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 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 brief bio:

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'.

He became 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. This 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" (c6060m).

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 effort.

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 compare favorably.

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 oxygen.

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 dangerous.

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 participate in.

-^-^-^-

This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Rock & Ice magazine. This articles also appears on the web site risk at  http://www.risk.ru/himal/david.html .

Notes:
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

The David 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 experience.

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 time ! 

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 my place.

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 this come?

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 congratulations.

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 be dangerous.

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 discretion.

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 Ed.

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.

Questions 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 him/her? 

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

David Keaton veteran climber, Everest Summiter, author and motivational speaker. To book David e-mail mail2006@everestnews.com

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