Father Mike and the Top of the World

The twenty of us filed into a small church and found a seat on the hard wooden pews. The church smelled faintly of mildew and was well worn. In front us stood Father Mike, a slightly stooped, gray haired man, wearing a worn, red jump suit, who was there to tell us his story of climbing Mt. Everest. The challenges of reaching the Top of the World have been documented in books and on film, so we were excited to meet someone who had tackled that challenge. But, what Father Mike shared was a more interesting story because it was about how resourcefulness can overcome limitations, that assumptions should be challenged and that clear goal setting critical to success.

 

In the spring of 1979, Father Mike was one of eight Kiwis who mounted an expedition to summit Mt. Everest. As he explained, back then, only one team a year was given permission by the Nepalese government to climb the mountain. A group from New Zealand had filed a request, but by the time it was granted, the original mountaineers were too old. So in October 1978, the New Zealand government asked the only New Zealand mountaineering club if they wanted the spot.

 

Mt. Everest is a very important mountain to New Zealanders. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary, a Kiwi, and Tenzing Norgay from Nepal were the first to reach the top of Mount Everest. Hilary was actually a part of an English expedition, and there had never been an attempt mounted by a team from New Zealand. If New Zealand passed on this chance, it might be years before a Kiwi team would have another opportunity.

 

Eight of the club members decided to grab this spot and quickly began to organize for the climb. As Father Mike explained, these kinds of expeditions are years in the planning, and back then budgets were usually well over $400,000. In contrast, this group had only had four months before they would leave for Kathmandu and needed to raise all the money is even less time. As Father Mike pointed out, they only had four months to buy and ship thousands of pounds of provisions and gear. In the end the group only raised $40,000 and they decided that they would find a way to launch an attack on the mountain with less than a tenth of the normal budget.

 

Finding a way to make it work on such a small budget required creativity and resourcefulness. Because the budget was so tight, they could only afford to buy one ladder. Now ladders are very important because they are the only way to bridge the ice chasms. Large sections of Everest is covered in a slow moving ice flow. As it slides and crashes, large, bottomless canyons appear. These crevasses are sometimes so wide that is necessary to string together multiple ladders to span the fissure. The Kiwis saved money by not buying new ladders, but instead counted on their ability to find and repair the many ladders left behind by more affluent teams. Their confidence in their ability to fix the scavenged ladders was brought to life when Father Mike showed a slide of a pack-ladened climber making his way across one of these bridges, comprised of salvaged and repaired ladders.

 

 

The group were trailblazers in other ways too. Up until their expedition, every team had two things, plenty ofsupplemental oxygen and Sherpas. Well, these Kiwi's didn't have either. Father Mike's group could only afford enough oxygen to cover medical emergencies and they didn't have the money to hire a single Sherpa. Without Sherpas the men hauled their own pounds and pounds of gear from camp, to camp, walking miles up and down the mountain therefore, the weeks spent moving tons of gear higher and higher conditioned these men to attempt to summit without oxygen. And the old jump suit that Father Mike was wearing, was the one and only suit he had to wear while on the mountain.

On the last day, Father Mike and another climber were near the summit. But after hours of exhausting climbing, they decided to turn back. It was 2pm and while they were within striking distance of the top, they had been above 26,000 feet, and in the "death zone" too long. Climbers in the "death zone" are oxygen deficient and soon begin to loose mental functioning, become clumsy and often make critical mistakes. Father Mike recognized that turning back would end their quest, but he remembered a bigger objective. Unlike many expeditions, these eight men had deep, long term relationships and one thing was of utmost importance;  that they would all return.

 

Thus, these Kiwis became the first team ever to return with all expedition members. Mortality is high on Mt. Everest, and from 1921 until 1979 the mountain had claimed on average one of every six climbers. In 1979 no one died trying to summit Mt. Everest. Eight Kiwis left New Zealand and eight Kiwis returned. 

This team traveled to Nepal with almost no time to plan and a microscopic budget . Instead of allowing these constraints to defeat them, they used them as launching pads to new, creative approaches, relying on their own resourcefulness and hard work. They became the first team to attempt a summit without oxygen, they were the first totally self-sufficient team, and they were the first team to not lose a single climber. They relied on hard work, smarts and unwavering commitment to their objective to find a way to success.