Guest Column: Clouded Ambition: The Difference Between Living and Dying In The Mountains by Thomas Pollard

Pete Athans, the only American to summit Everest six times, understands what turning around in the face of danger means.  Six summit successes came as a result of thirteen Everest expeditions.  In those thirteen expeditions he has seen more than his share of deaths related to clouded ambition and overdeveloped ego.

“To gain perspective without ego, climbing becomes a remarkable adventure into futility, where romance and delusion often make the unsuspecting commit acts of omission in judgment. Disregarding turn-around times that were made with the benefit of an oxygen rich environment, over-estimating one’s own strengths, underestimating the deadening effect of activity above 26,000 feet are all symptoms of an over ambitious ego.”

In 1999, as a member of the expedition that discovered the body of George Leigh Mallory, I witnessed firsthand how clouded ambition can obscure common sense and good judgement.  Seventy-five years after he disappeared I had the opportunity to bury the frozen body of a fallen hero.

Picture of George Mallory's goggles found on his body in 1999 ©Thomas Pollard

Conveniently, I’ve lived through my own experiences with ambition at altitude.  On that same expedition to search for Mallory I encountered something quite surreal.  At 26,400 feet, faced with the decision of turning around or continuing upward, I became painfully aware of how my own ambitions were in direct opposition to my responsibilities as a father. 

May 1, 1999 dawned bitter cold and gusty at 25,800 feet.  Our team of six departed Camp Five as the first rays of sun broke over the horizon.  The mission that day was to drop some equipment at our high camp, then traverse over to an area we believed would have evidence from the 1924 British expedition. My role, as high-altitude cameraman for PBS’ Nova documentary team, was to film the events as they unfolded.  I filmed Dave Hahn’s 5:00 am radio call to ABC, and shot more footage of the others as they climbed out of sight.  Filming was much less complicated without the oxygen mask on, so I’d done the work without it.

After the team climbed out of sight I stuffed the camera equipment into my backpack and hooked up my oxygen apparatus. Not having any indication that the bottled oxygen wasn’t flowing, I climbed out of camp, hoping to catch up with the team. 

The thin air of 26,000 feet made movement unbearably sluggish.  The others were making fast progress, leaving me behind. Unlike the other days where the team waited for me to film and repack my camera equipment, a charge was in the air, as if a race were on.  The moisture from my breath began to fill the mask up, wetting my beard. Every step came with great effort. 

After about ten minutes it finally dawned on me that the oxygen apparatus was not flowing!  Fiddling with it a few minutes, it became apparent that something was wrong.  (Only later would I discover that it was mostly human error.)  The wind blew.  The five others were now out of sight.  I’d lost valuable time.

Continued >>>


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