In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

Mountaineer and geologist Jim Davidson’s recent book explores the deadliest day on Everest and his life as a climber.

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Camp One, looking up the Western Cwm at Lhotse Face, where the 2015 earthquake first stranded Jim Davidson. Photo By: Jim Davidson

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On April 25th, 2015, each snow boot-laden step Jim Davidson took, put him a few inches closer to his dream of summiting Everest—a goal his then 33 years of mountaineering experience had led up to since his first climb in 1982. The public speaker and geologist, in his early fifties, reached Camp One in good shape. He tucked himself inside a little yellow tent, resting on the western shoulder of Everest at 19,700 feet, and drifted off into well-deserved slumber. Then came trouble. Engulfed in a hellacious avalanche caused by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, his dream turned into a drawn-out nightmare. He was stranded in a remote region overwhelmed with death, destruction, and uncertainty.

Davidson’s autobiographical book, The Next Everest, revisits this tragedy that shook Nepal to its core. While looking back on the horror, the Colorado-based American also poignantly assesses his life as a climber, the aftermath of his trauma, and other enlightening journeys all over the world.

 

In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson descending the Lower Icefall. Photo By: Jim Davidson

 

Can you take us through your origin story as a mountaineer?

As a child, I was not athletic and was terrible at team sports. I worked for my father’s painting company, painting high buildings, roofs, and electric towers. That taught me to work with a small team in a dangerous setting and got me in better physical shape.

It also gave me the mental fortitude required for dangerous jobs. When I was a teenager, I discovered backpacking through the wilderness, which, in turn, got me into rock climbing and later, ice climbing. By the time I was 20, I was dedicated to mountain climbing. Going to school in Massachusetts and the Rocky Mountains, I got very involved with climbing. I spent the next 15-16 years climbing peaks around the United States ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 metres, and getting on more difficult, technical terrain with both rocks and ice, and combining them into alpine climbing. But I always dreamed about the big peaks, and about going on expeditions. After those 15-16 years, I got on my first expedition and then I started hanging around with people who knew more about the greater ranges, to try and work my way up to the big peaks.

 

Everest looms large in the minds of most climbers. What place did it have in your imagination and how did that compare to the moment you actually got there?

I went to Everest twice, in 2015, when the earthquake hit, and then in 2017, when I summited. When I summited in 2017, I had been a climber for 35 years, but my fascination for Everest began long ago, when I read about the world’s tallest peak as a young boy. I’ve been thinking about Everest as a climber for 35 or more years.

During the final moments of approaching the summit, I was worried about my physical performance, and about all the logistics. But in that last hour, I knew we were going to make it. The horizon to the east was radiating blue, the moon and Jupiter were still out, and slowly, the sky started to turn orange.

We were lucky to be there. It gave us a chance to grow and work as a team, so when I finally reached the summit, I felt very grateful. That I was able to stick to the long journey and achieve my goal was thanks to all the partners and mentors at every point. I felt very, very humbled because a lot of people don’t get to chase their dreams and reach the top.

 

In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

Base Camp’s valley (top), lying under the shadow of Everest’s West Shoulder and Upper Pyramid; Climbers ascending out of Khumbu Icefall collapse zone (bottom). Photos by: Jim Davidson

After surviving your deadly 2015 Everest expedition, you went back and completed a successful summit two years later. Several climbers from that later expedition season also met with sickness or death. What makes you go back after such a close shave, especially when you know the stakes?

When I left basecamp in 2015, I was not planning on going back. It was terrible and traumatising, the loss of human life and the destruction. I got home and the first thing I did, as a public speaker, was to work to raise money for Nepal’s rebuilding. I kept urging people to consider going back there to help uplift their economy.

But I myself wasn’t quite ready yet. As a scientist—a geologist—I tried to take a scientific approach. Was there less danger since a massive earthquake had already happened? But when I looked into it, I realised there was, in fact, a higher seismic risk. I watched the 2016 (climbing) season to see if Nepal had been rebuilt enough, and it had. I also wanted to keep my Sherpa friends employed. It wasn’t easy to get that money or time, but I could make it happen. It took some time to take the decision to go back in 2017, but I also thought I could apply the things I learnt from the 2015 quake and my previous attempt.

 

You go to great lengths explaining why you summited Everest with a tight-knit and talented group such as IMG, but also highlight how some outfits allow relatively inexperienced climbers to try and summit, which might be more dangerous. What would you tell amateur climbers with strong aspirations to summit the mountain?

The vast majority of climbers are [amateurs], including myself. There’s a difference between an experienced amateur climber and an inexperienced climber. If someone is inexperienced, I would encourage them to spend many, many years, building a very broad base of experience.

Learn how to rock climb, ice climb, abseil, rappel. Know what it’s like to camp out for a week or one month in the snow. On Everest, things can go wrong very quickly. You need to understand the mountain very well, and you need to understand your own physical and mental limits. You need to push those boundaries out over years, so when you do get on Everest, everything is automatic. Passion is good, but make sure you build experience, so you have extra capacity on board, mentally and physically, in case things go wrong.

 

What is your response to the perception that Everest is no longer a cultural force, thanks to pollution, inexperienced climbers, and maybe the overdone selfie culture?

Modern conditions have changed travel everywhere; no place is like it used to be. Things change, populations grow, technologies progress. That means we must be responsible for managing and preserving as much of the environment and cultural experience as we can. Everest, because it’s such a powerful and magnetic place, draws a lot of people. A solution to the crowding would be to require climbers to have climbed other 8,000-metre-high peaks, or perhaps several 6,000-metre peaks that would give them the experience and grow their respect for the mountain. I think we’d have fewer incidents up high then.

 

You also have strong opinions on how the pollution situation on Everest is often exaggerated by the media, including your informative spreadsheet, while also being dedicated to picking up every bit of trash possible that you find on your adventures.

When I came back from Everest, in 2015, I was doing a lot of fundraisers on behalf of Nepal. People would sometimes ask me about human waste on the mountain, and even say, “Hey, I heard the mountain is covered in human waste.”

I’m a scientist, so I wondered, it’s a really big mountain, is it possible to cover it in waste? How many people have been to Everest? How many days on the mountain? How much waste do they leave behind? I started calculating from a volumetric standpoint, and I came up with the human waste spreadsheet or what one of my friends nicknamed the spreadshit. That name has stuck!

It looks at the total amount of human waste on the mountain, which will cause ecological damage, including water quality damage for people downstream, especially the indigenous population. It needs to be managed and taken off, and we can do a better job of it. But to say the mountain is covered in human waste or trash is flat-out wrong and I think it’s an ugly accusation that gets played over and over again on the news.

 

In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson crossing a ladder over a deep crevasse at 6,000 metres on the way to Camp Two. Photos by: Jim Davidson

Do you believe that climate change will render Everest unclimbable in the future?

I think climate change has already rendered it more dangerous–look at where the base camps were 100 years ago and the condition of the current icefall. Even in the soil itself, the permafrost is melting in places such as the high Himalayas. Will it ever get so bad that it’s unclimbable? I don’t think that’s going to happen for a long time, but it will get more dangerous.

 

You have expressed a deep respect and admiration for Nepal. Can you elaborate on your special love for the country?

I’ve been to Nepal five times and Tibet once. I would also love to come to India and go trekking and climbing there sometime. What I like about that part of the world is the huge diversity of cultures, languages, and religions, and also, the people are so welcoming. In remote parts of Nepal and the Himalayas, they aren’t very rich by American standards. But they’re more than happy to share what they have–a cup of tea or a meal. I love that welcoming spirit and I get to see the world from a perspective that is very different from my own.

It makes you a better citizen of the world, and you can put some perspective forward for your fellow citizens that haven’t travelled. So, travel is important, that kind of cross-cultural pollination makes life rich.

 

Your pain when you speak of your friend Mike, who passed away during an expedition to Mount Rainier, is evocative. What would Mike have made of your career, you think? How do you remember him today?

The loss of my friend Mike on Mount Rainier was a pivotal point in my life. It was very difficult for a while; I still hiked and skied a bit but didn’t climb. I returned after a number of years because I thought to myself, if I never go back it will disappoint my friend.

So, I’ve tried to live the rest of my life to the fullest on behalf of myself and my climbing partner Mike. I used that as fuel to live a full life, enjoy every moment and soak it in, and also to do more with my life, whether it’s taking the time to write books, sharing the stories I know, or going on the next expedition.

 

In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson climbing Alaska’s Denali, the third most isolated peak in the world. Photo by: Jim Davidson

While reading your book, your bond with your friend and climbing buddy Rodney shines through, with him helping to save your toes from frostbite at 19,000 feet in Bolivia. How important was his support to you in terms of reattempting the Everest summit? Does mountaineering, as a whole, foster close and intimate friendships?

Your question triggers emotions in me. When I got close to the summit, I was happy to be there, I started to relax into it a little bit and began to think about how lucky I was to make it that far. And that’s thanks to all the people we’ve been discussing— my partner Mike who not only saved me on Mount Rainier but taught me so much; my dad who was a good influence on me; my climbing partner Rodney. All of them helped me become the climber and the person I am.

When descending, I was getting absolutely frazzled from physical exhaustion. I’d been up for 30 hours, worried about my camera dying on the summit and about not getting the pictures I wanted; like a child, my mind was focused on the problem, and Rodney came to me, as I described in the book, and he said, “You’re in the middle of summiting Everest, pay attention!” He’s so much in my head, as a mentor, friend, and advisor, that it kind of snapped me awake. I think we carry those voices, whether it’s our parents, grandparents, or friends and mentors along the way. I rely upon those voices when things get tough. It’s a source of resilience and strength.

Besides Everest, can you share some of your most memorable climbs around the world? What were your toughest climbs?

Different climbs are tough for different reasons. My climb of Mount Rainier with Mike back in 1992 was a very technical route on the Liberty Ridge. Denali, up in Alaska, is not all that technically difficult by the normal standard route, but it’s brutally cold, you’re carrying gear for 20 days and you spend three to five hours a day shovelling snow and putting up tents.

There were also other unexpected moments, such as when Rodney and I were climbing in Bolivia. We were moving from one major peak to another, and I saw this gorgeous peak off to the left. I had three maps, and only one of the three had it as a rock peak about 10-15 km in the other direction: it was mislocated. It’s like I could hear angels singing in my head, drawing me to that peak. So, we changed plans and camped there for two nights and climbed this peak which is called Cerro Zongo Jist’aña. It’s a small peak in the Andes but it was so beautiful and such an unexpected reward.

 

In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

The Everest Base Camp altar before the 2015 earthquake hit the area with debris. Photo by: Jim Davidson

 

You worked in tough conditions for your father’s painting business since you were an adolescent. Did these experiences help your climbing career and outlook on life?

It was very hard physical work. I started out when I was eight, sweeping the floor and cleaning paint brushes. I was climbing ladders by the time I was 10 and walking on roofs with no safety ropes at 12. I could operate a Man Lift Crane at age 15, and was climbing high-voltage towers at 18-19. There was one time when I was holding my dad’s safety rope. If I failed, he was going to wind up falling about 12-15 metres onto concrete. It taught me that when someone is counting on you, you do not give up no matter how miserable, scary, or difficult it is.

I think it was a really important lesson (that applied) in my climbing that hopefully made me a better team member, and when I led expeditions, a better leader as well, but also in life. You may have a job, homeschool your kids and take care of the household in a pandemic. These things are not fun or easy when people are counting on you. You have a responsibility, and you can use that as fuel to endure tough situations.

 

What is it like sharing this world with your family and children, for example, hiking Mount Kilimanjaro with your daughter?

It’s exhilarating to have the skills to take your family to these places. Taking my daughter to Kilimanjaro or doing wilderness travel with my family is very rewarding and also scary as a parent, because something could go wrong. Sometimes you wonder, why am I introducing my children to these dangerous sports? But there are rewards to these challenges and so I try to pass my skills along safely and give them the distilled knowledge that’s taken me a long time to acquire.

 

 Any advice for other mountaineers trying to balance work and family life with climbing?

We all have busy lives. It comes down to prioritising what you want. You have work demands, family demands, and personal aspirations. You can’t do everything at once, it must be a give and take. When I’m with my family, I try to focus on them only. When you’re concentrating on any one thing fully, there’s less time for the others. So, I get rid of things that are less important, such as watching TV, washing my car and shaving my face. It sounds silly but simplifying my life gives me more time for things that matter.

 

In Rarefied Air: An Interview With Mountaineer Jim Davidson

After the April 25th earthquake, Jim Davidson documents himself clutching photos of his family (top)—in case the worst happened he wanted them to know they were what he held dearest; Fellow climbers escaping from Camp One (bottom) on April 27th. The Next Everest (Right), Jim Davidson’s autobiographical account. Photos by: Jim Davidson

Could you walk us through your process of saving time and money for such expeditions?

As you know from the book, I’m from a working-class family. My parents taught me how to be careful with money and save for both emergencies and dreams. Spend less than you make. Be willing to make sacrifices. Early on, when I didn’t have a lot of money, I drove my cars, wore my clothes, and rode my bicycles for years or decades, just so I could save money to go on my trips. I value experiences over acquired things.

And if you can’t get enough zeroes in your bank account to perhaps summit Everest, maybe you can climb smaller mountains and get many of the same rewards. It’s not just the thing or the summit you should strive for, it’s the experience that environment will bring you.

 

You also speak of knowing when to turn back and when to keep pushing, and your career as a climber shows that that instinct has done you service.

That’s something I’ve learnt over many years of climbing. Getting a lot done and going very fast is great for short periods but not sustainable in the long term. As a climber, you need to go at a pace so that once you reach the mountain, you still have a deep reserve to not just get back down but also help your teammates. A sustainable pace means you have to know yourself well and you have to have some recovery time. That’s true at work too; even if it means you will not be able to meet one deadline or take on a project, you have to have some downtime.

 

You talk about how there is always the next Everest, always something new to conquer. What’s your next Everest today?

Currently, my next Everest is one that many of us share–getting through the pandemic and taking care of my family and community. Hopefully, when it subsides, I’m going to keep doing expeditions. I’d love to go back and climb some high-altitude mountains in South America or some high peaks in that 6,000-metre range in the Himalayas. I’ll always try to find the next challenge, whatever gives me the potential for growth and adventure.

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India November-December 2021.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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