I received an email this morning from Chris Warner who is just back from a three-month expedition to climb Makalu. Makalu is the 5th highest mountain in the world at 27, 765 feet. It’s just 12 miles from Mount Everest on the border between China and Nepal. Makalu is monster. To date, there have only been 206 successful ascents of Makalu and 22 fatalities. That’s a death rate of 10% (number of deaths/number of successful summits.) That’s higher than the death rate on Mount Everest which is about 7%.
I’ve written about Chris before. He was our mountaineering mentor, guide, leader and friend on Survivor Summit when 14 novices successfully summited Mount Kilimanjaro. He’s also an author and leadership expert who represents everything that is right about high-altitude mountaineering. And that’s important because there is a lot wrong with it.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the quest to conquer the world’s tallest and most dangerous mountains has become, in many instances, an exercise in ego gratification. Mount Everest is crawling with rich guys with big egos and little to no real skills. Teams from all over the world launch near constant assaults on K2 and Makalu and Annapura and not all come home.
At some point, for many climbers, the desire to reach the summit overrides the need to be a compassionate human being. That when the “every man for himself” attitude shows up and people start to die. Every serious climber has stories about men, women, and even children, climbing over dead or even nearly dead bodies on their way to the top. The lure of the summit overrides their sense of compassion. It’s easy for many to rationalize that at 26,000 feet the guy who is no longer able to move “has no real chance of surviving.” Sadly, in many cases, that is true but you always have to try, don’t you? Chris Warner thinks so.
Chris has stopped many climbs and sacrificed his opportunity to summit to help someone in need which is basically what happened on Makalu. I asked Chris for permission to share some of his email with you. I asked to share it because it’s a great insight into a guy we can all learn from.
Makalu was epic and I did not summit. I ended up with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema on summit day. I knew what was happening and headed down, as fast as I could, which was painfully slow. It was disappointing, but I take solace in knowing the cause.
Two weeks earlier we learned that a French climber was struggling to descend from Camp 3. He was being helped by a handful of Sherpas and two climbers. He had some level of Cerebral Edema. Two of us grabbed some gear and headed up. Ten minutes above us, he lost consciousness. We built a makeshift litter out of a tent, some rope, a sleeping bag and pads. He was still breathing as we laid him in the litter, tied him up, put him on oxygen and started the dangerous descent. At camp 2 we felt warm air coming from his mouth, but in the extreme cold we couldn’t feel his pulse, but since he was “breathing” we figured there was still a chance. Darkness, crevasses, cliff faces, exhaustion, wind…you name it, the challenges came at us one after the other after the other for hours.
At first there was 6 in the rescue team, then 9, then a dozen. We would stop and give him chest compressions and plead with him to live but ultimately, he didn’t make it.
The rescue was draining, but it really affected my upper respiratory system. I essentially scratched the back of my throat because of the intense exertion in the extreme cold and screaming out directions over the howling wind. The “scratch” never healed.
On the descent from my summit push, I felt like you, Marc, did coming from the summit of Kili. Every step was brutal, but we had no choice. We know that it is good for us to get our ass kicked. It stinks in the moment, but we can do it. And the gift of all that suffering is not humility, but humbleness. (That may sound like semantics, but there is a difference: I do not feel humiliated, but I do feel a deep, satisfying sense of humbleness.) Maybe I am finally Growing Bolder.
I am spending the next few weeks transforming myself into an endurance mountain biker: Leadville 100 is on August 9th. I will take my humbleness with me and use it propel me towards my goal.
Your friend, Chris
When we were on Kilimanjaro, Chris shared with us something he learned from the legendary mountaineer Willie Unseld, “An expedition is a success not because you reach the summit but because you learn something about yourself along the way and you apply that to life back at home.“
Another successful expedition for Chris Warner.