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NOLS on Top of the World
By Julie Hwang
NOLS Grad David Breashears has reached the top of the world five times.

Last spring, 14 teams gathered at Everest’s southern Base Camp (17,600 feet) on the Khumbu glacier. Brightly colored tents and prayer flags scattered across the rocky foreground, and the smells of burning juniper and international cuisine mingled in the air for over two months as expeditions awaited their chance to summit. In May, five NOLS grads from three different expeditions reached the top of the world.

At 1 p.m. on May 15, NOLS Instructor Brien Sheedy became one of the first to summit Everest that season. He and his team kicked the steps that NOLS grad David Breashears, along with former instructors Jimmy Chin and Amy Bullard, would walk two days later with cameras in tow to film the mountain for an upcoming movie. And seven days later, grad Britton Keeshan, at 22, would also reach the summit, becoming the youngest climber to achieve the Seven Summits.

The expeditions shared little contact—they were each too focused on their own group’s goals. Chin, Bullard and Sheedy never worked together at NOLS, but had previously run into each other at various NOLS locations, and now at the bottom of the Geneva Spur below the summit of Everest. Sheedy had been Keeshan’s NOLS Instructor on the young man’s first course, but it wasn’t until a year later that they discovered they’d been on Everest at the same time.

In addition to their NOLS backgrounds, all of the climbers shared a mountain philosophy, including commitment to the group, expedition behavior, communication, strong leadership abilities, respect and patience for mountains—aspects taught and learned at NOLS.

For these five mountaineers, this expedition—and any expedition—promised more than a summit, even if it was the top of the world.

Sheedy Reaches the Summit

NOLS Instructor Brien Sheedy reached Everest's summit on May 15.
Sheedy, who runs the outdoor program at Whitman College and instructs NOLS courses during the summer, signed up for this expedition because he wanted to follow Hillary’s path. He also sought a deeper connection with Nepali and Everest cultures. “It’s not a wilderness experience like I’ve been used to, but a social, international, expedition-type experience,” he explains. “I wanted to embrace it, not reject it—see what it’s all about.”

He compares his climb to a NOLS Semester, one in which his skills came in handy. “NOLS does a good job teaching people communication and bomber camping and climbing skills,” the instructor says.

His semi-daily routine included an acclimatization hike before “teatime” with endless rounds of cards, hot drinks and food. Despite battling altitude, fatigue and bronchitis, he brought home memories of laughing with his friends.

Besides this camaraderie, one of Sheedy’s most memorable moments happened the morning after his summit, the first time he could fully appreciate it. “It was a sunny, beautiful morning, and I could look up at the south summit,” the mountaineer says. “That was a really neat moment for me.”

The Youngest Seven-Summitter

Britton Keeshan, the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits, was one of several NOLS grads on Everest in May 2004.
Keeshan describes climbing Denali with NOLS in 1999 as a “pure” wilderness experience. He finds joy in the simplicity of day-to-day life with a small group and being able to focus on one task. And when he returned to Connecticut, and later attended Middlebury College, he discovered that these mountain lessons had translated into the front country.

“Climbing Everest is a great achievement, I guess, but for me it was just another mountain,” he says. “My primary goal was Denali, and NOLS helped me accomplish it.” His desire to travel and climb bigger mountains merged in the form of the Seven Summits, and he achieved his goal by finding a hook for sponsors: his age.

He considers Everest the hardest mountain he’s climbed because of the mental challenges, but consequently he learned a lot. For Keeshan, the world’s highest peak amounted to a goal that he never quite believed he could accomplish. “Now that I did the thing I thought I couldn’t do, I have to find another thing,” he says. “It’s going to be a never-ending process to get to the next waypoint on this bigger journey.”

Remembering 1996

Work brought Breashears and Chin back to Everest. For Breashears it would be his fifth summit. “I only went back when I felt like I had something important and new to do,” Breashears explains. His expedition successfully captured background footage for an upcoming Universal Studios movie that will reconstruct the events surrounding the 1996 storm that took eight lives.

“I absolutely connect the dots between six weeks at NOLS and five times on Everest. The ascents would not have come without NOLS,” Breashears  says. After choosing a competent and trustworthy team, this expedition leader formed a strong plan including “wiggle room” to avoid making desperate choices. Breashears always respects the mountain and listens to it, the same voice that kept him from attempting the summit on May 10, 1996.

“On my NOLS course, the meaning on the mountain was always the importance of craft, of executing something really well,” Breashears says. “And I love being in the mountains, and I love the challenges, and I relish the camaraderie and doing difficult tasks in difficult places.”

“It’s like an über-NOLS course,” Chin says about making a movie on this mountain. The adventure sports photographer found satisfaction in capturing all of the documentary footage and stills possible. “It’s pretty cool to be standing at 29,000 with your feet on the ground. Looking out into Tibet and seeing the sun rise was pretty cool, too,” he adds.

Breashears remembers standing in Base Camp watching jet-stream winds tear snow from the slopes more than 11,000 feet above them. “That display of nature was humbling and uplifting,” he says. “It showed one that Everest can either be a very benign place, or it can be an utterly unforgiving place.”

Despite the fact that his course ran almost 35 years ago, this NOLS grad still wears a worn green NOLS baseball cap. “I love to wear it whenever I’m in the Tetons and Himalayas,” Breashears explains. “It reminds me of a 15-year-old’s journey into the Wind Rivers—and six weeks that certainly altered the course of my life.

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