Into Thick Air
Interview with Rick Wilcox who Summitted Mt. Everest

Rick Wilcox is one of America's great all-around mountain climbers, and in 1991 was among the first four North Americans east of the Mississippi to summit Mt. Everest. Wilcox grew up in Middleton, Mass. and as a teenager became fascinated with climbing, joined the Appalachian Mountain Club to learn climbing basics, and managed to scale all 46 of the 4,000 foot peaks in the White Mountains of New England.

While pursuing a forestry degree from U Mass Amherst, he went on an expedition to climb 16,500 foot Mt. Bona in Alaska, then scaled Mt. Logan in the Yukon, at 19,850 feet his senior year on an expedition for the Arctic Institute of North America. After graduating, he went to work for the Eastern Mountain Sports chain in Boston and was assigned to their North Conway, New Hampshire store in 1971, where he was a store manager and taught a climbing school. In 1979, he bought International Mountain Equipment Inc. in North Conway, an ice climbing, rock climbing and mountaineering equipment store. He is also co- owner of the prestigious International Mountain Climbing School of North Conway.

During the 1980s, he climbed all the largest peaks in North and South America, did the big walls of Yosemite, the Tetons, and Chamonix, and was ready for his first Himalayan expedition to Cho-Oyu in 1985. On his sixth Himalayan trip, his 25th expedition overall, he stood upon the roof of the world, one of only 300 men and women to that point who had climbed the 29,028 foot mother of all mountains. Ironically, given the tragic events on Everest in 1996 that inspired Jon Krakauer's similarly titled best seller, the documentary made of Wilcox's expedition was called, simply, "Thin Air." The difference in titles may have been subtle, but the contrast between Wilcox's safety- first approach and the "recklessness" of the Rob Hall, Scott Ficher high-dollar expeditions could not be more stark. A climber for 32 years, a guide for 21, Wilcox's reputation for ability, judgment, safety and respect for the elements are impeccable. He was interviewed by Timothy Carlson.

Q: How do you feel about people who pay $65,000 to have an assisted climb up the world's largest mountain practically in their first pair of snow boots . What kind of an achievement is that?

Rick Wilcox: People who pay $65,000 and make no decisions and are yanked up on a leash and led back down – yes it is an achievement. But I compare it to flying a plane across the ocean versus riding in the back of an airliner from Boston to London. The pilot and co-pilot make all the decisions, land the plane and they can say they flew it across the ocean. If you are a passenger, you are cargo. If you are a client, yes you participated in the summiting, but it is just not the same achievement nor the same feeling of satisfaction.

Q: What has led to the current traffic jam on Everest, and to the risk-taking guided tours?

Rick Wilcox: In 1993, I believe, the King of Nepal changed the permit fee for climbing Everest to $50,000 plus $10,000 per person. In 1991, we paid $5,000 for the permit for our expedition of eight men, four of whom summited. Two years later, the permit would have cost $80,000 – thus doubling the overall expedition costs to $30,000 per person. That changed the focus from more qualified but poorer climbers like the Polish group – blue collar climbers who did it on a shoestring budget, organization and dedication – that I accompanied on my first Himalayan expedition, to wealthy climbers who can pay guides to make up for lack of expertise, experience and even strength and endurance. There is a lot of profit in it – even with $30,000 costs, they can make a profit of $35,000 per client for a three- month expedition.

Q: What are the problems and what are the reasons some of them do make it?

Rick Wilcox: On the plus side, the clientele are overachievers who may not have the mountaineering experience, but have the mental attitude of not the physical training and the common sense. They are a gung ho bunch. The big problem comes on summit day. All clients and guides must rope to each other at least for certain sections where there are big drops on exposed knife edged ridges and can easily slip and fall to their death. The trouble is, it make climbing very inefficient. And while clients absolutely rely upon the guides to get them through, even the best guides are operating in a severely weakened state in what we call the Death Zone -- above 24,000 feet altitude. The guides suffer all the effects of high altitude and are nowhere near as strong as they would be at lesser altitude, nor as clear headed. And they are hauling these clients up on top of it all. Those expeditions are marketed with the implied promise that if you pay enough money they will get you to the top no matter what Mother Nature and the elements can dish out. But you cannot market it that way without killing people. Guides and clients die because they fail to observe the rules which should apply to all climbers. Key to it is that the time it takes them to climb to the top is much longer. And on Everest, there is a window of weather that can be predicted for a safe ascent.

Q: What us it? Krakauer mentions a 1 PM turnaround point? But Doug Hall was there at 5 PM?

Rick Wilcox: There is a small window which is dictated by the mountain itself. Most of the year, the jet stream is on Everest with steady, 100 mph winds. The classic window is in early May, a period of two or three weeks just before the monsoon season, the jetstream goes away. By the middle of the night, there is little or no wind, there is small wind in the morning. Then the sun heats up the earth and ignites strong afternoon winds, which hit 40-50 mph. When Doug Hall died, he summited at 5 PM, and he had spent 17 hours climbing and was exhausted when the winds hit and the shit hit the fan. Even if he had turned around at 1 PM – way past our turnaround point – I think he would have survived. In mountaineering, it just does not make any sense to die period. Much less by trying to make the summit by ignoring the rules. The whole thing is to avoid the danger and enjoy the climb whether you make the summit or not.

Q: What was your turnaround point and why?

Rick Wilcox: 10 AM was our target. We left at midnight and gave ourselves 10 hours up and three hours down. Which coincides with the 13 hours capacity that is available with one bottle of oxygen. Guided teams have sherpas carry extra bottles. Our packs were light – about 10 pounds or less – and we used no ropes. Each man of our summit team – myself, Mark Richey of Essex, Mass., Yves LaForest of Iberville, Quebec, and Barry Rugo of Boston – were very experienced climbers. The saving of energy is almost incalculable over roped, guided climbing. Good climbers can make it by 8 or 9 AM if conditions are right. I must be considered a reasonably good climber and I made it by 9:45 and we left by 10 AM and planned to get back to the South Col by 1 PM to avoid the afternoon weather. I was the third one back and made it with one bottle of oxygen. Of our group, only Barry ran out for the last hour.

Q: What does your timetable mean to the guided expeditions?

Rick Wilcox: Not one guided client has ever made it to the summit by 11 AM, which I would say is the safe turnaround point. So if you are advertising these trips as truly safe within reason, according to well established climbing rules, you would have to say there is no chance you can make the summit without taking chances with the weather. That won't sell, of course. And they got nailed. It was no surprise. It happens every afternoon, more or less. It was predictable that people would die. Guides broke rules, pushed clients too hard. It was just a matter of time. I'd say absolutely to climb with disrespect for mother nature you will have problems. There is a false sense of security among clients who think their guides will bring them down all frozen through storm. But what they forget is that three of eight people who died were guide. It goes to prove that on high altitude mountains you are facing such an array of the powerful forces of nature and being within the death zone without a functioning guide would be my greatest worry as a client.

Q: In altitudes above 25,000 feet, it is said that oxygen transport efficiency in climbers is about 25 percent of sea level. Describe the summit assault on Everest with other climbs.

Rick Wilcox: I don't know about any physiological tests and numbers, but I can compare climbing efficiency. On Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, there is a route which goes from 2,000 feet to about 6,000 feet up the hill and it covers about 4 miles. On a good day I can make it in 90 minutes. They run a footrace up Mt. Washington over an 8-mile paved trail and elite runners have broken 1 hour. On Everest, the final day you must climb 3,000 feet in altitude along two miles of route and it takes about 9 hours. That is about 310 meters per hour, and it is considered good time. That is 10 times less performance than at sea level.

Q: What is the sensation like?

Rick Wilcox: Even with oxygen, you pant a lot. It is a tremendous challenge in terms of patience. I was not physically hurting, but it is a very tiring and exhausting thing to do. It is like running a race where you must constantly push yourself harder than you would like to. Everything from making ice caves with a shovel to setting up tents in he snow is very stressful and difficult at that altitude. Then you have a mental battle as well.We had a good mental attitude to be able to control stress: The incredible danger of being wiped out by a multitude of circumstances. Avalanches. Being blown off the mountain in storms. It is very important to feel at home high on the mountain through storms and dangerous situations. You must not waste a lot of energy on stress.The whole thing is a controlled risk. We do not go to kill ourselves. We make decisions to control danger as well as we can. We get extensive weather forecasts. We find the best place to camp and not get hit by an avalanche. If you are to climb big Himalayan peaks, you need to develop skills. You need confidence. And cannot worry -- as soon as you waste energy you become inefficient. There is no room for inefficiency.

Q: What surprised you about the final climb to summit?

Rick Wilcox: The south summit is at 28,700 feet and the actual summit of a quarter mile ahead. But first you must get past the Hillary steps and a knife edged ridge. Those two things are a little scary for any climber. The ridge is not particularly difficult, but are huge drops on both sides of 9-10,000 feet. You must walk on one side, like it is a roof. That was scarier than I anticipated. But I was trained to do it and there was no wind.

Q: Your feelings as you got to the roof of the world?

Rick Wilcox: To finally stand on top of the world, I don't know if surprise is quite the right word. There are two emotions going on for me. One stems from the fact that every mountaineer knows there is a good chance when he takes off at midnight that he or she won't do it. A million things can go wrong. You can get a cramp. You can fall off. You can get too cold and get frostbite. Bad weather can move in. It can get scary and you can lose your mountaineering drive. Even the great climbers. Then all along the way you ask yourself questions: is the day going OK? Is the weather still clear? Am I strong enough to get back down? When you get closer, you ask: What can still go wrong? Once you get past the Hillary steps and the ridge, you realize you are going to do it and you celebrate that success in your own mind. Once you get to the top, there is a tremendous sense of relief and then the objective is to get back down alive and then you can feel the emotions. But I was lucky.

Q: What could you see? Reinhold Messner noted it was so cloudy and gray he could hardly see anything.

Rick Wilcox: There was no wind and no clouds. I got a better view of the Himalayas than I ever had before from Makalu and Cho-Oyu. To the north is the Tibetan plateau, a huge desert, not very exciting. To the south you can see the green jungles of India. You look east and west along the Himalayas and can see Kangchenjunga (8597 meters), 50 miles to the east, Makalu (8481 meters) and Lhotse (8501 meters) next to Everest. To the west, you can see Cho-Oyu (8153 meters) and Annapurna (8078 meters) 70 miles to the east. You can see 8 or 9 of the world's fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. And I was sharp.

Q: What else did you do up there?

Rick Wilcox: We always take pictures at the top of every mountain. One, because it is enjoyable to show the slides later and recount the emotions and the experience. And also because that there are people out there who would question your ascent and your authenticity. So we took four pictures which you can put together in one position. If they were not taken from the top on all four angles, you would not be able to see the picture this way.

Q: Much of climbing big mountains is magnificent. But part of the sport can be grisly. How do the many bodies left on the upper regions of Everest affect you?

Rick Wilcox: It is not a big deal if you are mentally prepared for it. When you see one of them, reinforces the idea that I cannot screw up. You feel they are there for a reason. Some of it might have been bad luck, but a lot of it is simple poor judgment. The only thing at all good about it is that they chose to be in the mountains, they understood and accepted the risks involved. It is a far better way to go than to get hit by a drunk driver. As far as the body goes, if you believe the spirit has left them, and it is just a body, it could be comforting to you. But some families would particularly like them to be retrieved and buried. But if you are a Buddhist and believe in a predetermined destiny, it might be OK to reside on the mountain.

Q: What about you?

Rick Wilcox: If it was me, one thing I would say I would hope to the best of their ability those who came upon me would get me off the route or the trail. So that you are not being stepped over or stared at by someone else. So that you do not become a display of whatever happened. In most cases, the proper protocol would be to have friends throw you off the cliff. So that they do not become like trail signâ€â€"Here is Joe flapping in the breeze" type of situation. And there are lots of them on Everest, particularly kicking around the South Col.

Q: But there are complications?

Rick Wilcox: Life insurance companies in most cases will not pay out unless there is a dead body. If you don't bring the body down, your beneficiaries don't get the money. They have to have positive proof that you checked out. Because it might be easy to go into the mountains and disappear and then show up in Jamaica. So in some cases, they photograph the guy's last moments with other witnesses before the check is issued. I know in some cases the body was disposed of but the survivors were not aware there was no payout if the body was lost. That is a business side of mountain climbing most people don't think about.

Q: Why don't they bring them down then?

Rick Wilcox: At above 25,000 feet, people largely only have the strength to get themselves down. That is part of the misconception clients have that guides can get them out. Above 25,000 feet we call it the death zone. Normally, biological functions deteriorate so fast up there, you can only live one or two weeks at most. Of course, sea level is also the death zone. But there the clock is ticking much more slowly. Say 70 or 80 years.

Q: Can a simply normally fit person climb serious mountains?

Rick Wilcox: They are fit for their sport. And it helps. But a busy executive who wants to get fit for a big mountain by going to the gym five times a week won't get you ready for the Himalayas. The fitness comes with the lifestyle. I try to lift weights, but my real workout came this week when I went on a 7-hour hike in the mountains with some friends. Or when I ski with my kids. Your lifestyle is your training program.

Q: You're 51. What is the window of opportunity for climbing the great ones?

Rick Wilcox: I would say the prime time is age 30 to 50. I think it takes to age 30 to develop the skills and judgement and wisdom. You ought to be past that point where you still get on a motorcycle and ride 100 mph any more. That is the judgment that will keep you alive in the big mountains. And it also takes that long to develop enough financially to afford it. At 51, I'd say I still have 95 percent of the performance I did at 43 when I climbed Everest.

Q: How much help was the RailRiders gear you used on your Everest climb?

Rick Wilcox: We had some equipment needs and you either have to buy it or find some manufacturers to donate some gear. RailRiders came in, because we were well-established climbers with a reasonable reputation, we got donations of equipment and RailRiders supplied us with two key items.

One was a fleece jacket they manufacture -- a 200-weight Polar Tech jacket, which is a good product for sailing or climbing. It is a layering jacket under a one-piece Gore-Tex climbing suit. It's "the little house that we live in on the mountain." The fleece layering jacket is 200-weight Polar-Tech. It transports the water we sweat from the body and we wear various layers from the body two or three layers to keep the body dry. The moisture flows out through Gore-Tex, the final layer. It is very useful for mountaineers. It keeps you warm and insulated and transports moisture from the body as easily as fibers do not absorb water like cotton does. It is also good for sailing.

Another thing we got was Weatherpants, which are baggy-fitting and easy-to-hike in pants which we used on a 14 -day hike from the beginning of the trek from the base camp in Kathmandu. They were light, rugged and worked perfectly. In an expedition where a blister or chafing can wreak havoc down the road, you need to rely on products that fit and work perfectly. RailRiders did the job.