A Profile Update
Reaching Everest’s Summit Was a Physical and Mental TestEditor’s Note: In March, BusinessWest profiled St. Germain Investments President Mike Matty, focusing mostly on his upcoming attempt to summit Mount Everest and thus join a very exclusive club — the one consisting of individuals who have scaled the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Matty is now a proud member of that fraternity, although the Everest climb challenged him in every way possible. Here’s a quick update.
Mike Matty had heard countless times before he left for Nepal that scaling Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, is every bit as much a mental challenge as it is a physical test — and maybe moreso.
He listened, and he thought he understood. But he didn’t fully comprehend that sentiment until he could finally take his crampons off for the last time, after safely descending back to base camp about a week after reaching the summit on May 13.
By the time his Sherpa guide had photographed him at the roof of the world just after 7 that morning (with a sign for his company in his hands), Matty had watched another member of his climbing team die on the mountain, seen another turn back soon after absorbing that fatality, climbed past the dead body of a member from another team as he neared the summit, and entertained seemingly countless thoughts about whether what he was doing was worth all the physical pain and mental anguish he was enduring.
“You reach a point where, after you’ve been sleeping in a tent on a glacier for a month, you say, ‘a cold beer and a warm bed seem pretty good at this point,’” he recalled. “You’re feeling so lousy, you’re wondering whether you’re going to be able to summit on summit day; you’re constantly questioning, questioning, questioning. That’s why it was so easy for that one guy to make a decision; he said, ‘I didn’t come here to die on this mountain,’ and he went home.”
When BusinessWest talked with Matty as part of its ongoing Profiles in Business series in late February, Everest was the lone obstacle remaining as he continued his quest to join a very exclusive club consisting of individuals who have scaled the highest peaks on all seven continents. Over the previous several years, he’d climbed, in succession, Kilimanjaro in Africa; Elbrus (Europe); Vinson (Antarctica); McKinley, or Demali (North America); Kosciuszko/Carstenz (Australia); and Asconcagua (South America). In the weeks leading up the Everest climb he was working out extensively with a team of trainers, preparing himself for a physical challenge that would eclipse anything he’d experienced in his climbing career to date.
But in retrospect, he says there was nothing that could have prepared him for the mental challenge he was to endure, especially the death of a fellow climber and the introspection that followed as the body was taken back down the mountain to what’s known as Base 2 for eventual transport back to the U.S. (In many cases, bodies are simply left on the mountain because it is too dangerous to remove them, but this fatality occurred at a height and in a place where recovery was possible.)
“That was the closest I came to heading home and saying ‘the heck with this,’” Matty told BusinessWest, adding that he was the closest person to the other climber when he died, and tried, along with others, to resuscitate him. “After sitting there and doing shots of adrenaline and epinephrine and CPR and other things for a good long while, I descended to Base 2 by myself, and the whole way down, for the next few hours, I’m thinking, ‘all right … how much do I want to keep going here?’”
But go on he did, eventually reaching the summit and fulfilling a promise he made to himself to leave there a photo of his brother, who died in his sleep last year at age 48, when he was a young child. Explaining the photo to his Sherpa, who lacked a firm grasp of the English language, was a stern challenge, but Matty believes he got the message across.
“I’m trying to tell him the story about this whole thing, and you can tell that he doesn’t understand the details,” he said, “but because of the emotions you’re going through, he gets the gist of it.”
“You think you know what it’s going to be like, but the combination of being away from home, the unfamiliar foods, everyone has a bad cough, everybody feels like their ribs are cracked or they have pulled muscles in their chests, and so on … you’re feeling pretty beat up, and I lost 24 pounds while I was there,” he recalled. “Physically, your body’s deteriorating and your strength is declining; you’re just hoping you can get yourself up the mountain at some point.”
Watching someone die and later seeing the dead body of another climber were certainly traumatic experiences, but Matty said there were plenty of other episodes that made him question the wisdom of his decision to take on the world’s highest peak. Many came while crossing the famous Khumbu Icefall, which climbers have to traverse a half-dozen times while becoming acclimated to the altitude. The icefall, located at the head of the Khumbu Glacier, is found at the 18,000-foot mark, just above base camp, and is considered one of the most dangerous stages of the so-called South Col route to the summit, with large crevasses opening and closing with little warning and huge ice towers known to collapse suddenly.
“You see these mobile-home-size blocks of ice leaning in all directions,” he recalled. “One day, the line you’re clipping on to keep from sliding down the mountain if something happens goes under a block of ice at an 80-degree angle; the next day, it’s a 60-degree angle, and the next, it’s 45 degrees; you realize that this stuff is moving all day, every day, and you’ve got to walk right underneath it.
“Tomorrow, there’s a 40-foot-wide crevasse where there was none today, because suddenly, everything just split open,” he continued. “It’s a constantly changing thing, and you’ve got to go through there six times. It’s nervewracking … you’re walking through there every time thinking, ‘this could be it, this could be it.’”
Matty did some blogging of his experience, and one of the missives he sent was that no one who attempts Everest considers the fight won until they’re through the icefall one last time and back to base camp.
“It’s one thing to be there at the summit,” he said, noting that he had a full hour to take in that view and enjoy the moment. “But it’s quite another to be back down safely and done. That’s when you say, ‘yeah, all right, I climbed Everest.”
And once back down, he made the traditional visit to the Rum Doodle restaurant in Kathmandu. He signed the wall, as more than 4,000 had before him, including the first to make it to the top, Sir Edmund Hillary, who did in 1953.
When asked what he had for dinner, Matty said he couldn’t remember. “I just know there was a lot of beer.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]