O ne night in college, I planted myself on my boyfriend’s couch with a copy of Outside magazine and didn’t budge until I’d read every word Jon Krakauer’s account of the deadly 1996 season on Mount Everest. The mountain has loomed large in my imagination ever since, as it probably has for many who read Krakauer’s subsequent book, “Into Thin Air.”
This spring was another deadly season on Everest, and several climbers from Boulder were there — two of them, Bob Berger and Mike Moniz on commercial expeditions. After returning to Boulder, Berger and Moniz kindly indulged my questions about crowds, dilettantes and their own climbs on the world’s highest peak.
It turns out that Krakauer’s story wasn’t far from their minds, either. Six people died on Everest during a short window of good weather in mid-May, when hundreds pushed for the summit.
“We talked about it while we were there and were like, oh, people are going to try to make it like ‘Into Thin Air,'” Berger said.
Berger and Moniz both climbed Everest with International Mountain Guides on a program designed for experienced mountaineers; IMG’s climbers stayed put during that weather window, holding out for a bigger window in a week.
“It was such an exercise in patience,” Berger said of waiting while others headed up. “But when you’ve climbed a lot, you’re used to waiting it out.”
“The first weather window — we didn’t go because we thought it was going to be really crowded, we thought everyone was going to jump on it,” he said. “Also, Mike Moniz was on the sat phone with (Boulder meteorologist) Joel Gratz, and Joel, he nailed it. He suggested the second weather window.”
Moniz especially needed the extra time afforded by the latter window — he climbed both Everest and its 27,940-foot neighbor to the south, Lhotse, back to back.
Since his return, Moniz has been reflecting quite a bit on his climbs and what he saw on the mountain, he said.
“I think my experience is that the climbers are strong, they’re not broadly technically incompetent — this idea that the media has kind of helped,” Moniz said. “The truth is that Everest is pretty tough on people, and it brings out people’s weaknesses…there‘s a natural culling just from the difficulty.”
“You see people who have a fairly limited background in climbing, so they don’t necessarily have a lot of rope-handling skills, or rock-climbing skills or ice-climbing skills,” Moniz said. “So when they do encounter things like this, they burn a lot of energy, and they spend a lot of time on it. But when I was there, I was impressed by a lot of climbers, and I didn’t get the impression that there were a lot of bucket-list climbers.”
Berger started climbing more than 30 years ago, but he didn’t go on a guided trip — like the ones most people join on Everest — until more recently.
“In 2006, I did a breast cancer fundraiser and did Mount Elbrus, in Russia,” he said. “It was my first guided trip, and on that trip, I saw all of the “Into Thin Air” people — the people who didn’t know how to take care of themselves,” he said. On that trip, he helped haul someone out of a crevasse when no guides were around and other climbers didn’t know how.
Moniz and Berger both said that at Everest base camp, IMG’s camp felt somewhat isolated from crowds.
“For the most part, I’d wake up in the morning and look at this huge mountain, and it’s beautiful,” Berger said. “Even up on the Western Cwm, it never really felt that busy. At the Balcony, it was crowded, but my sherpa and I, we just went around the slower people. I think part of it was that we just went later.”
There’s nothing about it that’s a “tourist climb,” Moniz said. It’s dangerous, and signing up for a guided trip can’t eliminate that.
“That’s the fundamental experience of mountaineering — there is objective danger,” he said. “You can’t turn it into this Disneyworld experience.”