An adventure-loving Utah couple reached the summit of Mount Everest on Friday, and returned with observations about the crowding and weather conditions that have led to 11 mountaineers dying on the world’s tallest peak this season.
“I would blame the weather for the difficulties this year, not the crowds,” said Caroline Gleich, a professional ski mountaineer based in Salt Lake City, who made it to the top of Everest at 7:05 a.m. local time Friday with her fiance, Rob Lea.
Gleich and Lea climbed Everest from the northeast ridge in Tibet, a less-traveled route than the Nepal approach, Gleich said in an email interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. The Chinese government, which manages the Tibet side of Everest, issues fewer than half the number of permits the Nepal government does, she said.
Nepal’s government this year issued permits to 381 people on 44 teams, the most ever, The Associated Press reported. They were accompanied by an equal number of guides from Nepal’s ethnic Sherpa community. Climbers have reported bottlenecks at the Hillary Step, the vertical face near the summit, with one posting on Twitter a photo of a queue of climbers waiting to ascend.
Last Wednesday, Don Cash, a sales executive and mountaineer from Sandy, died after he collapsed while descending from the summit. Guides who revived Cash and tried to get him down the mountain said they were delayed two hours by crowding at the Hillary Step.
“My heart goes out to his friends and family and those he left behind,” Gleich said.
Christopher Kulish, a 62-year-old attorney from Boulder, Colo., died Monday at a camp below the summit during his descent. His was the 11th death on Everest this season.
“This year wasn’t much more crowded than other years,” Gleich said. “The problem was there were only two good weather days to summit. That means all the teams went on the same day.” Normally, the weather window runs five to seven days, she said.
Gleich and Lea’s team spent an extra night at Camp 2 on the way up to the summit, waited for other teams to go, and “climbed on a day where weather was predicted to come in,” Gleich said. “We climbed with a handful of other small teams and hardly waited at all.”
The hardest part of the climb, Gleich said, was getting acclimated to sleep at the advanced base camp, at an altitude of 21,000 feet. (The summit of Mount Everest is 29,029 feet.) “Acclimatizing is so painful," she said. “It feels like being sick with the flu and having to hike miles and miles.”
It helped, Gleich said, that she and Lea have climbed hundreds of big mountains, including another Himalayan peak, Cho Oyu, which at 26,864 feet is the world’s sixth-highest mountain.
Climbing such a high mountain, Gleich said, “really helped prepare us for Everest because we knew how our bodies would react and perform at those altitudes."
On Everest, she said, “you have to be so on top of your personal safety because if something goes wrong, no one can help you. I acknowledged that death was a possibility but I was never worried about dying on my climb. When I get on to the mountain, my training and preparation kick in.”
One complication to the climb: Gleich tore the ACL in one of her knees seven weeks before their trip.
Death, she said, “is a real outcome of all our daily activities. … The difference on Everest is you have to confront death. There isn’t an ambulance that comes and takes a person off with a sheet over their body. I am driven to climb because I don’t want to live my life sugarcoated. … For me, the real risk is not following my passion and then living a life of quiet resentment.”
When she returns to Utah, Gleich will be taking a break from high adventure, while she has double knee surgery to repair her ACL and to have arthroscopic surgery on her other knee.
Meanwhile, Lea is working on completing what the couple call an “ultimate world triathlon,” of which Everest was the first leg. Next, Lea plans to swim the English Channel in July. After that, he plans to pedal his bike across the United States. On his Instagram account, Lea refers to these events with the hashtag #triforequality, with the goal of advocating for gender equality “and to highlight men’s role in being champions for women,” Gleich said.
In August, the couple are getting married. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do for our honeymoon yet,” Gleich said. “We’re dreaming of Antarctica. Or Hawaii! We can’t decide.”