By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1
They called themselves the greatest team which ever climbed on Everest. Sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, they were 13 American climbers from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds but one, singular goal: to join the first blind climber, Erik Weihenmayer, on the top of the world.
May 25, 2001 became a day of superlatives on Everest. The National Federation of the Blind 2001 Everest Expedition Team included the first blind person to climb an 8,000 meter peak, the greatest number of climbers from one team to summit the mountain in a single day, and the oldest climber to reach the top of Everest, Dr. Sherman Bull at age 64. For team physician Dr. Steve Gipe, who took his first NOLS course in 1967 and instructed courses for the school for the next twelve years, it was also one of the best teams he has ever joined.
Gipe, an emergency room physician from Bozeman, Mont., knows what it takes to complete a successful expedition as a team. Besides his countless NOLS courses, Steve has also racked up some of the world's most challenging outdoor pursuits, including Denali, Ama Dablam, and the 1994 Sagarmatha Environmental Everest Expedition. Teamwork, good judgement, decision making, leadership - these factors, along with the NOLS approach to 'expedition behavior,' helped Gipe and the rest of the team stay healthy and strong. Despite the usual bouts with altitude sickness, diarrhea, and aches and pains that occur in the "death zone" of Everest, everyone on the team made it back down the mountain safely. That's the real success of the expedition, he says, and the fact that the 13-member team, which also included NOLS grad Chris Morris (Fall Semester in the Rockies '86), worked together and formed lasting friendships.
Being part of a team means focusing less on yourself and more on the group and its overall mission. Gipe, who spent two and a half months on Everest with the team, talks endlessly about the other expedition members, among them a father and son climbing the mountain together, a Brown University undergrad studying the effects of altitude on speech and cognition, and a three-time Emmy award winner for cinematography. And then there's Erik. At age 32 Erik is a speaker, writer, and world-class adventurer: an acrobatic skydiver and scuba diver, a long-distance biker and marathon runner, a skier and mountaineer, an ice climber and rock climber, who has scaled Mt. McKinley (1995), El Capitan (1996), Kilimanjaro (1997), and Aconcagua (1999). Erik's feats have earned him Connecticut's Most Courageous Athlete Award, ESPN's ARETE Award for courage in sports, the Distinguished Arizonan Award, the Gene Autry Award, induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch through Phoenix.
In the months that have passed since the successful climb, Gipe remains in awe of Erik, not only because he's blind and has achieved what most of us would never consider possible, but because he formed a team of people who simply came together and had a good time climbing a mountain.
What follows is an exclusive Leader interview with Dr. Gipe, who answers questions ranging from what it's like to treat medical illnesses in the thin air of Everest to his beginnings at NOLS and what NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt once said to make him want to go to the world's highest place.
How did you first come to NOLS? Tell us about your first course.
When I was 15 I got a hand-written letter from Paul. I was interested in mountain climbing and had found this little school near Aspen. My instructor there was a NOLS grad and knew Paul from Outward Bound. He gave Paul my name, and Paul wrote me a letter inviting me to come to the school. I still have that letter. I pretty much cherish it. And so I was very excited. I carried it around in my pocket that whole month of November and signed up for the next summer. In 1967 when I was 16, I came to Lander for my first course as a NOLS student. It changed my life.
What influence did Paul have on your life and climbing career?
It was such an adventure. People that came to the school were so motivated and I just remember that the Wind Rivers were hardly used and that we cooked all our meals on fires, we didn't even carry flashlights. We'd get up in the dark at 4 a.m., build a fire, cook breakfast and do these alpine approaches without flashlights. It was sort of like you learned how to feel the different types of food in the plastic bags and hike without a flashlight. It's so different now. I still go into the mountains and just went into the Wind Rivers in September with our equipment and our stoves and our little high tech headlamps we rely on and enjoy. But back then it was so different. We would start off the courses in June and July hiking in wool pants and our climate control was to open our fly. Paul wouldn't let us wear cotton t-shirts. We had a blast, but the experience was a little different because of those sorts of things. The skills and the philosophy are still so timeless and valuable and still the things I use. Even on this Everest trip I think taking care of yourself and your camping skills are really what makes or breaks an expedition like that. So it was very different but the stuff Paul taught us is still the most valuable.
Paul was somewhat of a father figure and a friend and, of course, mentor, and he inspired us to feel like anything was possible. And then I got to go on most of his anniversary climbs of the Grand Teton, which was a real thrill to be with him later in the mountains and be there for him. He just was a huge influence on my life.
What was your first impression of Paul?
I was just pretty much in awe. I remember we were outfitting in Sinks Canyon and all the equipment was done in what we called the Dungeon, which was a little rock building by the pond. His office was up in the little cabin. It was July 1967 and there was a walkway between the Dungeon where Thelma had her sewing machine and all the equipment and the log cabin office. We were all sitting on the grass and he was on the walkway, which was sloped up hill, and he was talking to us about how to walk in the mountains and talking about rhythmic breathing and the rest step. He said, "And if you use these techniques, you'll be able to climb all the way to the top of Mt. Everest without oxygen, and someday somebody will do it." And I was just in awe. Here I was 16 and I couldn't believe I'd found this place. Anyway, that was my first recollection of Paul. A big man, very impressive.
Explain your role as a team physician on this and other expeditions.
You have to be a good listener and be compassionate. I think having people comfortable coming to you day and night with their problems and talking to you about them has been the sort of person I've tried to be. In Nepal you end up dealing a lot with people's gastro-intestinal tracts. The first thing is I try to make sure is that people have got the proper immunizations before they leave and that they've been to the dentist and I know about them medically. But then people come see you and just need to unconsciously report to you how they're feeling. I think being a course leader at NOLS helped me keep an eye on people. You can sense how they're feeling and sometimes you can ward off a major problem by just seeing that somebody's not feeling good and getting on top of it early. I felt so appreciated as a member of this team. I think I helped keep the team strong and healthy and successful, and that was my contribution. This team had a very good sense of humor, we did a lot of laughing, and I tried to be a part of the fun, too.
What sort of ailments did you treat on this recent expedition to Everest?
Lots of acute mountain sickness, diarrhea, vomiting. Our team stayed very healthy. Last year I had to treat a case of Pulmonary Edema on Ama Dablam, but the two sickest people I saw this time were on other expeditions. In those cases, it was all exhaustion and frostbite and altitude related problems. But our team walked out of base camp without any frostbite or other problems. Our biggest problem on the day we left base camp was our hangovers from the party the night before.
In planning for these expeditions, do you use some of the NOLS approaches to expedition planning?
Since I had the medical role, I didn't have to do a lot of that work. But I think once you take off and you're gone for two or three months on these things, you just have to stay healthy and stay strong. That experience of working lots in the field for NOLS becomes very useful on these trips to maintain your strength and your health. It's also important to know how to pace yourself. I remember Paul saying, "You can't exhaust yourself at high altitude because you won't recover." So learning how to get into camp and having enough energy to melt some snow and make something to eat and drink is totally important.
How does your NOLS background work in terms of the leadership skills you must exhibit?
The leadership skills you learn at NOLS are important, along with the medical experience and knowledge you have as a physician, so it's kind of a combination. I sort of felt that I needed to take care of myself because I needed to take care of other people as they got sick. You really can't neglect yourself. You have to stay healthy so you can be there for other people. I had to be a sort of doctor to myself and that's where all that NOLS experience really pays off because you know how to take care of yourself. I did get sick once and had to crawl in my tent for two days.
Tell us about being part of a team working together to achieve a very challenging goal. How does the NOLS way of expedition behavior translate to expeditions like the NFB Everest climb?
There were two people on the expedition who had been involved with NOLS in the past, including Chris Morris (FSR '86) who had been a NOLS student with Rob Hess and now has his own business guiding people in Alaska and South America. So some of the people knew a lot about expedition behavior, but the team Erik created were people he had been with before. He skillfully put together a team of people that got along well and became close friends, and the wonderful thing is that we were all closer friends at the end of the expedition. To spend two and a half months climbing a big mountain like that and come home feeling closer than when you started is just a great feeling. I think I give credit to Erik for putting together this team of really great people. A lot of these expeditions, especially on a mountain like Everest, have people who don't even know each other that well and are there more or less for themselves. I think all the international expeditions and everybody up there looked at our team as being very strong and together and envied what we had in a lot of ways. We were really having a good time working together.
Some of the greatest friends you'll make you make on a NOLS course. Would you say this is true of the climb in May?
Yea, I'll love these people forever, and that in itself is a major sign of a successful expedition. An interesting aside is that we had a satellite phone, which we took up to the South Col, and Erik talked to President Bush around nine o'clock in the dark our first night up there. And the follow up to that was an invitation to the Oval Office. So the end of July the team met in Washington, D.C. and spent over 40 minutes in the Oval Office with the President. Looking out the window of his office onto the White House lawn and just being in that room and knowing all its history was very powerful. I felt it was a stranger place to be than on Mt. Everest. That was our first reunion, to see everybody all dressed up in suits when the last time we saw each other was in the airport.
Tell us a bit about Erik Weihenmayer.
Erik is a true inspiration to all of us and anybody who knows his story. He's just really one of the team, one of the members. He's got a great sense of humor and he's wonderful to be with. He's an amazing athlete and has got special senses. He just sort of senses who people are so when you walk up to him sometimes you don't have to introduce yourself. I had been with him last year on Ama Dablam, so I knew his climbing skills and how strong he was but I still worried about these ladders in the ice fall because they're very difficult when you have eye-sight and take a lot of balance. So I remember the first time I went to the ice fall, watching him cross the first ladder the first day, and I was kind of nervous, thinking this is going to be really hard. And then he cruised it. And he made five round trips through the ice fall after that - ten trips through the ice fall - and never fell once on one of those ladders. Some of them are really shaky, like three and four ladders sort of tied together, and they're bouncing around and you have these really flimsy ropes you're holding onto. But every time he got faster and faster and the last time he came to the icefall he went from Base Camp to Camp II in one day, in good time. That just shows you how strong he is and what an inspiration he is. I'm so happy for him. He certainly showed me what the human spirit can do.
Did he ever have any doubts about his ability to climb Everest?
I think anybody has doubts when you get to someplace like Mt. Everest, because once you hit that zone above 8,000 meters it's like anything can happen, you're right on the edge of surviving and things can start unraveling very quickly. But I don't think he had any more doubts than anybody else. And certainly the people who knew him had no doubts that he could do this.
So at the end it was not only a triumph for him but for the whole team.
Oh, totally. The whole team was so happy. I remember when we came down the icefall had really opened up and melted out and become very treacherous. It was a very scary and dangerous feeling. When we stepped off the ice fall the Base Camp team had gathered there and we had a little celebration with music and beer and we were just all hugging each other and crying and it was such a relief to have pulled this thing off. Plus, we were all down safely. I don't think we had ever felt closer to one another than at that moment.
What advice would you give to your son, or any young person, about to embark on a NOLS course?
If they can get their minds stimulated to where they want to come and do a NOLS course, I'd be so thrilled because I'd know that they're going to learn outdoor skills they can use the rest of their lives. That's the great thing about the mountains. I turned 50 years old this year, and as I slow down I'll want to spend more time in the mountains because it's something I can do for as long as I can walk. It brings so much happiness to hike in the wilderness and camp and climb mountains. It's a life-long endeavor.
Dr. Gipe has no plans to return to Everest. Though eleven of the thirteen team members made it to the summit, Gipe chose not to make the final push on the morning of May 25. His adventures in the mountains, however, are far from over. These days, he's staying close to home where he enjoys spending time with his wife and son and skiing and climbing with his best friend, Jeff Heath, who he met in 1967 at NOLS.
For more information on the NFB 2001 Everest Expedition, visitwww.2001everest.com
Erik Weihenmayer continues to push towards his quest to climb the Seven Summits. Today he speaks to audiences around the country on topics that include overcoming life's challenges, achievement, the importance of teamwork, and the daily struggle to never let go of the goals and dreams that you establish for yourself. He is the author of a new book, Touch the Top: A Blind Man's Journey to Climb Further than the Eye Can See.