|Peter Athens ice-climbing. Photo courtesy of North Face
Essex, Massachusetts, USA
Everest Summits: Seven
Nicknames: "Mr. Everest," "Seven"
Favorite food: Rice with anything
Recent achievement: # 9 on Menís Journalís list of "10 Tough Bastards"
Awards: The David A. Sowles Award from The American Alpine Club
Peterís name has been synonymous with the exploration of Mt. Everest for nearly two decades. He has led or participated in sixteen expeditions to the mountain and has personally summited seven times, more than any other climber of non-Sherpa ethnicity. He has also distinguished himself in the Himalaya with speed ascents of Annapurna South, Pumori, Ama Dablam and Cho Oyu. In addition, he has led expeditions to Manaslu, Makalu and K2 and made the first alpine-style ascent of the Breaking Point ridge, Alaskaís southeast spur of Mt. Hunter. When he isnít exploring his own objectives, he guides climbers to the highest points of all seven continents. Peter is a strong proponent of Sherpa culture, documenting their prodigious talents at high altitude and their contribution to mountaineering history. Recently he has taken a keen interest in the exploration of both the physical and cultural landscapes of Tibet and Western China, home to countless untrammeled peaks and unique, vanishing cultures. He is a board member of the Himalayan Cataract Project, which brings eye care to those suffering from cataract blindness in the Himalaya. In addition to film and writing, Peter studies Asian history, Buddhist philosophy and surrealist poetry. He is a highly sought-after lecturer and motivational speaker throughout the U.S. and has contributed to dozens of books and periodicals examining climbing on Mt. Everest.
Greg Child Interviews Peter Athans
The North Face athlete Greg Child uses his unique perspective to get to know the rest of our athlete team - who they are, what inspires them, and what lies ahead.
At the winter Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, I chatted with a fellow member of The North Face climbing team who has become known as "Mr. Everest" for his staggering number of visits to the top of the world's highest peak. In addition to talking about Everest, we discussed a place he and some friends plan to launch an expedition to sometime in 2000.
Greg: So tell me about this place in Tibet you plan to visit.
Pete: It's in the region called Kham, in far eastern Tibet. That's where the forebearers of the Sherpas originally migrated from, over passes in Tibet leading into the Khumbu region around Everest. The area isn't dominated by any huge peaks-Minya Konnka is the highest-but the place is mainly unexplored.
Greg: And what is the peak there that you want to try?
Pete: Mount Jambe Yang. It's a sacred peak to the Buddhists, named after the god of learning. It's about 5880 meters high. The area has been closed to foreigners for a long time, so to our knowledge the peak hasn't been climbed. And there are rumors of big wall climbing to be done here too - Pete slides a photo out of a folder of a stark, white pyramid of ice. It's certainly a classic shaped mountain, with smooth frozen faces all around it.
Greg: Well, it's impossible not to talk about Everest when speaking to you, so let me begin by asking how many times you've climbed it?
Pete: Six times. The first time was 1990, and I also climbed it in 1999.
Greg: Do you hold the record for the most number of ascents?
Pete: For a westerner, yes. Sherpas have been on top even more. Apa Sherpa, from Tame, has summited 10 times. The first time I did it was without oxygen, every time after that I used oxygen.
Greg: Just how different was it between going to the top with bottled oxygen, and your oxygenless ascent?
Pete: There was a huge difference. With oxygen it feels a lot warmer. The feet and the hands don't get so cold. And I was able to enjoy the experience a lot more with oxygen, too.
Greg: I know that the lack of oxygen really effects the brain and the memory. Do you remember much about your oxygenless ascent?
Pete: Oh yeah. The big difference between going with and without oxygen was that I didn't have to be so concerned about moving fast. The time I went without I tagged the summit, and only spent two minutes on top. It was early in the morning-7 AM.
Greg: You had also tried the mountain quite a few times before your first successful trip, right?
Pete: Yes, it was a huge relief when I finally did it, as it was my fourth try. I'd been on the north side, the west ridge and a couple times to the south side. It felt good to finally make it to the top of the world after so much effort. On Everest's south ridge, the climbing isn't very difficult, though for Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 it was a great piece of climbing for the era. The great thing was being up there, experiencing the sunrise when I was on the south summit. I remember watching the red rays come across the dust in the air in Nepal, and the first light hitting Everest and that remarkable shadow projected onto Cho Oyu. It was really a nice moment.
Greg: You have also guided a lot of people to the top of Everest. How many?
Pete: A dozen to the very top.
Greg: Obviously, guiding Everest has been proven to be a dangerous way to make a living. Have you had any scary episodes?
Pete: I've had a few scary things happen, but never up high. I've always been really conservative on summit day. If I haven't felt that the timing has been good I have always turned people around.
Greg: Much has been discussed about the safe time to turn clients around on Everest. What is your cut-off time?
Pete: I know certain milestones along the way because I've been there so often. If I haven't reached those by a certain hour, or if the trail breaking hasn't gone well, or there are people with health or oxygen problems, I'll pull the plug. But the south summit is the point of no return, so its best to be turned around before then if things aren't going well. The difficult thing about the south summit is that clients see that they're really close to the main summit. It's hard to turn them back from there.
Greg: It's incredible how many folks have climbed Everest in recent years.
Pete: Yeah, in 1990 I was about number 230, and now over a thousand people have summited.
Greg: In 1995 I was about number 600. What is the most number of people you've seen on top at once?
Pete: I was up there when 32 people were on top. It was pretty amusing. But people got along very well. The people were pretty experienced, and things moved really well, unlike the circumstances of 1996, when people were hauling themselves up the ropes and weren't cognizant of the fact that there were people in front of and behind them.
Greg: Would you guide Everest again?
Pete: I would not. In 1996, even before the disasters struck I had decided that would be my last year of guiding Everest. I'd also had the disgruntling experience in 1995 of being taken to court for turning people around on the southeast ridge. I realized then that it's a rare client who'll do well on Everest, and a rare guide who'll guide well.
Greg: Are you telling me that someone sued you for making a decision that probably saved their lives?
Pete: They did sue us but they didn't win. They tried to construe the fact that we were selling tickets to the top of the world. We've always been clear that no one is selling tickets up Everest. The folks concerned were disappointed that they weren't able to tick off the summit, and they wanted to recoup the money they'd spent. After all that, I decided I didn't want to work in that sort of environment. But I'm still happy to guide in the Tetons in the summer, or guide treks.
Greg: Tell me about some of the other parts of the Himalaya you've been to.
Pete: When I worked on the second camera unit for the film Seven Years in Tibet, with David Breashears, we traveled all over Tibet. It was the ultimate car camping trip, in this huge Chinese truck. We visited the backside of the Shishapangma Range, the far east and Mount Kailas, then circled back through the lesser-known ranges. We didn't climb there, we were filming.
How many 8000-meter peaks have you climbed.
Pete: Everest, Annapurna, and Cho Oyu. The route on Annapurna was a new route, up the south ridge. For me that was a groundbreaking trip. It was 1984, my first time up a big peak. My companions included Mark Udall, our congressman in Colorado. The route was on the other side of the mountain to the famous, original route by the French done in the 1950s, and it was near the also-famous south face, first climbed by the British in 1970. The south ridge is really long. It climbs over the top of Glacier Dome, and it's a very long snow plod.
Greg: Back to Everest, I was glad to have climbed the north ridge which has a very safe, easy approach. But you've been up through the Khumbu icefall many times to get to the south ridge. Is the icefall as bad as it looks? It looks like a nightmare.
Pete: It is bad, and I tell you, it's bad because it's so arbitrary about when things collapse. It's the most dangerous part of the mountain. We like to kid ourselves that by climbing it early in the morning when it's cold and frozen it'll be safe, and it is true that the big collapse happen in the afternoon, but there is nothing to stop it falling apart at any time. I've been through it over 200 times and it still freaks me out though I've become somewhat inured to it.
Greg: Any close calls in the icefall?
Pete: In 1991 a big serac fell off from Everest and hit the area we were in, creating a lot of movement. I'd just stepped off a chain of five ladders all tied together spanning a huge crevasse, and one of the Sherpas was coming across behind me. All of a sudden a river of ice flooded the chasm underneath him, it took the ladder-bridge away from under his feet, and left him hanging from the safety rope while ice was filling up this huge crevasse. At the same time, the movement put pressure on the rope he was dangling from. Eventually the rope was stretched so much it snapped and he dropped into the crevasse just as the ice avalanche stopped moving! He was OK, but it was harrowing.