(Sheridan, Wyo) - You've read his updates from the climb, but since he's returned home from summiting Everest, we sat down for a chat with Darren Rogers at Java Moon. Here he tells what about his motivations and gives an intimate look at the emotional highs and lows of the expedition.
A lot of us can understand looking at the highest point around and thinking I want to stand on that. But Everest is obviously a whole different level. Is it still fun?
It’s a fun climb. Physically, I didn’t think that it was that challenging, but it was fun. It worked out so that I landed at the summit at the right time.
You’re walking along a knife edge and it’s 5,000 feet to the spot that you see, but if you fell you would fall another 5,000 feet beyond that. I mean you’re looking at that and you’re like, “Holy s*#t, that’s a long ways!” And then you look on the other side, and you’re in China. And you’re like, it’s the same thing. It’s a surreal feeling.
But at the same time you realize: Don’t screw up. Watch how you put your foot. Make sure when you move around an anchor that you’re secured. Make sure your Jumars are on. You should have a second safety, move one at a time so you’re always secure should something happen.
What do you say to someone who thinks that climbing Everest is crazy?
It is about misery management. It is very difficult. It’s a mental game, a lot of it. A mental strength game. I can’t disagree that it’s crazy. Everybody has their own motivations. Mine was just the physical performance. I was surprised. People said, “You need to go,” so I fell into all of that.
The Sherpas like climbing with me because I’m not lagging and I’m not viewing them as a servant. The culture of those people is the motivation. When you go in there and you’ve prepared, and you’ve worked your butt off, and you carry your load, and you don’t expect anything of them other than to lead the way, and you don’t slow them down, they embrace you pretty quickly. They’re calling you “brother.”
They refer to me as “Strong Man.” I’m Sherpa-sized. I’m a small guy. It started back in Cho Oyu. The biggest guy was running into problems. The guide left him, was just walking away from him. I backed up and carried half of his load. The smallest guy took half of the biggest guy’s load!
He’s a great guy. We call him “The Mayor.” He just gets everything organized. He even showed up here last year! We were in camp on Cho Oyu and I said, (You know, I was oxygen deprived) “If you ever get a chance, you should come to Sheridan for the rodeo.” He showed up!
We had this push-up thing going on Cho Oyu. Early in the morning he just walked up to my tent, unzipped it without saying a word, and just pushed out a bunch of push-ups. The deal was: for every one that he did, I had to do two. I ended up doing push-ups on the summit of the mountain. He didn’t summit and the Sherpas saw that.
So you establish these relationships that grow stronger quicker than those you would have here. I love those people. I could hang out at base camp all the time, and I could climb all the time, if it was only with those people.
Do you feel like Everest is overly glorified by some people?
With the goal of people to climb the seven summits, or the Explorers Grand Slam which also includes the North and South Poles, it creates a competition. They want to put that little check mark on their resume or in their belt. A lot of people just miss the journey of the climb. They look at the Lhotse Face and it’s 60 degrees for 4,000 feet that you have to climb. And they’re saying, “This sucks.” I look at it and say, “Let’s go do it,” and, “That looks like fun!”
There’s a difference in the mentality and you can see it in how people climb if they’re only thinking about getting to the summit. And then you have the part of it where people are so focused on getting to the summit that they don’t reserve any energy to get down. People train: up, up, up. They carry weight: up, up, up. Training I carry fifty pounds up and I carry the fifty pounds down.
Did you do any stargazing while in camp?
There’s a bazillion more, and they’re brighter. The moon is right there. It’s in your face. A lot of time you would have clouds so you didn’t have it all the time. You’re always drinking a lot of water, so you have a pee bottle at night and you don’t generally crawl out of your tent because it’s cold. However, you get up at 1:30, 2:00 in the morning and you’re walking by 3:00 or 4:00 depending on where you’re going. So you still get a lot of that. And you’ll see the stars and you’ve got the headlights snaking up the icefall. I tried taking photos, but I couldn’t get any of those. Night pictures are so difficult. But absolutely, you stargaze.
Is there any overlap between your education in chemical engineering and your passion for climbing?
In climbing you have a set volume in your lungs. As you go up in altitude you have less molecules. You take in the same volume, but less molecules. So, the amount of oxygen that’s at 18,000 feet as compared to sea level is almost half. So even though it’s 21% concentration, the number of molecules is half. As I was trying to acclimate in the tent, I ran into a few issues and I was thinking about the concentration of carbon dioxide. When you’re re-breathing, then does that change the PH of your blood in such a way that its binding more oxygen or less?
But in terms of big picture, both have an attention to detail and a training discipline.
Is there anyone who inspires you?
A lot of people read everything they can on what they’re going to do. I don’t. This goes against the chemical engineer, the engineering mentality. People want to know everything about the Hillary Step or the Lhotse Face. I didn’t know a damned thing. I literally walked up to it, looked at it and said, “Okay, this is what I need to do.” So that’s the exact opposite, or in conflict, with my education in a lot of ways.
You know, I care about the people of this town. Last year during the earthquake they were like, “What’s going on with this guy?” And so, by me just sending blog stuff to the newspapers and so on, it’s my way of sharing. It’s not about publicity that I gain to get on the summit. You guys followed so closely without me last year, here’s the rest of the story.
I imagine that your expectations and your prior mindset affect your climb.
The mountain dictates the terms. [Sherpas] look up and they say, “Too windy. No go today.” And you’re like, how do you know that? And then the weather report comes a couple hours later and it says, “Don’t go, it’s going to be high wind.”
Was it easy to transition back to work and “normal” life?
Physically, other than being congested I’m okay. Mentally, I’m pretty screwed up. There’s been some hard times, and my mind’s processing it. I’ve talked to a couple people. One of them said, “You know Darren, last year you were in a major natural disaster. Even before you had got rescued, you had been working on how to shorten the trip.” Which I did. I was like, I can shorten the trip by another week and a half next year. I never let my mind process. I’ve been so focused.
I had a lot of things going on up there. I took a little boy’s ashes to the top and I set them there. And I also took this little boy on that journey. I had laminated pictures of him, so I took his photo to various spots. And I’d take photos of the photo for the parents and grandparents. And that was emotionally traumatic in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s a lot to process that. Last year I was supposed to do it, so I’ve had these bags of ashes that I had set up to take along and put in various spots for that long. So that’s gone, and my brain is thinking about it. It reverts to it. It will reduce me to tears and then the next minute it makes me happy. So it just has to work its way through.
That’s the million-dollar question going through my brain, because I fell into the Everest thing. I’ve enjoyed climbing a long time and after I started alpine climbing around the world I wanted to climb Mount Cho Oyu, which is the sixth highest mountain, and I had some delays in even setting up the trip.
Once I went, I had a phenomenal performance on the mountain. My body does really well at altitude and everybody said, “Darren, you just need to go climb Everest.” And I gave them a funny look and everybody, the Sherpas included, said, “You just need to go. You ought to do it.”
Of course every kid is like, “Oh Everest,” and I remember when the IMAX movie came out in the late nineties showing the aftermath of the ’96 expedition. I remember seeing the lady step on the ladder with the crampons and I thought Oh that’s cool, I’d like to do that, but I never thought I would. Time, money, that sort of thing, it just always was…way out there.
I went through it, I went over there, I was extremely successful. I landed, I came in later than everybody else, was stronger than everybody else. Faster, healthier; primarily healthier. They had spent all their time in tea-houses. So that’s how I ended up at Everest. It was: Hey you ought to do this, how can I shorten the trip? I did everything I could to minimize.