Interview with Everest Climber David Keaton
David Keaton the youngest person at the time (29 yrs) to complete either version of the Seven Summits.
(Rob Hall previously held the record.) The same year he also became the first person to
have attained both the 'Seven Summits' and the 50 US state highpoints. Below
is his article " Everest Misguided ? ", David took questions from
You, our readers of Everest News, over several days, which are below. Also below is a
David D. Keaton is a professional photographer and
freelance writer. In 1995, he became the youngest person (29) to complete
either version of the Seven Summits' and the first person to finish both the
Seven Summits' and the Fifty State Highpoints'.
interested in mountaineering which also re-sparked his interest in photography. Following
a stint in graduate school he launched wholeheartedly into the Seven Summits' and
the Fifty U.S State Highpoints.' At the time, only a handful of people had
tackled the continental highpoints.
David participated in five expeditions with the well-known
New Zealand climber Rob Hall including an ascent of Everest in the spring of 1994.
commercial expedition set a number of records including
the first to place all its members on the summit and return them safely. Norwegian
team member, Erling Kagge, became the first person on foot to attain the
three poles' (Everest, South and North poles), and the German climber Helmut
Seitzel became the second oldest man (56) to summit. Additionally, Rob
Hall became the first westerner to scale Everest four times. This would be the last
time he would return safely from the summit.
Another major Everest precedent was established during this season.
An American Environmental' expedition (including Scott Fischer)
in conjunction with Hall's Sherpa team made substantial progress in clearing oxygen tanks
and other refuse from the mountain. It had been Hall's idea to pay Sherpas a bounty
for each O2 bottle that was removed from the mountain, and this approach method proved to
be successful in 1994 and in subsequent years.
More recently, David participated in an expedition to the remote
East Pamir mountains of Tajikistan this past summer. The international team
completed several climbs including the first ascent of the "White Pyramid"
Everest Misguided? By David D. Keaton
Over the past five years, some quasi-pundits have titled Mount
Everest the "junk yard dog" of the high mountains. They say it has been
kicked, swarmed over, and too often taken for granted. But in the spring of 1996 and
1997 the mountain snapped back with a ferocious efficiency, and in the process, claimed
the lives of some its most unlikely victims. The resulting tragedy has stirred up a
serious debate over the role of commercial expeditions, guides, and the climbers of the
highest mountains. Should Everest, or any 8000 meter mountain be
guided?" Before wading into this debate, it is important to address the
following questions. What really are the differences between private and guided
expeditions? Don't climbing Sherpas perform many of the tasks, such as leading and
fixing ropes, not to mention shepherding sahibs, that guides do? How many of the 700
plus Everest summiters would have reached 8000 meters without Sherpa assistance? Many
would argue that a decision to forego Sherpa support marks a greater divide between
expedition styles than a convenient tag of private or commercial.
Do private expeditions always contain more experienced climbers than
commercial expeditions? In 1993, an international commercial Everest expedition
rejected the application of one climber due to her lack of experience. The same
resolute climber later secured a spot on a private venture in the same season.
Private expeditions do not always have tougher prerequisites than guided trips -
especially if inexperienced members can bring substantial financial support to a private
Adventure Consultants' clients prior to 1996 submitted vastly uneven
lists of achievements. At one end are a number of climbers who had never ventured
over 17,000 feet, and a few who had scarcely donned crampons before. But on
the other end are climbers who have individually summited Nanga Parbat, Makalu, K2 without
oxygen, Annapurna via the South face, and Lhotse. Stacking these accomplishments
alongside the climbing resumes of many of Everest's private expedition members and they
Before guiding on Adventure Consultants' 1996 commercial expedition,
Michael Groom was quoted in the April issue of Australia's Wild' magazine saying
"allot of people have big ideas for the Himalayas without having earned their
stripes. Sooner or later if this attitude continues there are going to be some
fairly serious accidents." If this is the case then who is responsible for
screening commercial climbers for a specific route, and how can it be improved? With
major 7,000 meter or 8,000 meter climbs, only a few guides require a break-in climb with
unfamiliar clients on lower peaks. Should more outfits require the practice?
Most would agree that prospective clients must take the primary
responsibility of assessing their abilities or finding someone objective that can. As veteran guide Eric Simonson recently noted, "If you haven't thought seriously that
you could die up there then you should consider a different sport." In the
rarest atmospheres, commercial and non- commercial climbers must be comfortable with the
fact that they are accountable for their performance.
What is the role of an 8000 meter guide, and is it any different for
lower peaks? Very few guides, if any, would admit that a traditional guiding
relationship exists at the highest altitudes. When a client runs into trouble at
extreme altitude, the outcome is invariable uncertain. Alex Lowe, who has guided
Everest three times, says "I feel that the role of a guide at 8000 meters ought to be
identical to that of a guide at 10,000 feet but in actual fact very little guiding occurs
above 8000 meters."
A guide may establish a safer environment for his team members by
providing solid logistics, organization, and good judgment, but on the highest peaks his
role is generally that of a coach rather than a guide supervising every step.
Anatoli Boukreev, near the center of last year's disaster, candidly defined his role with
a group of Indonesian climbers on Everest in the spring of 1997. "I offer my
expertise and experience for hire in order to help a group of people reach the
summit. But am I responsible for whether they live or die? I am not."
To reasonably attempt an 8000 meter peak, a commercial client must
not only count on maintaining the endurance to climb to the top and descend under typical
conditions, but also hold something extra in reserve. It is difficult to quantify
the necessary output for 8000 meter climbs, but if a client believes that a guide can
serve as a substitute for that reserve then the margins become thin indeed.
One pertinent example comes from a 1993 commercial Everest
expedition which placed one of the oldest men on the summit. On the descent, this
record breaking climber ran out of supplemental oxygen near the South Summit and promptly
collapse unconscious. He was reportedly saved only through the efforts of climbers
from a separate expedition who plied him with a steady flow from their own oxygen supply.
Such examples have prompted additional discussion over the use of supplemental
One Everest survivor, who has ironically criticized one guide for
not utilizing oxygen, has recently suggested the banning of its use as a way to limit the
traffic on the mountain. But if safety is the issue then such a recommendation is
surely misplaced. If the statistics are to be trusted, mountaineers that forego the
use of supplemental oxygen on their summit day sustain a much higher chance of not
returning. Without oxygen, the average roundtrip summit climb (outside a handful of
elite climbers) has been shown to be significantly longer, and exposure to hypoxia
greater. Further, how could such an edict be enforced? The idea of an oxygen
police patrolling the high peaks is particularly bizarre.
Are commercial expeditions inherently more perilous than private
ones? Whether on a commercial or private expedition, there will always be a measure of
uncontrollable risk which is a constant in 8000 meter climbing. In a June 1996 issue
of a U.S. outdoor magazine, and one month after the storm took the life of it's director,
an advertisement states ... Climb safely & do it right the first time with Adventure
Consultants." Despite the company's impressive track record prior to the spring
of 1996, it should have been very clear that climbing Mt. Everest, is in fact, unavoidably
Commercial trips, in general, are not the problem. In fact,
there is a very legitimate role for commercially organized expeditions which are not so
entangled in the weighty expectations of a "guided" climb. In the end, if
Everest and the other 8000ers were limited solely to climbers on highly restricted private
teams, would it not eliminate many of the sport's most enduring appeals? The freedom
to choose your objectives, your partners, and the type of expedition you want to
This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Rock
& Ice magazine. This articles also appears on the web site risk at
1. Groom's quote can be found on page 57 of Wild magazine's April-June 1996 issue.
This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Rock & Ice magazine
Keaton Q&A !
Q.) First thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask you some
questions, Why is it a majority of guiding companies don't require prospective clients to
pass a test of fitness in order to be selected for a High Altitude Climb?
A.) Glad to help out. Many companies do require previous
8000 meter experience or at least a previous climb with that organizer to participate on
the higher 8000 meter peaks excepting Cho Oyu. Others do not. Why? Some of it
is numbers and a few organizers use the mountains rather than pure experience as a natural
filter expecting weaker' members to fall out lower on the mountain. The recent
formation of IGO 8000 is an important step for
all concerned parties. Member companies have inaugurated a Recommended Code of Conduct for High Altitude Commercial
Expeditions' which also has been approved by the UIAA.
Q.) Shouldn't guiding companies be looking for people who are the
most qualified in order to select them to go on a specific climb?
A.) The pool of potential clients' with the desire, the drive,
the dollars, and the ability to climb an 8000er is relatively small. Most companies
would prefer to have the most "qualified" participants in terms of experience,
skill and strength. Because of their experience, professionalism and approach,
Adventure Consultants had attracted a number of very qualified climbers to its Everest
programs. Ned Gillette and Veikka Gustafsson are just two.
Q.) How reliant were you on supplemental oxygen on your seven
summits? did you use Oxygen on Aconcagua? at what elevation does one start to use
supplemental oxygen or does this depend on the person and their previous climbing history?
A.) On my "Seven Summits" tour I used supplemental oxygen
on Everest only - Camp III and above. One of Rob's Everest benchmarks was that team
members had to prove they could reach Camp III (24,000) and sleep there without Os.
If you passed this mark then you might be allowed to climb higher. In 1994,
our team used 1.5 liters of Os per minute or less on summit day. From what I have
gathered this is competitive to other expeditions with some climbers using 3 liters per
minute or more. We were fortunate to have a good team and everyone summited.
We left around 12:30 from the south col and most summited around 8:30 a.m. I went
without Os for about an hour on top.
The use of supplemental oxygen only received wide attention in the
last few years. Personally, I have never heard of anyone using supplemental
oxygen on any of the Seven Summits except Everest. If someone required oxygen on
Aconcagua or the other "Summits" they might seriously consider whether this is
the best sport for them. On Everest in 1994, I witnessed one climber using oxygen
from Camp II (around 21,000) and I thought this was a very risky undertaking.
There are plenty of lower peaks that don't require oxygen and still offer a fine mountain
Q.) Of the 50 highest, knowing that Denali was probably the hardest
of them all, which were the harder ones to do that you can remember? Thanks again for your
A.) Denali is certainly the most difficult of the 50 State
highpoints, but each one can provide unique challenges. This is not the 14 8000
meter peaks, and that's ok. There's a pig trough on the apex
of Iowa and pure asphalt atop Delaware, but there are a bunch of real gems as well.
Katahdin (ME, northern terminus of the AT) solo in winter conditions was very memorable as
was Gannett (WY) and Granite (MT). Some consider Granite to be the most technical.
Granite sticks out because my climbing partner and I had to hitchike back to
Bozeman in the back of a truck with a dog named Larry. In general, Denali and
Rainier stand out in terms of pure mountaineering endeavour.
Q.) Why do some guides charge 14,000 and others charge 7000 or
less for Cho Oyo ?
A.) Don't know specifically why the difference in fees for Cho Oyu.
Two major costs associated with a traditional siege expedition are oxygen and
Sherpa support. Compare. As well, many operators demand premium fees based on
the experience of their western guides and their success record (safety and summits).
Q.) When did you first meet Rob Hall? Do you recall your first
impression of him?
A.) I first met Rob Hall in Biak Indonesia on the way to
Carstensz Pyramid in 1993. He was a formidable figure, smart, capable, affable.
This was a difficult time for Rob as his friend and business partner Gary Ball had
died a few weeks earlier on Dhaulagiri. There was some question whether the trip
would even go, but as the trip progressed and we neared the mountains his more typical
good spirits prevailed. For a more complete picture of Rob I can highly recommend Colin Monteath's book
"Hall & Ball - Kiwi Mountaineers" Amazon.... For an
account of Rob's second Carstensz expedition (1994) check out 'Zen
Explorations in Remotest New Guinea' by Neville Schulman. Erling Kagge offers
a narrative of the 1994 Everest climb in his book Pole to Pole and Beyond'.
Q.) On Everest, from your experience in '94 and what you've
read about '96, do you feel that some clients were over-dependent on Hall? Or, to put the
question another way: Do you feel there was a lack of balance between Hall's strong
leadership and client self-reliance?
A.) I think this question leads to the very heart of whether
an 8000 meter mountain should be guided. In a traditional guiding environment on
lower mountains this sort of imbalance is typically a given. Whether or not this is
appropriate on the earth's highest peak will continue to attract debate.
Q.) Can Everest be guided?
A.) Difficult question. I've thought long and hard about
what it means to "guide" Everest. Having participated in numerous guided
and unguided climbs, I think it comes down to a rope. Over crevassed and
or steep glaciated terrain in the European Alps would a guide rope-up to his client?
Generally, yes. To even remotely "guide" in the traditional sense I
think the guide and the client must be attached by a rope. On summit day, this is an
all day scenario from camp to camp. This has been done before but it is not the
typical arrangement. Skip Horner has guided in this fashion as have others.
Q.) How should Everest be guided ?
A.) I'm not totally convinced that Everest can be guided in the
traditional sense. On the highest peaks there are too many variables that can never
be fully controlled.
Q.) What do you think Rob Hall would say about Into This Air ?
A.) I can't say.
Q.) What do you think Scott Fischer would say about Into this Air ?
A.) As much as I might imagine what they might say it's really not
Q.) Do you agree with Ed Douglas that Boukreev has not due credit
for his physical achievements that day (s)?
A.) I agreed with much of what Ed discussed, in particular, the
argument about different cultural psyches. Anatoli Boukreev was set to join a very
elite group of Himalayan climbers and this rattled more than a few egos and sponsors.
Some people also manipulated a pile of secondary issues in an effort to blur many
of the important primary issues.
Boukreev was not the leader of the expedition and was not ultimately
responsible for setting the summit day plan. But on this day he performed his job as
it was previously defined. And more. He saved lives. He was a hero.
It has been disappointing and perplexing to witness the lengths to
which some have gone to cast his efforts in a different light. If the summit plan
was poor should he be blamed? For better or worse, he followed the plan.
Much of this goes back to the entire discussion of whether or not Everest should or
can be guided. I think Anatoli had a very clear picture of his role on the mountain.
I was pleased to see him receive the American Alpine Club's highest award for valor.
Q.) From the book ITA, Woodall was made out to be opposed to
helping Halls Team and Fischer's Team by refusing the use of a radio in crisis situation ,
and was antagonistic all the way up-- he was from The South African Team right? Or was
Krakauer over reacting to this?
A.) I read the various accounts of the South African team but I
don't have any further information. Their actions appear indefensible.
Q.) I would like to know what it was like upon the summit?
A.) It's a bit surreal because of the altitude. Great views of
course, but it's a struggle to process the information. The weather was favorable
and the hour was early so people were celebrating and not too stressed. There
was only one other expedition on the route, a NOLS group, which included Scott Fischer,
Lobsang Jangbu, Rob Hess and Brent Bishop. We were psyched. You're
always thinking about getting down though.
Q.) Was there any complications if so what were they?
A.) The terrain of the southeast ridge can be a problem when more
than a few climbers are on the route. The Hillary Step can really jam up. I
waited for nearly an hour above the Step after one climber mistakenly rappelled off the
ridge onto the Kangshung Face. Belaying individual climbers up or down the Step can really
extend the day. A fixed line is more efficient. Most climbers should
carry a jumar and figure-eight.
Q.) What was the scariest part of your journey up the mountain and
did you ever feel like going back down and giving up?
A.) There were several times when doubts surfaced and I wondered if
I would be able to finish the climb. I caught some nasty bugs which most people do,
but the climb itself went fairly smooth. Had a couple of extra events - lost a
crampon on the steep rock of the Yellow Band (below the south col), and went hip deep in a
crevasse a few meters below the South Summit. That caught my attention.
Q.) Will there be a second attempt for you? If so, when will
A.) I would like to go back some day, but there are many other
interesting things to climb and see and it may not happen. Additionally, the
economics of Everest remain a big obstacle.
Q.) What were conditions like on the mountain? Thank you and
A.) Rob Hall mentioned that the south col route in the spring of 94
offered the least amount of snow cover he had seen. Most of the Lhotse face (the
route form CII to C4) was hard ice which is a bit more work compared to the snow steps
which are typical in the post-monsoon season. On the other hand, major avalanches on
the face were less of a threat. Several camps were swept away in the fall of 1993.
At the top of the Khumbu Icefall a large crevasse had opened and
nine ladders had to be tied together to climb up and over it. We called it the
Eiffel Ladder'. Crampons and ladders are not a heavenly match.
We also had very high winds up on the south col after we summited.
Most of us were in NF Himalayan Hotels which are fairly large and the wind was
driving the ceilings into our faces as we lay in our bags. Ed Viesturs later mentioned
that he the wind was among the most intense he had experienced.
Q.) Do the climbers at Everest or other high altitude mountains ever
use drugs to keep them going (ala Methadrine), or any other stimulants? Its seems it would
A.) Some climbers do you use medical supplements to help counteract
the effects of altitude. Diamox is commonly prescribed and used, but it's no
guarantee. There are much more powerful drugs which should be used with extreme
Q.) Can one were contact lenses were H.A. climbing ?
A.) Some people do use contacts but I'm not aware of the
specific limitations. After Everest 96 there have been some questions about the Radial
Keratotomy procedure and altitude. Ned Gillette reportedly had the procedure and
related no problems during his climb. Case by case.
Q.) The 64,000 dollar question: Do you feel ITA is accurate ?
A.) Honestly, I think the work would have benefited from a more
lengthy research period. ITA is a dramatic read but there are problems.
As an example of an author approaching a tragedy in a different manner I'd point to
Sebastian Junger's best-selling work The Perfect Storm'. Great research and
integrity without losing the drama.
Q.) What do you make of many guides and writers these days speaking
out against ITA?
A.) I think ITA certainly helped create more controversy, and it
will continue to generate a healthy debate.
Q.) On the other hand David Breashears and Ed Viesturs, we are told
over and over says they think ITA is accurate. However, they weren't really there, meaning
even above Camp 2 that day. How do you think. I also have not seen anything in print from
A.) There are a lot of opinions floating around. I get
suspicious when anyone dresses up opinions as the mighty truth. There is more grey
than black and white which goes back to what Ed Douglas was talking about.
Ed Viesturs did make some interesting comments that were buried in
the online reports appearing soon after the tragedy. Specifically, he pointed to key
issues of personnel and decision-making.
I wasn't there, but one approach, if you really care, is to read all
the published material and make your own conclusions. I thought Peter Wilkinson's
account in Men's Journal was remarkable. The best written magazine piece in my
opinion. He wasn't there either, and perhaps that's an advantage.
were from readers of EverestNews.com !
Q.) Do you think Breashears and ITA was co-promoted together?
A.) I have no idea.
Q.) On Everest, What was Hall turn around time in 1994? Did everyone
know what it was?
A.) We had a general sense of safety but we were not under any
specific turnaround time. With that said we left at 12:30 am with the understanding
that we wanted to get off the summit as early as possible.
Q.) Why do you think Hall did not turn around in 1996?
A.) It's not totally clear, but I've heard a report from a Sherpa
that Rob was relegated to two lousy options late in the day. But this is unconfirmed.
Q.) David, I just don't get it.
How can people blame a guide form
another team (A. Boukreev) for the deaths of two clients and two guides from another
expedition. I just don't get it. Am I stupid or what ???
A.) I'm not sure that Boukreev was blamed for any deaths, but you're
right some criticisms appear to be misplaced.
Q.) How strong and good was Lopsang Sherpa?
A.) Lopsang summited with Scott Fischer's' team the same day as us
in 1994. He was wearing traditional Sherpa clothing on the ascent. He was a very
powerful climber. He was also a member of Rob Hall's 1995 Everest expedition.
Rob Hall's climbing sirdar, Ang Dorje does not seek much publicity but he is
an outstanding altitude climber with ascents of Makalu, Cho Oyu, Broad Peak and numerous
Everest climbs. He's a member of a small group of people who have smoked cigarettes
on the summit of Everest.
Q.) How do you pay the bills? Do you have a Job ? How do you get all
the money for these climbs?
A.) At the time I went to Everest I was single and was coming off a
very good salary with a telecommunications company. More recently, I've been doing
some telecom consulting and also work for a NY agency as a professional photographer.
I consider myself a "seriously amateur" climber. The high mountains
are a strong pull but more often I have been choosing moderate routes with good company.
Q.) On an experience I had on a roped climb on a glacier (my 1st
time with crampons and on a roped team) How close should the person directly behind the
lead climber be? The lead climber in this instance was the guide-Should there be a lot of
slack (distance) between you and the lead climber or should you try to keep pace with
A.) Generally people are roped up in this manner over
glaciated terrain to help arrest a crevasse fall. Rope teams often put 50 feet of
rope between climbers. It defeats the purpose generally if there's a rope but no
distance between climbers.
Q.) How much did you hydrate during your climbs? Did you drink more
fluids the higher you climbed?
A.) Hydration is critical, and the risk of frostbite can be
compounded not only by low temperatures but also improper hydration and poor vascular
circulation due to altitude.
Q.) Did you have or have you ever had any experiences with HA
sickness on your 7 summit attempts or 50 state climbs?
A.) I've had a couple bouts of mild altitude sickness but
fortunately no cerebral or pulmonary edema. Even AMS (which can be a precursor to
the edemas) can be debilitating. There are documented cases of people dying from
altitude sickness as low as 8000 feet in the U.S.
Q.) Are you more secure climbing with people you know and trust or
do you on occasion like to climb with people just learning the ropes so to speak?? Thanks
again for your time!!
A.) It's always more comfortable to climb with people you know but
it can be fun with new people as well. This summer I took part in a commercial
expedition to the Eastern Pamir and it worked very well.
Q.) Ok I have to know the Larry story !
A.) After climbing in great weather in the Beartooth mountains of
Montana the van we were riding in broke down several hours outside of Bozeman. We
hitchhiked from a gas station into Bozeman. Larry was a hound dog in the back of the
truck with us. He was better behaved than we were.
Q.) I am not aggressively pursuing the "US 50
highpoints" but thought it would be fun to try to make it to the highpoints of states
that I travel to for other reasons. Of course if I end up in Alaska I will be in
trouble because I am a hiker and not a climber.
So.....I will be in California and Washington this summer and am
wondering about Mt. Whitney and Mt. Rainier.
First: Is Mt. Whitney more of a hike or a climb?
A.) There are numerous routes on Whitney beginning with the Whitney
Portal trail, the standard route. The East Face and Buttress are the classic lines
(5th class) and the Mountaineer's route is a 3rd class scramble. Depending on winter
snowfall, Whitney could offer early spring conditions into late summer (i.e. snow).
Typically, the Portal trail is clear of snow by mid to late summer. Permits are now
required even for day use (May to October) so plan ahead (Inyo National Forest).
Q.) Secondly: I have spoken to a guide service for Mt. Rainier
and they have told me that Mt. Rainier is an "endurance" climb and not a
"technical" climb and that as long as I am in really good physical condition I
should be able to make the climb even though I don't have any climbing experience.
I would appreciate your thought and opinions on this. I just
want to have some fun and don't want to do anything stupid!
A.) Without substantial mountaineering experience signing up with a
guide service is probably the best approach for a peak like Rainier. Although it is
not a technical' climb per se it is a heavily glaciated peak with unpredictable
weather and high altitude.
Q.) How would you recommend training for an accent of Everest?
A.) The best preparation is to climb and train at altitude. Some
people have moved to the Sierras or the Rockies for several months prior to the climb.
More importantly, you want to accumulate the skills and experience necessary to attempt
even the "normal" south col/north col routes. At a minimum, a summit climb
of Aconcagua or Denali should give you a feel for your body's response to altitude.
A climb of one of the easier 8000 meter peaks is ideal - Cho Oyu, GII or
Shishapangma. Understand the difficulties you will face long before you walk into
Everest base, and be ready physically and mentally to tough it out. Thanks for the
questions. Bye. David
Keaton veteran climber, Everest Summiter, author and