Interview with Mike Farris: Alone on Everest.

Author: Alan Arnette.
Courtesy of www.alanarnette.com © reproduction prohibited without authorization.

A constant debate within the climbing community is not what you climb, but how you climb. Style. It is all about style. Mike Farris found himself in the middle of this argument on the summit of Everest last spring.

He climbed with style but paid a price with the removal of portions of seven fingers, both big toes, and portions of six smaller toes.

Climbing pundits will rate Reinhold Messner as a superior climber to Ed Viesturs even though both climbed the fourteen highest mountains on earth without supplemental oxygen. Messner climbed new routes and Viesturs used standard routes. Messner had superior “style” according to the pundits.

Mike had over 30 years of climbing under his belt. He is an experienced rock and ice climber and a veteran of five 8000 meter expeditions including K2.

Mike has written a book entitled The Altitude Experience: Successful Trekking and Climbing Above 8,000 Feet, where he explains the details of high altitude climbing.

In other words, Mike was quite experienced when it came to altitude.

He did not go to Everest believing it was “easy”. He wrote prior to his climb about Everest:

Nobody who has climbed it has said that it’s easy. It is technically easier that K2 (second highest) and Kangchenjunga (third highest peak), both of which I’ve attempted, but there are still difficult sections high up on the mountain, and of course the extreme altitude has a major effect. So it’s a real mistake to underestimate the difficulty of any peak.

Yet with all his experience, this Professor of biology at Hamline University in Saint Paul, MN found himself alone on top of the world, late in the day and running low on oxygen. His goal was to climb as an independent climber. Before the climb, he explained what climbing in style meant to him:

  • Using most of the available fixed rope is unavoidable. I have to be content with the knowledge that I could climb the route without them, if need be. This doesn’t include the icefall, which requires fixed ropes for safety’s sake for all climbers.
  • Anything I want to use above Base Camp, including oxygen, is carried by me. I won’t have any Sherpas carrying tents, food, fuel, stoves, etc. Except:
  • Most teams set up an Advanced Base Camp at about 6400m (21,000 ft) and have a kitchen staff to prepare meals. Since I’m paying for this service anyway, I will use this ABC facility.
  • I will use the minimum amount of bottled oxygen needed for safety. I won’t know what that amount is until I assess my level of acclimatization and fitness.

He made it to the South Col per his plan and left at 10:00 PM – alone.

I have followed Mike for years and find him a confident individual who strives to do his best in the high altitude world. I was curious about his decisions on Everest, his thoughts on style and on the other climbers who probably saved his life.

Q: You wanted to climb Everest in ”style”. What did that mean to you exactly and why was that important?

I began as a rock and ice climber at a time when style was very important and changing rapidly. No pitons, no aid climbing, no step cutting–all very different from the 1960s. The emphasis was on skill rather than equipment. As the author of two rock climbing guidebooks I’ve had to think a lot about style for the benefit of the guidebook users. I think this has carried over into my high altitude mountaineering. Mark Jenkins’ book ” A Man’s Life” has a wonderful chapter on climbing style, and I recommend that to anybody contemplating climbing a high peak.

At many levels, style is a completely personal choice. If your goal is to collect summits, you may not care how you get up or down. If the journey is more important than the destination, then style does matter. I wanted to have a satisfying experience; the summit would be great but not essential. Given the reality of Mount Everest on the standard routes, I had to decide what was feasible for me to do. For me, climbing in good style meant using the least amount of outside help possible. I used the fixed rope and the kitchen at ABC; otherwise I carried my own gear and oxygen. I didn’t use supplemental oxygen below the South Col.

The truly committed stylist would have avoided the fixed ropes as well. Safety has also been central to my climbing ethic, so I wasn’t willing to go that far as an independent climber.

Q: On your summit bid, you were climbing alone – no teammates or Sherpas. You are an experienced mountaineer with five 8000m attempts at that point but why choose to go it alone?

There is a difference between being with people and being alone. Above 8000 m you’re really alone unless you’re traveling with a group large enough to evacuate an incapacitated climber. Of course a partner serves other purposes: psychological support and help with decision-making. Up to this point I’ve never had a problem traveling alone on 8000 m peaks. I suppose it was part of the test I gave myself–could I do it completely on my own? In this case, I couldn’t.

Q: Let’s look at your summit night. You climbed to the Balcony in 8 hours, which is on the slow side and then arrived at the South Summit around 10:45 AM, almost 12 hours after leaving the South COl. This was quite late. Did you consider turning back then given your pace?

Yes. I had a constant discussion with myself from about 3 AM onward. Once I reached the Balcony and changed oxygen bottles, I felt I was moving better. At about 9:30 AM I set a turnaround time of 11 AM if I hadn’t reached the South Summit. When I arrived there at 10:45 AM I felt okay. I had been moving faster and the weather was reasonable. Everything seemed under control–though slow– and I knew there were ropes all the way to the top.

Q: Your summit was at 1:39 PM and you were alone on the top of the world. Your thoughts on that moment?

Phil Crampton, leader of Altitude Junkies (my BC provider) radioed from Base Camp and said, “leave in five minutes!” and I agreed. So I shot a little video and went down. It was quite windy and the clouds were starting to boil up near the summit of Loki. I suppose I realized just how alone I was at that point.

Q: As you descended, the trouble began. From your report it is not clear if you suffered from AMS but you became disoriented and after almost 17 hours after leaving the South COl you were sighted by various other climbers. Can you tell us any memories of how you felt? The cold, frostbite, being scared, hallucinations?

I was descending under control and wasn’t all that far from the Balcony when my oxygen ran out. My slow progress was due to a faulty regulator, and I was probably getting about half the oxygen flow that I should have been. I remember descending below the rocky buttress below the South Summit. Aside from a fleeting memory of shivering I have essentially no memories from 5:30pm until Bernice Noteboom and Walter Laserer found me after midnight, hypothermic and partially undressed near the Balcony. I experienced no hallucinations, no fear-nothing. I believe that I became hypothermic soon after my oxygen supply ran out. I quit making good decisions and forming memories, but I still was making radio contact with the South col and descending the ropes with proper technique.

Q: Members from several other teams gave aid to get you down to the South Col. Any thoughts on other teams giving you assistance?

I have the utmost gratitude for all of those who helped me. Until I spoke with Bernice and Walter in Kathmandu I had absolutely no idea what had happened!  It took several months to piece together the story as I know it now. Bernice and Walter spent valuable time on their ascent getting me restarted down the hill . Russell Brice, his ascending HimEx team, and his Sirdar Phurba Tashi provided crucial aid in my amazingly slow descent below the Balcony. I’ve tried to come up with a complete list of those who helped — it’s in the report on my website. I’d love to add the names of anyone else who contributed.

As I wrote in my book, part of the compact one enters into on these routes is an implicit agreement to help one another. I was heartened to see the willingness of many other groups to help somebody they didn’t even know. I’m very glad that nobody missed out on the summit as the result of my misadventures.

Q: You were using the best high altitude oxygen system available with Poisk and a Top-Out mask but still there seemed to be a failure. How can this be avoided?

It’s clear to me that I just got a bad regulator. I should have carried a spare. I had no problems with the Top-Out mask.

Q: What are your thoughts a year later on your experience. Specifically any advice for 8000m climbers wanting to go as independent as possible?

This was my first accident in 35 years of climbing. I’ve been lucky before, but this was too much! I came extremely close to a non-eventful climb an extremely close to death. Except for the Khumbu Icefall, Everest may be the safest big peak I’ve attempted. Certainly K2 and Kangchenjunga were far more dangerous.

Independent climbers should do their share: either provide, carry, and fixed rope or contribute financially. Get to know as many people as possible (which I found hard to do on Everest). Especially on Everest, travel with a respected BC provider. They know how things work behind the scenes and have worked with the majorplayers in the past. I know that made my situation easier.The independent climber can afford to take fewer chances. I forgot that rule on summit day.

Q: You had had surgery to remove portions of seven fingers, both big toes, and portions of six smaller toes. How are you today?

I’m healing quite well; it’s more of an inconvenience than a disability. I’m running, climbing indoors, and if I wasn’t so lazy I’d be outside ice climbing and cross country skiing more often. I frost nipped my fingers and toes many times over the years, which led to my injuries being more severe than we first thought. I could easily still be sitting up there, serving as a grim landmark for future climbers. In that light my injuries don’t seem bad at all.

Mike with Bernice Notenboom and Walter Leserer

Thanks Mike for your courage and candidness. We hope to see you back in the mountains soon!

Climb On!

Alan

* Source : – Alan Arnette : 2010 Everest expeditions.

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Everest 2010: North Side Update from an Expert – Jamie McGuinness.

Everest 2010: South Side Update and Safety On The Mountain.

Himalaya Spring 2010 expeditions.

2010 climbing season kick-off: Everest and Himalaya list of expeditions!

Everest 2010 season – Expeditions with any British Teams or Britons.

Everest 2010: An Interview with Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies.

ExplorersWeb Year 2009 in Review: Farewell to friends.

Alan Arnette’s Everest 2010 Coverage Begins, Double Traverse Announced!

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** zapraszam na relacje z wypraw polskich himalaistów.

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