"Mr. Everest" on 50th Anniversary of First Ascent

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
May 28, 2003
As monikers go, it'd be hard to find a better fit for climber Peter
Athans than "Mr. Everest." Over the course of 15 expeditions to the
mountain, Athans has spent more than three years of his life on its
slopes. He's stood atop Everest an astonishing seven times, a feat
unsurpassed by any Western climber.

Athan's last trip to the summit took place in May 2002 when he served as a filmmaker and expedition leader of the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition. The expedition joined the sons of Everest pioneers Hillary, Norgay, and Bishop—Peter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishop—for the first time and sent Hillary and Bishop to the summit. (For more on the expedition and the mountain, watch Surviving Everest Thursday, May 29 at 8:00 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.)

Athans recently spoke to National Geographic News about Everest's allure and the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the eve of the 50th anniversary of their historic first climb.

What is it about Mount Everest that has drawn you back time and again?

Being on the summit is really an ethereal moment. It's a time when essentially I can just feel like I'm becoming the action that I'm performing. There's really no particular identity that I hold. The person who's Pete Athans just kind of sloughs away. I've really just become the activity that I'm doing. It's a time when I'm feeling I'm as close to the eternal and infinite and the beautiful as I can possibly be for that very brief moment in time. It's also a place where I feel incredibly free and very liberated from the sometimes quotidian nature of life in the Western world.

What do you think about the record number of expeditions attempting the mountain this season?

Obviously, [in] 2003 there are so many teams over there. I think on the south side there are close to 20. So this may be a record year. There definitely have been more and more people who are interested in Everest history. More and more people who see Everest as a red badge of courage or some nice addition to have on their curriculum vitae. I don't have any real qualms about that. Everest has magnetized my interest for so many years.

Does Everest change people's lives?

People who go into the experience thinking that they're going to get to the top of Everest and somehow they're going to be magically transformed into something else, or it's going to bequeath to them anything like intelligence to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz… Obviously anything you have, you already have it before you get there. It's kind of crazy to think that the light's going to go on when you get to the summit of Everest.

Are you saying Everest has not changed your life?

Oh, it has definitely changed my life. It's changed dramatically and in surprising ways. I've spent virtually 15 expeditions on the mountain, more than three years of my life on the mountain. Having spent so much time with the people who live in that area on the southern foothills of Everest, really transformed my life from being a little impetuous…a little impatient and demanding mountaineer and person from the West to someone who's quite a bit more thoughtful, quite a bit more introspective, and is certainly a lot more compassionate about the world, both around and within.

In the past, you've earned your living as a guide. What obligation did you feel for your clients' safety? What risks were you willing to take?

I was definitely a lot more willing to take on the guide-client relationship before 1996. I had the same kind of ideals that Rob Hall, Scott Fischer, and a variety of other guides who I was working with at the time have. I just saw in 1996 people flouting their own rules. Flouting their own summit turnaround times. Basically, [just] totally pushing the envelope. Doing things that they might not even do with an experienced partner. It really gave me pause to reconsider my motives [and] try to find another line of work.

It's a very rare client and guide combination that can do the mountain safely and doesn't compromise either of those parties at some point. It's a difficult mountain to guide successfully. I don't think there are very many guides who really can do it. There are a lot of people out there saying that they can. I don't believe that they're really very good [or that] they have the same familiarity with the peak that they need to do their jobs well. I don't think that they always have the best relationship with the Sherpas who are doing the support for virtually any commercial summit team.

Sometimes I feel like a lot of commercial expeditions are really thrown together at the last minute. Oftentimes guide-client pairings are random, done at the last minute. The assignments are capricious. They don't always take in the strengths, or more importantly the weaknesses, of the clients who are involved as a result of commercial pressures. So I really don't think that it stacks up to a lot of opportunity for success. I think there is a lot of opportunity for misunderstandings, certainly on a number of occasions, and perhaps even worse—for injury or death.

Do you foresee a climbing retirement for yourself any time soon? When do you think you'll turn away from big mountains like Everest?

Every time I say I'm going to retire from Everest, within 18 months I'm on my way back. So I'm not hazarding any guesses. I'm trying to focus more on going to unclimbed ranges…to lower peaks where's there's not so much time required for acclimatization. The places that people haven't been that don't require much suffering.

For me, I'd like to get away from the 8,000-meter [26,000-foot] peaks for a while. Just look at some of these other areas that have lower peaks but are completely unexplored. That's what exploration is all about: Going to these [places] that have seen little or no exploration whatsoever. It's there for you to come back and to communicate to everyone what it's all about, tell them something that a satellite photo won't be able to tell them.

Fifty years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first climbers to reach Everest's summit. What is the legacy of their accomplishment?

[They] were groundbreaking not only in the way they approached the mountain as climbers and as athletes, but also as humanists, as artists, as philosophers.

After the 1940s, Europe had been just bombed to the ground. We had been at war for a number of years. People needed some hope. People needed to be inspired. There on the scene was this incredible team of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: Sir Ed a beekeeper and mountaineer from New Zealand; Tenzing essentially coming from a household of yak herders in Tibet and also in Nepal. This incredible, complimentary team was able to do this unbelievable thing…that only truly existed in their imaginations as a possibility. For so many years, the British had tried. The Swiss had tried. Finally, in 1953, [Hillary and Tenzing] were able to give what I believe was an incredible gift of hope to the world.

How about Barry Bishop who, as you well know, was among the first American climbers to summit Everest in 1963?

Barry [Bishop]…was able to bring back some of the best photographs [of Everest]…photographs that inspired me as a young man. I remember very clearly having his photograph of the West Ridge just showing two very tiny climbers underneath this awe-inspiring summit pyramid of Everest. For me, that just epitomized the mountaineering experience. That one photograph inspired me in many ways. The power of being able to tell a story like that can really change people's lives. I think that that's what's going to be remembered about these people. They really had something to contribute.

There are a lot of great technical mountaineers out there. But the people that will be remembered are the people who can communicate. The people who could show the average Joe on the street why we do what we do. We're not out there just because we are type-A or adrenaline personalities. We're people who have very deep hearts, big hearts. We're very philosophical. We do what we do when we take the risk. We do it because we feel like we get significant reward. We also want to be able to communicate those passions to anybody who's listening in and is willing to be moved by our stories.

More Mount Everest Stories From National Geographic News:
First Teams Summit as Everest Season Begins
Biographer: Legacy of Tenzing Norgay's Historic Everest Climb
Dark Side of Everest Awaits Climbers, TV Viewers
On TV: Surviving Everest Tells of Triumph, Tragedy
1963 Flashback: First Everest Summit by Americans
Everest Attempt Is Focus of New Reality TV Show
Everest Climber to Emcee Summit Attempt on Live TV
Everest: Now Just Another Tourist Trap?
Everest Clinic Tends Ills on High
Everest Time Line: 80 Years of Triumph and Tragedy
Making Movies on the Roof of the World
Everest Snowboarder Vanishes On Second Try
Altitude a Major Challenge to Climbers
The Sherpas of Mount Everest
Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change

Related Stories From National Geographic Magazine:
Everest: 50 Years and Counting
Sights & Sounds: The Sherpas
American Summit

Related Stories From National Geographic Adventure Magazine:
After the Storm: '96 Everest Survivors (Audio)
Romance on Everest: The Highest Taboo
The Everest Mess
Little Sister, Big Mountain: Climbing the Himalaya's Cho Oyu
Life on Assignment: Himalaya's Cho Oyu (Audio)
The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga (Excerpt)
The Slipping Point: Disaster on Mount Hood
8,000-Meter Man: Ed Viesturs
Q&A: Eric Simonson, Everest Sleuth
Q&A With the Man Who Found Mallory

On Television:
National Geographic Channel: Surviving Everest

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