Everest 2010: Mike Farris - Alone on Everest

Feb 24, 2010
Outside Magazine

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

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

Climbing pundits will rate Reinhold Messner as a superior climber toEd Viesturs even though both climbed the fourteen highest mountains onearth without supplemental oxygen. Messner climbed new routes andViesturs used standard routes. Messner had superior "style" accordingto the pundits.

Mike had over 30 years of climbing under his belt. He is anexperienced rock and ice climber and a veteran of five 8000 meterexpeditions 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 istechnically easier that K2 (second highest) and Kangchenjunga (thirdhighest peak), both of which I've attempted, but there are stilldifficult sections high up on the mountain, and of course the extremealtitude has a major effect. So it's a real mistake to underestimatethe difficulty of any peak.

Yet with all his experience, this Professor of biology at HamlineUniversity 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 anindependent climber. Before the climb, he explained what climbing instyle meant to him:

- Using most of the available fixed rope is unavoidable. I have to be content with the knowledge that I couldclimb the route without them, if need be. This doesn't include theicefall, which requires fixed ropes for safety's sake for all climbers.

- Anything I want to use above Base Camp, including oxygen, iscarried 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 thisservice 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 ofacclimatization 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 individualwho strives to do his best in the high altitude world. I was curiousabout his decisions on Everest, his thoughts on style and on the otherclimbers 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 veryimportant and changing rapidly. No pitons, no aid climbing, no stepcutting–all very different from the 1960s. The emphasis was on skillrather than equipment. As the author of two rock climbing guidebooksI've had to think a lot about style for the benefit of the guidebookusers. I think this has carried over into my high altitudemountaineering. Mark Jenkins' book " A Man's Life" has a wonderfulchapter on climbing style, and I recommend that to anybodycontemplating climbing a high peak.

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

The truly committed stylist would have avoided the fixed ropes aswell. Safety has also been central to my climbing ethic, so I wasn'twilling to go that far as an independent climber.

Q: On your summit bid, you were climbing alone - no teammates orSherpas. You are an experienced mountaineer with five 8000m attempts atthat 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 grouplarge enough to evacuate an incapacitated climber. Of course a partnerserves other purposes: psychological support and help withdecision-making. Up to this point I've never had a problem travelingalone on 8000 m peaks. I suppose it was part of the test I gavemyself–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 in8 hours, which is on the slow side and then arrived at the South Summitaround 10:45 AM, almost 12 hours after leaving the South COl. This wasquite 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 wasmoving better. At about 9:30 AM I set a turnaround time of 11 AM if Ihadn't reached the South Summit. When I arrived there at 10:45 AM Ifelt okay. I had been moving faster and the weather was reasonable.Everything seemed under control–though slow– and I knew there wereropes 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) radioedfrom Base Camp and said, "leave in five minutes!" and I agreed. So Ishot a little video and went down. It was quite windy and the cloudswere starting to boil up near the summit of Loki. I suppose I realizedjust how alone I was at that point.

Q: As you descended, the trouble began. From your report it isnot clear if you suffered from AMS but you became disoriented and afteralmost 17 hours after leaving the South COl you were sighted by variousother 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 theBalcony when my oxygen ran out. My slow progress was due to a faultyregulator, and I was probably getting about half the oxygen flow that Ishould have been. I remember descending below the rocky buttress belowthe South Summit. Aside from a fleeting memory of shivering I haveessentially no memories from 5:30pm until Bernice Noteboom and WalterLaserer found me after midnight, hypothermic and partially undressednear the Balcony. I experienced no hallucinations, no fear-nothing. Ibelieve that I became hypothermic soon after my oxygen supply ran out.I quit making good decisions and forming memories, but I still wasmaking radio contact with the South col and descending the ropes withproper technique.

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

I have the utmost gratitude for all of those who helped me. Until Ispoke with Bernice and Walter in Kathmandu I had absolutely no ideawhat had happened!  It took several months to piece together the storyas I know it now. Bernice and Walter spent valuable time on theirascent getting me restarted down the hill . Russell Brice, hisascending HimEx team, and his Sirdar Phurba Tashi provided crucial aidin my amazingly slow descent below the Balcony. I've tried to come upwith 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 theseroutes is an implicit agreement to help one another. I was heartened tosee the willingness of many other groups to help somebody they didn'teven know. I'm very glad that nobody missed out on the summit as theresult of my misadventures.

Q: You were using the best high altitude oxygen system availablewith 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 independentas possible?

This was my first accident in 35 years of climbing. I've been luckybefore, but this was too much! I came extremely close to a non-eventfulclimb an extremely close to death. Except for the Khumbu Icefall,Everest may be the safest big peak I've attempted. Certainly K2 andKangchenjunga 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 aspossible (which I found hard to do on Everest). Especially on Everest,travel with a respected BC provider. They know how things work behindthe scenes and have worked with the major players in the past. I knowthat 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 adisability. I'm running, climbing indoors, and if I wasn't so lazy I'dbe outside ice climbing and cross country skiing more often. I frostnipped my fingers and toes many times over the years, which led to myinjuries being more severe than we first thought. I could easily stillbe sitting up there, serving as a grim landmark for future climbers. Inthat light my injuries don't seem bad at all.

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

Climb On!


Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site

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