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The Allure of Everest

Amid reports of record crowds and a rising death toll on Mount Everest, Whitefish native Adam Clark recently led a team of climbers to a safe summit bid on the world’s highest mountain

Much of Mount Everest’s allure is relative to its eye-popping aesthetic, its rich history and the monomaniacal degree of ambition essential to climbers pushing for a summit bid — the razorback peaks of the Himalayas, the exalted pioneers who unlocked this pinnacle of alpinism and the rarefied altitude that refuses so many mountaineers desperate to realize the sport’s loftiest heights.

Still, the consequences are grave on Everest, and its inherent peril figures just as prominently into its draw as does its intrinsic beauty. That peculiar psychological reality has been pulled into a crisp and grisly focus recently in light of a mounting death toll during one of the deadliest climbing seasons in years, compounded by record crowds, varying degrees of experience and extreme weather.

Photographs depicting conga lines of climbers bottle-necked on Everest’s most technical sections have captured the world’s attention, and the mass infusion of hopeful summiteers whose pocketbooks override their climbing credentials is forcing alpinists from across the globe to reconcile the perceived erosion of Everest’s cultural, spiritual and athletic appeal with the enduring lust to stand on top of the world’s highest mountain.

The deaths and the danger of climbing jams has sparked sharp criticism about the number of inexperienced climbers converging on the mountain, with frostbitten fingers aimed at unscrupulous guiding outfits and the Nepalese government’s lax approach to permitting.

According to reports, the Nepalese government issued a record 381 permits in 2019, each costing $11,000, and because every climber is paired with at least one Sherpa who assists with gear, oxygen and cooking, the figure more than doubles.

In the wake of this year’s spate of tragedies, tales of climbers stepping past frozen bodies and long-dead members of failed expeditions have dominated headlines, while photographs of GORE-TEX-clad climbers jockeying for position on Everest’s slopes have gone viral on the internet. Cries for the Nepalese government to reform its permitting process or halt expeditions on Everest have also risen to a fever pitch.

A line of climbers ascend the Hilary Step on Mount Everest in May. Photo courtesy Adam Clark

Through that somber lens, Whitefish’s Adam Clark offers a clear and unique perspective. Born and raised in Whitefish, Clark, 37, divides his professional time between his seasonal work as a local avalanche forecaster for BNSF Railway and his role as an international mountain guide during the spring and summer months.

On May 22, after nearly two months in Nepal, including the two-week trip to reach Everest Base Camp, Clark navigated the queues of climbers vying for a summit bid on the world’s highest mountain and safely guided a team of seven climbers to the top.

Graced with a mix of humility, skill and experience in alpine environments, Clark was gracious when describing the difficult task of managing the inherent risks associated with an Everest expedition, a challenge that was exacerbated by the crowds, to be sure, but not devoid of immense rewards.

“I knew it was going to be crowded, so I didn’t have any illusions about the number of climbers on the most popular mountain in the Himalayas,” Clark said from his Whitefish home, where he lives with his wife and three sons. “But it is concerning when you’re looking at an unbroken line of people as far as the eye can see, and you’re not moving, in some cases for hours. So you’re thinking about the weather, the temperature and about running out of oxygen. It got a little worrisome.”

A bottleneck of climbers on Mount Everest. Photo courtesy Adam Clark

And yet his measured depiction of a modern Everest expedition is more nuanced than the blaring calls for reform in the mountaineering community, due in part to his respect for the company that employs him, International Mountain Guides, which meticulously vets its clients before accepting them on an expedition.

“It will be interesting to see what Nepal does, if anything,” he added, noting that a prohibition on climbing Everest would impact the country’s economy.

But the politics swirling around this year’s climbing season didn’t diminish the experience of spending two months in Nepal helping his clients achieve the summit of a lifetime, he said, a goal they attained on May 22 when Clark along with seven clients and 11 Sherpas pushed to the top.

“I mean, everybody would love to have Everest all to themselves,” Clark said. “Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen. It’s a different style of climbing and guiding than in other parts of the world. It’s a hostile environment, but it was an amazing experience.”

Although some clients on the expedition endured upper-respiratory sicknesses that prevented them from summiting, Clark said no one climbing with International Mountain Guides suffered an injury, and he was effusive in his praise for the company’s expedition leaders.

“Everyone was happy and healthy. No one lost any fingers or toes,” he said. “But it is difficult to stay healthy at that altitude. It’s pretty unforgiving.”

Adam Clark holds a card his wife made him after summiting Mount Everest in May 2019. Photo courtesy Adam Clark

At 29,035 feet, Everest’s summit has approximately one-third the air pressure than at sea level, which affects a climber’s ability to take in enough oxygen and can lead to a suite of expedition-ending ailments, like pulmonary edema, cerebral edema and blood embolisms. To offset the effects of extreme altitude, most climbers carry bottled oxygen, packing heavy metal cylinders that are frequently left behind in heaps, fueling criticism that the sheer number of climbers converging on Everest is laying siege to its ecological and cultural value.

“The amount of trash was shocking,” Clark said, noting the stark contrast between the piles of human refuse and the unrivaled views.

Oxygen tanks stacked up at Mount Everest Base Camp. Photo courtesy Adam Clark

Raised on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, Clark grew up exploring a vertical labyrinth of sedimentary rock and topping out on some of the most striking summits in North America. His interest in climbing began early as he learned the basics on local crags and lobbied for a climbing wall at Whitefish High School. Soon, he and his band of burgeoning mountaineers were striking out on ascents of the region’s most technical mountains, including Glacier’s Mount Wilbur and Mount St. Nicolas.

Drop by Rocky Mountain Outfitter in downtown Kalispell, an iconic outpost offering all manner of outdoor gear, and former shop owner and founder Don Scharfe remembers doling out free beta about the area’s classic summit routes to Clark and his friends more than two decades ago.

“That’s how a lot of these young guys started climbing,” Scharfe said. “They’d come hang out in the shop and ask questions, and every once in a while they’d buy a carabiner or something. We love it.”

From left, Adam Clark, Max Pugh and Jeff Vanderstouw stand on the summit of Mount St. Nicholas in Glacier National Park in 1998. Courtesy photo

In the bathroom at Rocky Mountain Outfitter, a photo depicts Clark, along with friends Max Pugh and Jeff Vanderstouw, standing on top of Mount St. Nicholas in August 1998, hoisting a handmade banner bearing their names and in big, bold letters “R.M.O.” in homage to their surrogate host family.

It was the crew at RMO who encouraged Clark to pursue a career in guiding, and during his senior year of high school he skipped a track meet to travel to Washington for what he described as “tryouts” with International Mountain Guides (IMG), a top guiding company based in the Seattle area that leads climbing and trekking expeditions.

After successfully summiting Rainier via the Liberty Ridge route on the mountain’s north face, Clark caught the eye of the IMG instructors who immediately took a liking to the young climbing phenom.

“They liked me, and that transported me into this whole new world,” he recalls. “After that I was always dreaming of climbing in the big ranges — Alaska, the Andes, the Himalayas. It was all I thought about.”

In 2004, the IMG crew dispatched Clark and famed climber Jess Roskelley, who died tragically in an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies earlier this year, on a reconnaissance trip to Cholatse in the Khumbu region of the Nepalese Himalayas.

The mission was to collect route beta and potentially add the mountain to IMG’s roster of expeditions, particularly as pressure mounted on other Himalayan classics, like Everest and Ama Dablam.

“Ama Dablam was getting crowded, so we hatched this plan to go to Nepal and scout a route on Cholatse,” Clark said of his entrée to the Himalaya range. “I was 23 and Jess was 22, and we were really green, but it was fun because we had no clients and we just got to go climbing.”

Adam Clark, a lifelong mountaineer and climbing guide, traces out the route to the summit of Mount Everest on a map at his Whitefish home on June 13, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Clark continued on-again, off-again guiding throughout his adult life, leading trips on Rainier, Denali and Aconcagua while searching out alpine terrain on his own time. Along the way he obtained his master’s degree in geology and glaciology and found work as a glacier researcher and avalanche forecaster for the U.S. Geological Survey, and most recently as an avalanche forecaster for BNSF Railway.

The skills he’s honed as a guide apply directly to the work he performs as an avalanche forecaster, whether it’s mitigating the hazards threatening snowplow crews clearing the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park or assessing the risk to trains tracking along the snow-choked Middle Fork Flathead River corridor.

He also has a U.S. Level 3 avalanche training certification, maintains wilderness first-responder training and is working to become a certified guide with the American Mountain Guides Association. When he’s not providing instruction on how to be as safe as possible in the backcountry, he and his wife, Aubrey, spend their time raising three sons, ages, 4, 5 and 7.

“I can’t stress enough how fortunate we are to have Adam in our community as an educator,” Ted Steiner, BNSF Railway’s lead avalanche safety consultant and forecaster, said. “He really cares about being a mentor to others who want to become involved in climbing and outdoor activities where there is a degree of vulnerability to hazard and risk. And he has stepped up as an educator working to do the best he can to keep people out of trouble. That is exactly what he did on Everest, and it’s what he does here.”

Steiner has known Clark since he was a teenager with a budding interest in climbing, and has witnessed the evolution of his expertise in traveling through high country as safely as possible.

“I’m really fortunate to have him working alongside me,” he said.

Scharfe, who has pioneered first ascents all across the valley, including the first winter ascent of the upper west face of Mount Edwards — a variation of which Clark would later establish up the mountain’s northwest face — agrees.

Adam Clark, a lifelong mountaineer and climbing guide, holds his first ice axe at his Whitefish home on June 13, 2019. In May, Clark lead a Mount Everest expedition. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“Everything you hear about Adam is 100 percent true,” he said. “He has no ego. He climbs because he wants to, and he does it because it is his passion.”

After spending two months abroad in harsh elements, yo-yo-ing back and forth between various camps in Everest’s “death zone” in an effort to acclimatize himself and his clients to the altitude — a practice known as “rotations” — Clark is settling back into Whitefish life.

“Until I go back to guiding in July, I’m basically just working as a stay-at-home dad,” he said. “It’s nice.”

Clark says he harbors ambitions to continue exploring the world’s great mountain ranges — perhaps on routes with less climbing pressure —before he has to hang up his ice ax and crampons, but in the meantime he’s eager to continue learning about safest practices in a landscape he loves.

“Usually the mountain dictates what happens, and there’s always a level of risk,” he said. “But there are tools we can use to make the safest and smartest decisions possible.”

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