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Steamboat Magazine

Back on Top

12/13/2016 07:03PM ● By Dan Greeson

Kim Hess celebrates at the 20,075-foot summit of Lobuche East as the Khumbu Icefall winds behind her toward Mount Everest, pictured in the distance, its summit another 9,034 feet higher than she stands. Photo courtesy of Kim Hess.

By Jennie Lay

Steamboat Magazine first talked with Kim Hess two years ago. She had yet to travel to Nepal. It was before a 7.8 earthquake and its hundreds of soul-rattling aftershocks would rock the Himalayan nation and kill moyre than 8,500 people. Summiting Mount Everest was her dream, but it ended as nightmare of avalanches, tumbling icefalls and a helicopter evacuation from Camp 2, then a hike down to Lukla through the heartbreaking rubble of devastated Sherpa villages.

In spring 2016, Hess took advantage of the two-year extension on her Everest climbing permit. A second trip to the mountain proved different, perhaps more reverent. Hess summited at 5:04 a.m. on Sunday, May 22 – one more peak on her journey to the Seven Summits.

Steamboat Mag: Now that you’ve stood on the top of the world, what feels different – in your daily life, your physical body, your soul?

Kim Hess: Physically, a lot of things. My feet – it’s almost like they’re frozen. I’ll go run up Emerald Mountain, drive home, and by the kind I’m out of the car they’re frozen.

But the biggest thing I’ve been battling besides my feet is altitude brain. I didn’t notice it until my first week home, when people started asking me questions. I almost felt like a stroke patient, where I could think about the answer but not answer. My handwriting is different. I can’t write an “s” anymore…and my last name is Hess. I keep reading, keep talking, keep writing. It will get better.

Emotionally, I feel pretty blank. Nothing feels really exciting. I sent up on this great adventure, and in some ways it didn’t meet my expectations. I thought it would be the hardest physical thing I’d ever do, but it wasn’t. I had prepared myself for this epic test of my physical capabilities. I wouldn’t have changed a thing with the training and I don’t think I’m this super human athlete, but I had just made it up to be such a super challenge in my head that I over-prepared mentally.

SM: Did Everest’s summit meet your expectations?

KH: The top was spectacular, but all I could think was that it was 7.5 hours getting up here and I have that and then some to get down. I was so focused on getting down. It wasn’t the euphoric celebration I thought it would be.

My outer body experience was at the south summit, about 30 minutes before then. Mingma (Sherpa) and I were alone. One person was ahead of us. It was calm. It was cold. At the south summit you follow the southeast ridge and you’re on this knife edge. A full moon was blowing up the sky. On the right, you could see into Tibet with headlamps coming up. On the left you could see Nepal and all the camps. I saw the full moon on one side and sunrise on the other. That’s when I started crying. Then I started dancing. And then we kept going. In that moment of silence, I felt the power of the mountain and mother nature and god and myself.

SM: Any way you would have prepared differently?

KH: No, I don’t think so. I could always use more time on my mat, being able to mentally calm my mind and be patient. That’s my big character flaw. It was 10 days between our summit rotations, just sitting. To be patient and sit there and maintain a positive, healthy state of mind, yoga helped me. You have to sit back and enjoy the ride. I felt like a caged animal.

SM: You walked through the quake’s rubble, experiencing Nepal’s urgency and shock in 2015. How did the Khumbu look and feel like a year later?

KH: At base camp, you couldn’t tell anything happened. They cleaned it up completely. I went on a treasure hunt out onto the moraine and couldn’t find one single thing – and I looked hard. On the trek in, there’s still a lot in ruins, but there’s a lot of active rebuilding. A lot of the tea houses are done and brand new. The spirit was all high hopes. After a successful summit season, there was a positive attitude on the way out – that sense that tourism is going to be good, we’re going to make money, and it’s going to be good.

It still blows my mind that people don’t know that earthquake happened in Nepal. That 10,000 people died. What kind of bubble do we live in? Six out of 10 people that I talk to don’t even know that it happened. But they can tell you if Kim Kardashian is pregnant.

SM: Favorite moment at Base Camp before the ascent?

KH: It’s like a holding pen. There are always comical conversations, but for the most part it’s a very relaxed environment. This year, I didn’t venture out. Returning to Everest felt more like a job. Last year, I wanted to get out and see it all, meet everyone. This year, I wanted to stay strong, not get sick.

SM: Favorite moment after descent?

KH: Hiking down to Lukla. First you see dirt, then you see a weed, then you hear a bird…oh my god, there’s life! We stayed at a newly rebuilt teahouse, one owned by the family of one of our Sherpa guides. 

SM: Most interesting encounter on the mountain?

KH: After our second rotation, they called me up to the communications tent. The last thing I wanted to do was climb up that hill and talk to anyone right then. I walked in and said, “Honey, I’m home.” And it’s Conrad Anker standing there.

I’m thinking, “I was just watching you on my iPad seven days ago. I watched ‘Meru’ 20 times.” I told him “Congratulations, that was a hell of a climb.” Two days later, they found (Alex) Lowe’s body. I took some significance from it, after being up there in a shitty year, seeing the sadness, watching their documentary, seeing them struggle, then finding his best friend’s body. I felt like this is a sign from Alex that this is going to be a good year in Nepal.

Did I ever think I’d have a conversation about climbing with Conrad Anker. No, never.

SM: What’s next on your Seven Summits list?

KH: Antarctica. It costs $42,000. I needed a huge break after Everest. So much of my life has been searching for money, and I wasn’t ready to start that process again. While you’re down there, you might as well do the South Pole too, which becomes $100,000.

SM: You witness a climber from another team in the midst of a life-threatening slide down a steep slope. Even though you only momentarily grasped one of his straps to help slow him down, it may have been a life-saver. Was that your scariest moment on the mountain?

KH: I barely touched him on the way by. I don’t know how that man didn’t die. Being careful and safe and deliberate, I see the importance of that more than ever before. You can’t be sloppy. There’s no reason anyone should have died this year. The weather was good. There is poor decision making. There’s no standard up there. No regulation on guides. People are going to stop climbing that mountain and get ripped to shreds unless they put some regulation on Everest.

SM: Now that you know what it takes, what’s your level of reverence for local guides like Steamboat’s Chhirring Dorje Sherpa, who has summited Everest 14 times?

KH: I don’t know how they do it. I get that, wanting to go back and feel that – and I don’t know that I’ll ever find the words to describe the entire experience. But the time commitment at base camp, is so much. I don’t know how they put their families, their friends, through the stress of it. I have even more admiration for it than before. It’s for the love of the sport. It’s for the thrill of standing on the summit. Despite all the down sides, Everest is a magical place. It’s pretty cool.

Follow Kim Hess’ blog about her ongoing adventure in scaling the Seven Summits at