Lessons in Thin Air
From Mount Everest to Pikes Peak, mountaineer-runner Neal Biedleman has learned from many challenges
By Todd Burgess/The Gazette
Story editing and headline by Colleen Keeffe
Neal Beidleman stood on the summit of Mount Everest.
"I can't believe I'm really here," he thought as his green eyes looked at the searing blue, cloudless sky surrounding the world's highest peak in the Himalayas.
His euphoria, however, was short-lived.
His oxygen mask was filled with frozen snot.
He had to concentrate to complete a thought.
Descending a mountain is the dangerous part, Beidleman had learned, and he was eager to get started.
But as a junior guide on the Mountain Madness expedition, Beidleman was not allowed to tag the summit and turn around. His role at 1:25 p.m. May 10, 1996, was to wait for the last of his group's clients.
So he waited.
Beidleman could see a few clouds forming below. It was impossible for him to know those clouds were part of a powerful storm, a storm into which he would have to descend, a storm that would profoundly change his life.
A time to remember
Three years later, on a humid, gray July day, Beidleman sits at a picnic table at the base of Aspen Mountain. Beidleman, at 152 pounds and nearly 6 feet, is tan and all muscle. He doesn't have the stereotypical frail look of a marathon runner, which he is. His thigh muscles, sculpted by mountains, bulge and shift machinelike, eager for work.
The 39-year-old, who has lived in Aspen since he was 4, talks about the disaster on Mount Everest, his passion for running and climbing and the Pikes Peak Marathon, which he will run Sunday.
If things had gone according to plan, Beidleman would have spent half an hour on top of Everest.
"I was very satisfied, very pleased with being there, personally," Beidleman says, "knowing the ropes were in, knowing that some of the clients would make it. I didn't think they all would. It was getting close to 2."
His friend Scott Fischer, who owned Mountain Madness and had hired Beidleman as a guide, was acting as a sweep below. Fischer was to turn around any of the six clients who would not make the summit by 2 p.m.
Somewhere on the mountain, the game plan changed. Clients who had no hope of reaching the top in time were allowed to continue upward.
Beidleman grew nervous. He would not get to turn around until 3:10 p.m., after spending an hour and 45 minutes at 29,000 feet. He was hesitant to turn any clients back himself.
"As a junior guide I didn't think it was my right, my position, to go down to someone who paid $65,000 and turn him away 150 yards from the summit," Beidleman says.
On his way down, Beidleman passed Fischer, who was still moving toward the summit.
"He's got this figured out," Beidleman thought, "even though it's violating all of our ground rules."
Beidleman and climbers from three expeditions staggered down into a blizzard, with 40-80 mph winds that knocked them off their feet. Beidleman, eight climbers and two Sherpas huddled together in the dark just 1,000 horizontal feet from the camp they were unable to see in the blowing snow.
They screamed at each other and pounded on each other to ward off frostbite - and death - as the temperature, with wind-chill factor, dipped below minus 100. Just before midnight, Beidleman saw stars above, which told him the storm had passed. He motivated a few of the weary climbers to stand up and make a push toward their tents, into which they collapsed about 20 minutes later.
That storm killed eight people, including Fischer, who had hoped a successful trip would secure his future as an elite Everest guide.
"We both had a great respect for each other," says Beidleman, who met Fischer on K2 in 1992 and had remained his friend ever since. "He was just a great guy. I really enjoyed hanging with him."
What went wrong?
Since the disaster, many experts have emerged, people who pretend to know what went wrong and how the loss of human life could have been avoided, he said, adding that the solutions tend to be simplistic.
"When the weather is good and everything is going well, it's not that hard by mountaineering standards," Beidleman says of Everest. "There are business people who can make it to the top, people without any real climbing background who aren't even that physically fit. When the weather is bad, the disparity is enormous. Not only is it not survivable by a business person, it's not survivable by human beings period."
With the potential for storms of severe magnitude, the mountain will never be safe, and many climbers wouldn't want it to be.
"A lot of people want to pit themselves against the biggest, meanest, ugliest things there are," Beidleman says. "That's just the nature of climbing and human nature. If you say something is impossible, they want to try it."
Beidleman has given numerous slide-show presentations about that expedition, raising $65,000 for charities. His central message to corporations, outdoor enthusiasts and students is that bad things don't happen for a reason - they happen for many reasons.
"Tragedies and disasters and things of that nature are not the result of a single decision, a single event or a single mistake," he says. "They are the culmination of things in your life. Something happens and it becomes a catalyst for all the things you've had at risk."
When he's talking to students, Beidleman drives the point home by asking them if they have ever failed a test.
Inevitably, a few hands go up.
He asks why they failed.
"The questions were too hard," might be one quick answer.
Then he gets them to examine other factors: They did not keep up with reading, pay attention in class, take adequate notes, seek help; they spent time watching TV instead of studying ...
Many things were at risk on Everest: climbers with limited mountain experience and physical abilities, lack of teamwork, battling egos, the need to perform because you've accepted a client's money, a traffic jam created by too many climbers being on the mountain and bad decision-making - all complicated by lack of oxygen and the effects of physical exertion.
People who have not been above 25,000 feet don't understand what that altitude does to the mind and body, Beidleman says. "When you're high on the mountain, to think like a third-grader is doing pretty well."
If not for the storm, the climbers may have gotten away with taking so many risks. But the storm exposed their weaknesses.
A love of peaksWhen Beidleman returned from Everest, he and a friend ran and hiked all 14 of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado's Elk Mountain Range, covering 70 miles in 37 hours.
Rather than try to forget what happened on Everest, he found himself wanting to remember, out of respect for those who'd died.
"That run, more than anything, was one of the great things to help put things into perspective and help me think about what happened up there," he says.
Running has been a constant in Beidleman's life. He's participated in the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon nearly every year since 1984 and has placed in the top 10 several times. Every year he runs the marathon he has the same goal: to break four hours. He's come close, running 4:09:25 in 1988, but he says he'll be lucky to break 4:20 this year.
It seems strange to hear a person who has been on top of the world gush about Pikes Peak - a mountain 15,000 feet shorter than Everest - but when Beidleman does it, he sounds sincere.
"It's a super trail and super competitive," he says. "For competitive races in mountain running, this is one of the top races in the world."
Beidleman is competitive and well-rounded. He was the course record holder for a mountain marathon in Telluride and among the front-runners in the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah. He also has raced mountain and road bikes and is an accomplished ice and rock climber.
The 29,000-foot question
Beidleman, who will turn 40 next month, isn't sure he ever will go back to Everest. He harbors no bad feelings toward the mountain and still enjoys mountaineering, but with other commitments in his life, he might not get another chance.
He and his wife, Amy, have a daughter, Nina, who is almost 2. He also is president and production-design engineer for Big Air Designs, which assists companies with the creation and marketing of outdoor products. Among his projects is helping Black Diamond launch the AvaLung, a product he designed that will allow people who are trapped in an avalanche to continue breathing.
"One part of me would like to go back and do it right," he says, "to set the record straight with the mountain and pay some last respects to the people who died."
Before Everest, Beidleman became the seventh American, and fourth without oxygen, to summit Makalu, the world's fifth-highest peak. He enjoyed being with fellow climbers but never considered a career as a guide. That decision was finalized on Everest when he learned he could never control the mountain or make up for others' deficiencies.
"I thought it would be a good way to meet some interesting people, travel around the world and climb some peaks," he says. "Afterward, I said, 'No way. This is just not worth it.'"
Two books about the Everest disaster, Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" and Anatoli Boukreev's "The Climb," portray Beidleman as a level-headed, likable, fit guide, detailing how he rescued some of the debilitated climbers.
But being known as a hero, just like reaching the summit, is trivial to Beidleman. "I did the best I could up there, and I think I made the best of a bad situation," he says. "I did some things that helped some people and maybe saved some lives."
Returning to Everest might let him put the tragedy to rest.
"Ninety-six was the antithesis of what a good climb on Everest can be," he says. "It would be good to go back and do it in a clean style and set the record straight; to clean things up and make everything right with the universe again."
THE TOP OF THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BEIDLEMAN
We asked Aspen's Neal Beidleman, who has been to the summit of Mount Everest once and to the top of Pikes Peak nearly a dozen times in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, to compare the two:
On the physical rigors
Most people who finish the ascent or marathon could handle the physical demands of Mount Everest, Beidleman says. Just as in the races, it's important for a person climbing Everest not to peak too soon.
"As long as you have that decent base, you can get fit on the mountain."
When Beidleman pushes himself on the Golden Stairs in the last mile of the ascent, he has symptoms similar to those he experienced on Everest.
He stumbles and has trouble thinking. He develops tunnel vision and has to concentrate just to put one foot in front of the other.
But at the summit comes the biggest difference.
"When you stop to recover on the top of Pikes Peak, eventually you'll catch your breath and be OK," he says. "But on Everest, when you stop to recover, you're still breathing 28,000-foot air. A lot of people never do recover. There's no sure deal that by sitting down you'll be OK."
On the help
"The aid stations are much farther apart on Everest. The Gookinade (precurser to Gatorade) doesn't taste nearly as good, and if you thought the Powerbars were stale on the top of Pikes Peak ..."
On changing conditions
"Like on Pikes Peak, the difference between everything being in control and the wheels coming off can be a matter of minutes. That can happen very quickly on Everest as well."
On reaching the summit
"When you turn around on Everest, no one takes your bar-code tag and turns you around, telling you you are looking good."
On Everest's deadly storms
"In Colorado, we rarely get the really strong winds, winds that can blow a 170-pound person into Tibet, and that can happen up there."
On Everest acclimatization
"Being at high altitude isn't the romantic thing a lot of people build it up to be. It's cold. It's hard to breathe. You're tired. It's hard to do anything, really. Even just sitting there and melting ice is hard work."
IF YOU WANT TO WATCH THE RACES: PIKES PEAK ASCENT OR MARATHON
2-7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Manitou Springs Memorial Park
Start time: 7 a.m. Saturday, Manitou Springs
Finish: On east edge of summit
Awards: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Manitou Springs Memorial Park
Start time: 7 a.m. Sunday, Manitou Springs
Finish: Ruxton, Manitou avenues
Awards: 2:15 p.m. Sunday, Soda Springs Park in Manitou Springs.
TO LEARN MOREFor more on the Mount Everest tragedy and information about subsequent climbs, see www.mountainzone.com/everest.
Two books, "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer and "The Climb" by Anatoli Boukreev (who, like Neal Beidleman, was a Mountain Madness guide), give firsthand accounts of the May 1996 incident.
The IMAX film "Everest," available on video, was shot the same month and includes rescue footage.
Todd Burgess may be reached at 636-0257 or firstname.lastname@example.org.