Everest: Wally Berg

May 14, 2010
Outside Magazine

Wally Berg Combine the total number of Mount Everest summits of all the seasoned mountaineers at Base Camp this season--Dave Hahn, Apa Sherpa, Conrad Anker, David Breashears, Dr. Peter Hackett, Russell Brice, Michael Brown, Wally Berg--and the figure would surpass at least 100.

From these notable summits come a few notable anniversaries. May 13 marked the 20th anniversary of the 1990 American Everest Lhotse Expedition, during which Wally Berg and Scott Fischer became the first two Americans to climb the world’sfourth-highest peak. (Both Berg and Fischer also went on to summit Everest.) Fischer died on Everest in 1996, but Wally Berg, 55, owner of Berg Adventures International, has gone on to lead mountaineering expeditions all over the world. A few words from an old-school Everest mountaineer:

Give us the short version of your Mount Everest resume.
I’ve been on ten Everest expeditions. The first was in 1989. I’ve reached the summit of Everest four times, three of those expeditions have been autumn or post-monsoon expeditions. Seven have been spring expeditions. I was the leader for five of those expeditions.

What other Himalayan peaks have you climbed?
I’ve also climbed Cho Oyu and Lhotse. I’ve been climbing or trekking consistently in Nepal since my first expedition, which was to Makalu II in 1986. I’ve been to Nepal twice a year almost every year since then.

What sticks out in your mind about the 1990 American Everest Lhotse Expedition?
On May 10, 1990, our team put Glenn Porzak, Michael Browning, Pete Athans, Brent Manning and Dana Coffield on the summit, followed by Andy Lapkass the next day. Those were the years when a lot of people who had been trying to reach the summit were on their fourth or fifth attempt. That 1990 scene kicked off an era.

Scott Fischer and I had been invited on the expedition with the mandate that we would try to reach the summit of Lhotse before Everest. We reached the summit of Lhotse on May 13. We had the advantage that we were two friends climbing as a team above the yellow band with all the support of the team below us. But it was a bad day for weather: the winds were very high, and it was a total whiteout at the top.

How tough is climbing Lhotse compared to climbing Everest?
Technically Lhotse is more difficult. It’s much steeper, but it’s 1,200 feet lower in the atmosphere, which makes it a different sort of climb. It’s much easier physiologically to climb Lhotse than it is to climb Everest.

In addition to guiding on Everest, you also did survey work for Brad Washburn in the '90s. What were you trying to accomplish?
We used GPS technology to survey Everest more accurately. It was mostly about movement of the plates. There were faults in this area, and there was a question as to whether the summit block was moving to the northeast. We were trying to figure out how high the rock earth of Mount Everest was opposed to the ice cap. I mounted a benchmark plate on what we determined to be the highest bedrock consistently exposed. That’schanged because there’s a lot more rock exposed near the summit now. In 1999 a few climbers went back and finished up the survey work and declared a new elevation for Everest: 29,035. But the official elevation accepted by China and Nepal is still 29,028.

Now you own and operate Berg Adventures International. What kinds of trips do you offer?
Berg Adventures International is just a continuation of what I had been doing since about 1988 when I first started guiding in Nepal. I’ve guided all the Seven Summits, do mountaineering adventures, and quality travel adventures. We are involved with our clients’ experiences from their initial dreams to the details of travel and healthmatters to communication with home.

Are there any records left to break on Everest?
Records on Everest have never appealed to me. The first time I walked here in 1989, I saw the Khumbu glacier and I saw the west shoulder of Everest and I went to base camp and I saw the Khumbu ice fall and I was in the Western Cwm. I was a mountaineer who was following history. When Messner and Habeler climbed Everest without oxygen in 1978 that had a profound effect on me. I’m a self-directed mountaineer. I don’t do it to go home and get accolades for being the first. I don’t need an excuse to go to any mountain in the world other than I love the mountains.

What is your advice for aspiring Everest climbers?
The mountain will put you through physical and mental and practical demands that you are going to have to rise to. Everest is something you do one step at a time. There are a lot of people who paid for an Everest climb that went nowhere. They had a fantastic trek to Everest base camp, but their wakeup call came in the Khumbu coughs and the emotional strain of living in the third world. I feel really strongly that it’s not anyone’s place to comment on who belongs on Everest because Everest is going to set its own standard of who belongs on Everest and it’s a very demanding standard.

--Stephanie Pearson

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