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
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
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
|NOLS Instructor Brien Sheedy reached Everest's
summit on May 15.
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
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
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.
|Britton Keeshan, the youngest
person to climb the Seven Summits, was one of
several NOLS grads on Everest in May 2004.
“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.”
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
“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.