By G. Douglas MacLaren
In this first installment of a seven-part series, Doug MacLaren, a partner and agent at ICM Partners, shares his epic journey climbing Mount Everest.
“What are you doing this spring?” the voice on the other end of the line casually asked. “Not a hell of a lot,” I replied with an appropriate tinge of mild frustration. It was the end of February and my entire industry was slowly applying the brakes toward a loud, screeching halt. It wasn’t Covid-19’s fault. This wasn’t 2020. The year was 2001, and the entertainment industry was facing the potential of a writers’ strike and an actors’ strike coming together in a perfect storm on July 1. In response, the studios had their film and TV productions either rushing to finish shooting before that date or sitting idle until there was a clear resolution. My client Jay Roach was racing to finish Austin Powers in Goldmember, while other clients such as Rob Marshall (who was prepping the musical Chicago) were completely on hold. “Not a hell of a lot” may have been an exaggeration — as a talent agent, there is always something more I could be doing and seemingly never enough time to do everything that needs to get done — but it was also a rare moment when it seemed as if the whole industry was holding its collective breath.
The voice belonged to an old ice-climbing buddy of mine, Travis. What he said next I wasn’t expecting at all: “There’s an expedition going to Mount Everest this spring and they are looking for a couple of American climbers. You interested?”
I had been climbing rock, ice and mountains for ten years — sneaking in trips on long weekends to Yosemite, Joshua Tree or the Eastern Sierras, and longer trips to South America over winter break. It was hard enough to take two days off from work, especially as a thirty-year-old just hitting stride in my career, and this would be an eight- to ten-week expedition, with no means of checking in. (Remember, this was twenty years ago.) But opportunities like this don’t come along very often. Six months earlier, there would have been no way I could have planned to take off this much time; now it seemed like there was no way I could refuse. Before speaking with my boss, I called my clients and explained that I had a unique window to pursue a lifelong dream with an extraordinary team of climbers and how I would make sure their interests would be covered in my absence. Every single client (except for one) responded with some version of, “You’re fucking mad, but you absolutely have to do it.”
My family was less surprised, and no less supportive. The first person I told was my sister, Michelle. Tears sprang to her eyes as she said, “I always thought you might do this someday.” My girlfriend, Lauren (who would later become my wife), is a big reader and very academic in her approach to just about everything. When I told her, she just silently nodded and walked away. I wasn’t sure if she had simply not understood what I had said or whether she absolutely did and was planning on moving out — until a few days later, when she returned with three books bristling with so many 3M stickies that they looked like paper porcupines. She had read all about past Everest expeditions, marking down all the ways climbers died, and had devised plans to ensure I wouldn’t fall to the same fate. “This guy’s gloves blew away in the wind when he took them off to fix his jacket, so we’re going to attach your gloves to you with a string like they used to do with little kids’ mittens.” “Your blood thickens at altitude with the additional red blood cells your body produces in an effort to compensate for the low oxygen, but then it can’t get to your extremities, so you’re going to take grapeseed extract, which will help your small capillaries become more elastic and help you avoid frostbite.” She was definitely on board.
I told Travis I was in. I now had three weeks before flying to Nepal to get my business in order, sneak in a few extra training sessions, and scrounge up any extra gear I might need.
The expedition was being headed by Babu Chiri Sherpa, a rock-star Nepalese climber. He had already reached the top of Everest ten times; he held the record for the fastest ascent from Base Camp to the summit (sixteen hours and fifty-six minutes), and in 1999 he spent twenty-one hours on the summit (29,035 feet) with no supplementary oxygen. The plan was to get him up the mountain an eleventh time, securing him a third record — this one for the most summits on the mountain. This wasn’t vanity for Babu. It was a way to garner publicity in a pre-social media era and use that fame to raise money for building schools in the high Khumbu region of Nepal, so the next generation of Sherpa children had the option to become something other than just climbing porters. (Just a quick point for edification: Though many people in the West are in the habit of using the word “Sherpa” as synonymous with “porter,” Sherpa is actually an ethnicity, one of the Tibetan ethnic groups native to the higher reaches of the Himalayas.) If there was anyone I could be scaling the mountain with who could give some degree of comfort to my family and friends, it was Babu.
The expedition had started out as an all-Sherpa team, but after finding themselves in a stalemate with the Nepalese government they switched course. Every climber attempting Everest needs to pay the Nepalese government a fee; back then, it was around $8,000. A Western expedition with, say, ten climbers may have an additional eight local Nepalese supporting the expedition, but the team only has to pay the fees for the Western climbers — not the Nepalese working for them. Babu and his team, who had worked on many of these Western expeditions, took the position that, because they were Sherpa, they didn’t have to pay a fee at all. The Nepalese government disagreed and wanted them to declare which members of their fourteen-man team were the climbers and to pay the full $8,000 for each of them. This could mean upwards of $80,000 in fees and the goal was to raise money, not spend it. So Babu’s business partner reached out to Travis to see if he would join the expedition with a couple of friends. The idea was to get capable Western climbers to become “the expedition” that Babu’s entire team was working for. They just needed to round up some climbers crazy enough to drop everything and, with no planning, jump on a plane in a few weeks to ascend the highest mountain in the world.
Learning that we couldn’t afford a satellite phone, my thoughtful ICM colleagues Martha Luttrell and Patty Detroit took it upon themselves to raise funds from the rest of our co-workers to rent us one. It was a beastly thing, the size of a modern gaming console, with two large batteries we would have no way of charging. We could get it to Base Camp on the back of a yak, but there was no way we were taking it up the mountain. It was intended for emergency calls only, but the week of our departure I worked out a way with the guys at Palm Pilot that we could use it to send emails. We could peck out missives on the tiny keyboard in advance, wire it to the satellite phone and turn it on for three minutes or so to send half a dozen short emails back home. There were often long stretches between communications. We would send an email from Base Camp saying we were heading up the mountain for a few days, hauling loads to 22,000 or 24,000 feet, and sometimes five days would go by before we were back at Base Camp to send the next message. I was emailing a small group of relatives, friends and colleagues to let them know I was alive and to share with them, the best I could, this incredible journey. What I didn’t know then was they were forwarding the emails to their friends and family in an ever-expanding fractal, like ice crystals on a frozen windowpane.
That’s what I am sharing with you here: a series of intermittent emails punched out with frozen fingers. They describe avalanches, extreme cold, rescues, euphoria, tragedy, and high altitude-induced dreams. I hope you enjoy them as much I have enjoyed revisiting them.
March 21, 2001
Eleven hours to Tokyo, a two-hour layover, six hours to Bangkok, a ten-hour layover, then another two-and-a-half hours to Kathmandu. It didn’t sound so bad on paper, but it explains why the last-minute ticket was so inexpensive. All in all, it went off without a hitch and our hundreds of pounds of gear made it safely off the plane and onto the sadly sagging vehicle that would “put-put” us through the dusty streets of Kathmandu. On the way in from the airport, we were greeted by the Royal Palace with its rolling green lawn, Buddhist temples with gold-tipped domes, and imperious-looking cattle resting in brick- and rock-strewn fields where school children played. After a yak steak dinner at the Green Ice, an Italian-Chinese-Indian-Mexican restaurant in the Thamel district, we crashed for the night. We are here until March 24, dealing with final preparations; then we plan to fly by helicopter to Phaplu to start our fourteen-day trek up to Base Camp. I am sending the sat phone up separately by yak train with the rest of our gear and won’t be able to send another message until around April 7.
Hope all is well back in the world.
March 22, 2001
Still in Kathmandu. Thunderstorms last night and rain today, but no worries; we just want to get out of the city and into the mountains. We had a somewhat comical meeting today to get our permits and the final approval for our climb. I am sure this mandatory meeting was once a dreaded hurdle for every Everest expedition before heading to the mountain — a contortionist act of navigating red tape. It still maintains some of the same formality, with a well-dressed Nepalese government official inquiring about our preparedness and us responding with our climbing resumes, our intended route and plan of attack on the mountain, our gear and supply list etc., etc. But it had more of an air of a well-rehearsed routine, a charade that was really all about one question pertaining to the permits: “Will that be cash or credit?” We anticipate having our permit and making our flight on March 24. Let’s hope the weather is a little kinder by then as well.
March 29, 2001
We’ve arrived safely and healthy in Namche Bazaar. We always thought of this trek in as the quick hike on the way to the real climb, but the trail has had us working for it. We are doing fourteen-mile days and the trail often rises 2,000–5,000 feet and back down as much again in the same day. On our trip from Trakshindo to Kharikhola, we dropped 4,600 feet, immediately went back up 1,800 feet, dropped another 600 feet and then slowly climbed up another 3,200 feet. It goes like this, but we are moving quickly and the terrain is magnificent. We’ve had light rains every afternoon, but otherwise the weather is great. We have started running into other teams who will be up at Base Camp: a Canadian-led team, an Indian army team, a British team, and a team from Russia that’s here to climb neighboring Lhotse.
On the way through Trakshindo, we stopped at one of the schools Babu had already built and spent some time with the kids. The conditions are definitely those of a developing nation, but the children were incredibly enthusiastic and seemed to get a real thrill out of our visit. We are going to go climb Gokyo Ri (over 17,500 feet) and then Kala Patthar (over 18,000 feet) on the way into Base Camp just to continue our acclimatization. We’ve all managed to stay healthy, which is a challenge considering the state of pollution in Kathmandu and the gauntlet of tea houses with their yak-fueled fires. We’re also feeling strong and adjusting well to the altitude, though we remain aware of how far we have to go. Today, we moved very fast and all of us felt strong climbing the 2,500 feet up to Namche, which sits at 11,000 feet, but that is only two-thirds of what our summit day will be on Everest and at an altitude of almost 20,000 feet lower. There’s a long way to go still. I will probably not be able to send news again until I get the Detroit/Luttrell sat phone up and running at Base Camp.
April 6, 2001
We’ve successfully made it to Everest Base Camp. On our way there from Phaplu, we trekked over eighty miles, gained over 29,000 feet and descended over 20,000 feet. The whole way we were surrounded by spectacular knife-edged peaks rising from densely forested hillsides: Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Cholatse, Lobuche, and endless others that make up the backdrop to what seems to be some world out of The Hobbit. The whole team has managed to stay healthy, and with our excursions up Gokyo Ri and Kala Patthar, we are well acclimatized and no one is suffering the usual altitude headaches or having any problems sleeping. The view of the North Face of Everest from Gokyo Ri and the view from Kala Patthar of our route up the Southeast Ridge have gotten us incredibly stoked about the climb before us. That is where all our focus is now. We’ll soon be moving up through the Khumbu Icefall. Although technically not challenging for us, this is one of the most dangerous parts of the climb, as we will be moving through house-sized seracs* that have occasionally keeled over and crushed climbers. There have been more deaths in the icefall then anywhere else on the mountain. We shall leave early, move quickly, and tread delicately. In a couple of days we’ll be having our puja ceremony, performed by a lama to honor the mountain gods and bless our climbing equipment before we set foot on the mountain. I am feeling great and wish I could truly share the whole experience with you all. Email you soon.
* An ice pinnacle near a glacial crevasse.