As Alan Arnette remembers it, his first road trip to Colorado inspired his obsession with mountains. He was 11 or 12. The vacation happened for the same reason every other family vacation happened. It was the time of year in Memphis, Tennessee, that inspired his father’s wanderlust. June. “Anyplace other than Memphis in the summer was good,” Arnette says.
His dad packed the family’s tan 1963 Chevy Impala on Father’s Day and they all headed west with the windows open. The car didn’t have air conditioning, which made the mountain air more than welcoming. Once in Colorado, Arnette drove with his dad, mom, and brother to the top of Pikes Peak, explored Estes Park, and had a barbeque in the shadow of Long’s Peak. “Something must have gotten in my head,” he says.
He moved to Colorado at the age of 32, after a promotion at Hewlett-Packard. He dabbled with 14ers when he had time, which was almost never. He was on call 24-7. He traveled for work so much that he racked up more than two million miles with United. He never took vacation. During his roughly six years in the state, he accrued more than four months of vacation.
At the age of 39, he was offered another promotion from Hewlett-Packard. The company asked him to move to Geneva, Switzerland. He did, even though part of his job was in to shut down call centers all over Europe. People hated him. When he woke up in his Geneva home on clear mornings, he often saw Mont Blanc out of his second-story bedroom window. The sight didn’t inspire him to climb the mountain. Observing the way Europeans balanced their lives with plenty of vacation did. “I recognized that you could take off time and that the company still survived,” he says. “It was then I started to take advantage of my vacation time.”
In 1995, he climbed Mont Blanc with a French guide and client that spoke zero English. They reached the summit. The next year, Arnette climbed alone. He was hooked.
He bought the domain alanarnette.com in 1998 or 1999 for the email address, and used the website to post family news and tales from his climbs. “I just told it like it was,” he says. “If I was on a climb and I got sick and I was puking in the snow and I didn’t summit, then I told people exactly what happened and I didn’t have any pretense about it. I think people appreciated that raw honesty.”
People from all over the world started following the site. He attempted Everest four times and summited once. He climbed the Seven Summits. Each time he returned home after a climb, his mother responded in the same way, under her breath. “Well, I’m glad you got that out of your system,” she said.
When he wasn’t climbing, he was writing about others that were. His followers increased. At last count, people from 213 countries have gone to alanarnette.com. He now receives one million unique visitors a year. Most people go to his site for his coverage of Everest. They often leave after learning something about Alzheimer’s.
In 2006, the same year his father would die, he and his brother acknowledged that his mother had the disease. Alan was having breakfast with her and discussing how ill his father was when she innocently stopped and asked him, “Now, who are you?”
Almost immediately, Arnette retired from his job, began caring for his mother, and expanded his climbing site into a resource for learning about Alzheimer’s and donating to Alzheimer’s research. “One of my goals was to raise awareness with young people about Alzheimer's, so I was pleasantly surprised when I started to receive comments from youth talking about caring for their grandparents or parents with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Today alanarnette.com has a 70/30 split with comments on climbing and Alzheimer’s.”
We called Arnette up to learn about his evolution as a climber, his site’s growth, and what he’s looking forward to watching on Everest in 2013.
When did you first start paying attention to Everest?
It was after I had first summited Ama Dablam with David Hiddleston and Adventure Consultants. It was a fantastic climb, because when I first saw Ama Dablam in 1997 on a trek, I was like: “No way. I can’t climb that thing.” A couple of years later, I was standing on the summit. We were coming down in October of 2000 and Dave looked over at me, and he said, “Well, mate, I guess you’re ready for Everest now.”
The first I’d ever seen Everest was in 1997, on a simple trek to Base Camp when I first saw Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, and all of those big mountains. I just thought, “They’re beautiful, I’ll never do this.” But I guess the seed was planted. Dave watered it. I went on my first attempt of Everest in 2002 with Adventure Consultants and David.
At what point did you decide to present the blog in the format it is now?
I really decided to do that when I started to do real-time dispatches from the mountain climbs. Originally I started off doing them from Everest, because I knew people were really interested in Everest. At that time, in 2002, I would write up my dispatch and email it back to my wife. She would cut and paste it onto the website. We did that for a year. And then my wife said, “You know, I don’t mind you going away for two months, but I don’t think it’s good for me to have to sit here in the house for two months to be your email transcriber.”
So I went and found a different way of doing it. I used Movable Type and then eventually moved over to Wordpress.
In 2006, my father passed away just from old age. That same year, we internalized that my mom had Alzheimer’s. I recognized that I wanted to do something very significant in the world of Alzheimer’s. I had taken early retirement from HP to oversee the care of my mom, and over the next three years that really occupied my life. But I also knew that I really wanted to do something because the disease was so horrific. I was appalled at the lack of visibility, the lack of money that was spent on research, and just the general knowledge that was available.
I grew up in a healthcare home—my dad was the administrator for a nursing home—and I was pretty ignorant and pretty naïve about the disease. So, Alzheimer’s became my mission. I wanted to think about how I could best make a difference in that world. I thought, well, I’ve got this site that has a loyal following of close to a million followers a year. My passion is mountain climbing. What if I combined those two things?
I used the site as a vehicle to, at a minimum, educate people on the disease, and, at a maximum, ask them to make donations to non-profits—nothing ever to me. That became a real strong firewall for me, to never ask people to give me any money. I only asked for donations on behalf of Alzheimer’s research and non-profits. That led me to write more articles about my own experience and Alzheimer’s, and it also took me to Everest.
The other part of it is, once you go to Everest it gets in your blood. I came back from Everest in 2003 after my second unsuccessful attempt. As the 2004 spring season approached, I thought, “Geez, I really wish I was there, but I’m not.” I was working full-time, so I thought, I’ll just go ahead and cover it as a reporter. That’s when my first annual coverage took off, and then I’ve done it every year that I haven’t been on Everest since. As I looked at the websites around the world, all I saw was a lot of information that was public relations style. After being there and not summiting, and seeing how difficult it was and what the harsh realities were, I started writing from my voice. I was trying to help people understand both the fantastic element of Everest and the harsh realities of Everest. I was doing it in a first-person perspective and talking to other climbers as they were getting ready. I was trying to understand how they were preparing and sharing that collective story with anyone who was interested.
And now you are interviewing people who aren’t famous climbers, though they are definitely characters and cogs in the history of Everest. Could you talk a bit about how that project evolved?
I was attracted to the regular people climbing Everest because I was a regular person. Everest is synonymous with rich and famous, and people of high egos, that are just, you know.... You pay your $65,000, you hook your rope to a Sherpa, and he’ll drag you to the top. And that’s such an unfair characterization of the climbers and the Sherpas.
I really like to shine a light just on the normal people. And by that I mean, the people who take out a second mortgage on their home, or that save up forever, or that take off two months without pay in order to be there. Just the regular people that love mountaineering, and for them Everest is the pinnacle of their climbing career. For most of them, it’s a one-shot deal. I’m interested in how they’re approaching it, how they’re training, and what’s behind the scenes. What’s really motivating them? A lot of people today climb Everest to raise attention to a personal cause, but an equal number of people do it just for a simple love of mountaineering. I respect anybody for whatever reason they want to climb the mountain. It’s a damn hard mountain to climb. People die every year, as we all know. So I think that was my goal—to just try and bring the story of the regular person to the people.
In the most recent interview, you spoke with Richard Salisbury, who has kept a comprehensive dataset on Everest. One thing that came up was that although Everest has become safer statistically overall in recent years, there are some elements on the mountain that are dangerous. He said the number of climbers on the mountain is already over the limit that he considers safe. Could you give some context to that?
I’m not quite sure how he came up with the conclusion to that. Everest is a huge mountain, and with all due respect to the pictures of the crowds, the reality is that on my four times on the mountain, I’ve been more alone than I have been in a line of people.
Now, Base Camp certainly has become a crowded place, with 1,000 people there every season, but of those 1,000 people, only 300 or 400 are support staff, porters coming in and out. Then you have another 300 Sherpas ferrying equipment down the mountain. So, really, you have about 300 Westerners that are attempting to climb the mountain. The numbers that we’ve seen in those famous pictures of the long lines, those are mostly Sherpas that are carrying gear up and down the mountain.
Now, that being said, it’s no fun to be standing in line for an hour in a place as remote as Mount Everest. But that happens not that often throughout the six or eight weeks that you are climbing the mountain. Most of the time, you are pretty much in a small group. As you are going through the icefall, very rarely was I there with a maximum of say, 10 or 15 people. Occasionally, at one of the ladders going across a crevasse, you have a backup. But going across the Western Cwm you spread out. Lhotse is a huge, wide expanse. I was the fourth person to summit at 5 a.m. on the morning of May 21, in 2011. And the summit was not crowded at all, but we were really lucky. I climbed with Kami Sherpa of IMG and we got out early, climbed fast, and made good time. So I didn’t have to—I wasn’t subjected to any of the crowds. Roughly 120 people summited that same day, I think.
So when Richard said the mountain has reached its capacity, I think he’s talking about any given finite point in time you will have crowds. I haven’t published any of this, but as deep background I talked to some of the major guides around the world in preparation for this upcoming season and every one acknowledged that last year was somewhat of an anomaly. You had a series of weather windows that could be up to eight to 12 days compressed into four days and that created the bottleneck of everyone trying to go for the summit. Also, you had a lot of teams trying to jump the gun, to go up that first weather window rather than that second window—which was safer and demonstrably safer because you had no death and no major rescues or emergencies.
So, is there a capacity to any mountain? I don’t know. There is a capacity limit artificially set by the Park Service on Denali. Rainier has one. But the one on Denali, the number is, I think, 1,500 climbers a year, and they’ve never issued that many permits. So, I’m not quite sure if putting a quota on Everest is the right answer at this point.
In 2013 there will be three new routes on the mountain. You’ve written about these. Can you tell me what you think the reason behind three new routes in one year is?
I mean, the last time that there was a new route was back in the '90s. So to have three different teams attempting it in one season is pretty unheard of, but the guys on the East Face—Glab Sokolov and Alexander Kirikov—wanted to go last year but couldn’t get the financing. So they delayed until this year. And Denis Urubko and Alexey Bolotov on the Southwest Face, I don’t know how long they were planning to do it, but I think they both had their eyes on this for quite a while. With Ueli Steck and Simon Moro, who knows? This seems like it kind of came out of nowhere. And it could just be that they just got the fever, especially after Ueli’s oxygen-less summit last year. Maybe he was scouting out the route—that’s speculation on my part. And Simone is a perennial Everest climber, so maybe those two just got together for a beer and decided to give it a shot.
But I think it’s going to be exciting. Also, I think it reintroduces Everest. It’s not just two high-volume trade routes, but a huge mountain with new opportunities and new routes. It will be fun to watch.
And on the surface people might think those three new routes are the result of the other routes being crowded, but you don’t think that’s the case. It’s just climbers trying to push something new?
You bet. I mean, if you look at these climbers, these are all world class professional climbers that if they wanted to go climb the normal routes, they could do it—probably with their eyes closed and not using supplemental oxygen and set speed records if they really set their minds to it. I think this brings back the style of climbing where professional climbers are climbing for the love of climbing—the challenge. They want to go out there and do something that hasn’t been done before. In many ways, that’s the allure and the mystery and the attraction of this style of climb, to do something that no one has done before.
For 2013, what are you most excited about?
There are two or three things I’ve got my eye on. One, I’m very anxious to see what the conditions are like. Last year there was very little snowfall, so it made the Lhotse Face just really lots of rock missiles coming down. That hurt a lot of the Sherpas. Those conditions caused Russell Brice to cancel his expedition halfway through. So I’m really anxious to see what the snow conditions are going to be like on both sides. I’ve seen some reports that said they’ve already gotten some four-foot-deep snows in the Khumbu region, so that bodes well for Everest in a couple of months. So maybe the Lhotse Face will be safer.
I’m also curious to see if they can find a new route through the icefall. That left shoulder of Everest has been avalanching onto the icefall for a number of years. There is a huge hanging serac that is a perennial concern on the route. I know there is some interest in trying to make the route more to the south, more toward Nuptse. I’m curious to see if they’re going to keep the route they put back on the Lhotse Face last year. It went more to the south, rather than straight up the Lhotse Face. Going straight up? The Sherpas like it because it’s shorter. The Westerners don’t like it because it’s more difficult going straight up ice. The one they took last year was safer because of the rockfall, but it was longer. Interestingly enough, the one they took last year was the same one Hillary and those guys took back in the 1950s. Eric Simonson said they pulled out some old maps and looked at the routes those guys took and that led them to go up that right-hand side of the Lhotse Face.
In addition to the new routes, there’s also a lot of interest in climbing Lhotse. They may see a record number of people. Nuptse is attracting more climbers than it has before. So that entire horseshoe around the Western Cwm is going to be a beehive of activity for a few months. And that’s just the south side. You’ve still got the north side.
Is there anything I haven’t asked yet that is important to talk about?
One of the popular things to talk about, that we touched a little bit, is not just the number of climbers the mountain can support, but also the number of guides and what are the qualification for climbers? That’s a hot topic: Should there be some type of qualification for the guide services? Do they need to have more experience? All of the information I’ve seen is that there’s been a lot of talk with the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism, but no real changes. Everest is such an economic development tool for Nepal. It’s such a poor country that the money it brings in? I don’t think they’re willing to do anything that would put that in jeopardy.
You wrote about the lack of experienced guides and the lack of personal responsibility as big issues on the mountain. You pointed out that some recent advertised prices and offerings led you to pause. What would you tell people looking to climb the mountain?
Well, I’ve got all sorts of tips on training and preparation. I do it really by not trying to give people advice, but just trying to share my own experiences, because after trying for three times and not making it, and succeeding on the fourth, I’ve gone to the school of hard knocks.
So preparation and mental toughness and being able to accept the long, long ... being on that mountain for six or seven weeks is a long time to be sleeping in a tent or to be compressed in that environment. So I think personal responsibility when you go on the summit pushes or when you are sick or working perhaps with Sherpas or operators that don’t have a lot of experience. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own safety. Not only that, you’re also responsible for the safety of your teammates. To go up there and expect other people to rescue you if you get in trouble is totally irresponsible. That’s where a lot of people do get in trouble. They’re fed by the misnomer that Everest is so crowded that there is always going to be somebody around to help you out. If your oxygen tank freezes there’s always somebody around to give you an oxygen tank. That just lures people into this false sense of security and some people pay with their lives by believing it.
Every harsh thing that you read about Everest should be taken and internalized. Any mountain should not be taken lightly. Everest should definitely not be taken lightly, especially by people like me—passionate amateurs of the sport. Even professionals, these six climbers, it won’t surprise me the least to see all three of those teams not succeed. And not because they’re not world-class climbers, but because they get onto the mountain, they see the conditions, and they see that it’s not the right time for them to be there. That’s often the difference between an amateur and a professional—that judgment at the time that you’re in a crisis.