with yourself when you’re still in Lincoln, and the conversation is basically how far will you push it? At what point do you turn around? Are you willing to risk it all? I will not risk dying or coming back maimed.”

It’s a tough call, especially considering the cost of climbing Everest which is tens of thousands of dollars and two months of time, not counting preparations before climbers even get near the mountain. Because the weather window for getting to the top is small, just a couple weeks, there’s no second chance.

In spite of the obstacles, the number of people summitting Everest has grown dramatically from approximately 100 in the late 1990s to around 600 in recent years. With this has come questions about too many climbers with too little experience on the mountain, and concerns about traffic jams near the top. A couple years ago a National Geographic article questioned whether Everest was “maxed out” with too many climbers.

“It sounds like a lot of people, but it’s slow motion,” Kay said. “It’s like watching grass grow is how fast people are going. You’ll take one step and then you have to take 10 breaths to before you can take your next step. That’s if you’re doing well. You might be 15 or 20 breaths. So if there’s somebody in your way and he takes one step, all of a sudden, you’re a minute behind him. So the crowds really aren’t an issue.”

Now that he’s in Nepal, Robert’s wife Patty is watching his progress from Lincoln. “We just kind of go on with our lives, pray a lot and talk to him when we can,” Patty Kay said, “and get our questions ready so that when he does call we can just communicate quickly, because we only usually spend a few minutes on the phone. We just keep going on, and just hope and pray that everything’s okay.” 

The “we” includes their three children, two adopted from Nepal. Their connection to the country, and it’s people, runs deep. Robert Kay himself has been there more than a dozen times. Everest is still the main attraction, though. He calls it an obsession.

“If you talk to anybody who knows me, that’s my number one topic of conversation,” Kay said. “At work, I have a hard time focusing on my job at hand because I’m thinking about every minute aspect, a pair of gloves or something to eat or you name it, anything to do Everest-related. I read the books. I read the magazines. I read the blogs and websites. Yeah, I’m focused.”

All for the dream of standing on top of the world for a few minutes in early May.

“I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like if I get to the top of Mount Everest,” Kay said. “I say ‘if’ because there are no guarantees. But assuming that I do, obviously, I’m hopeful that I will, I’m going to be pretty emotional that day I think.”

Discussion

 

blog comments powered by Disqus