How a Man in His 50s Took on Climbing Mount Everest and Won
Reagan Rick started climbing in his fifties and took on Mount Everest. This is how a retired banker turned uphill hiker stood on the top of the world.
Climbing Mount Everest is best described as surreal, brutal, thrilling and humbling — it is the top of the world. Are the views the best? Yes. Is it hard? Yes. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely!
As with most worthwhile endeavors, it takes a village. For me, my village was led by world-famous mountain guide Willie Benegas. This is a brief summary of my climbing journey to the top.
Pros and Cons of Climbing Mt Everest
Mount Everest — big mountain, big goal
At the beginning of my climbing career, I had a clear goal in mind — summiting Denali, the highest peak of North America. I took a week-long mountaineering course and booked my trip. For most of my life, I was a corporate lawyer and banker, and I only started climbing in my early fifties. When my Denali trip started, it didn’t take me long to realize I was under prepared for what I was going to experience. Summit day was tough for me, and I was just lucky to have awesome guides and generous teammates.
That fall, I had an opportunity to attempt an 8,000-meter peak. However, it was clear to me that I needed to progress as a mountaineer. Who better to ask than Willie, my Denali guide with a climbing resume as impressive as you’ll find anywhere. Having summited Mount Everest an astonishing 13 times, it’s safe to say that Willie had the sufficient experience to prep me for higher grades. With Willie’s help, I’ve been able to stand on top of some pretty cool places. I’ve learned a ton from him, and it’s all been a tremendous amount of fun.
A Brief Background of Mount Everest
Before I get to my Everest journey, here’s a bit of the background on what is arguably the world’s most famous mountain:
How tall is Mount Everest?
The Mount Everest summit sits at an elevation of 8,849 meters (29,032 feet), making it the tallest mountain in the world. Everest straddles the border between Tibet to the north and Nepal to the south. Nepali people know the peak as Sagarmatha, translating to “the Goddess of the Sky.” In Tibet, it’s known as Chomolungma, or “Goddess Mother of the World.” It’s ironic how standing on the top of our planet makes you feel like the king of the world yet so small at the same time.
To get to the Everest summit, the South Col from Nepal or the Northeast Ridge Route from Tibet, are the most popular routes. By far, most people attempt the mountain from Nepal.
Why is Everest so hard to climb?
For me, what makes Everest so hard to climb is the extreme altitude. At 29,032’ above sea level, the air is about 33% as dense as it is in Miami, Florida. This means that it takes three breaths to receive the same volume of oxygen that you get with one breath in Miami.
But, on Everest, you are not walking down a flat, warm sandy beach like in Miami. You have to climb up thousands of feet and wear a lot of warm clothes. Guess what, it is harder to breathe when you climb up thousands of feet and wear heavy clothes. The bonus is you have a third of the available oxygen to breath. Still sound like fun?
In order for humans to survive at this altitude, you have to slowly expose your body to increasingly high altitudes. An Everest expedition can typically last five to eight weeks. You are in a beautiful, but harsh environment. Although climbing operators have come a very long way in making Everest living conditions better and better, your body still struggles in this environment. It is common for many people to develop some type of cough or illness just from living at Base Camp for several weeks. In my opinion, this is one of the hardest parts of climbing Everest and is one of the main reasons for people not reaching their goals on the mountain.
How to Train for Mount Everest
You’ll hear a lot that climbing an 8,000-meter mountain before Everest is a must. What you do need to find out is if your body is good at adjusting to altitude. I’m not convinced you have to go to 8,000 meters to find out. I believe what matters more is getting to know your body. How do you handle high altitude and changes in altitude? Do you operate well in extreme conditions? Can you handle expedition life? The environment causes a massive burnout, requiring a higher energy investment than at lower elevations. As Willie taught me, the road to Everest is reached with smaller goals.
Build strong foundations as climber
When I reached out to Willie, he strongly advised me against jumping right back to a bigger mountain. His suggestion was that I build my climbing foundation, and he pointed out three big gaps in my climbing. First, I didn’t know how to climb. I had very basic climbing skills that weren’t that good. I was very fortunate to have had awesome teammates and guides to get me up and down Denali safely, but what Willie said really stuck with me — I needed to become self-sufficient. Nothing bad happened on my ill-prepared summit of Denali. However, if it had, I wouldn’t have been able to be part of the solution. I would have been part of the problem. Willie and I started a program of working on those basic climbing skills.
If you’re a total beginner, like I was, your first stop should be a mountaineering course. I took a course from Alpine Ascents International on Mount Rainier. It was a great start. From there, I worked with Willie. We covered everything from ridge climbing and crevasse rescue to rock climbing, just to get used to the exposure and how climbing systems work. I spent as much time as I could in a mountain environment so that I would be more comfortable when tackling more advanced objectives. Was it training or was it fun? Both.
Another one of my shortcomings was balance. When climbing, you need to rely on your stabilizer muscles, especially through the Icefall and on Everest’s summit ridge. I had a background as a road runner, and my stabilizer muscles were not well developed. As a result, my balance was a little sketchy. If you feel iffy about your balance-holding abilities, you’ll burn more energy by being nervous and tense. We tackled this issue with time on trails, hiking on uneven terrain, and backcountry skiing in Wasatch. You’ll get used to fiddling with snowshoes and crampons, all while being in a very fun, but cold environment. I’d tell people what I was doing and they would say ‘You’re just playing’ and honestly, it did feel like that most of the time. But, what’s wrong with that?
Finally, Willie pointed out that I needed to be better at maintaining my output over long days. As a runner, I had many marathons under my belt. However, there is a difference between running a marathon for something over three hours to sustaining a summit push for 12-18 hours. Your body needs to learn how to refuel and operate with a sustainable output. I transitioned my training from 2-3 hour workouts to 4-6 hours at least once a week. It was also important to try to work in even longer days every once in awhile.
Sometimes you have to be a little creative with your training, depending on your options. I was living in Florida at the time, and, while it is beautiful and warm, it is super flat. Willie suggested that I just hike in the surf. I would hike the National Seashore, on what my daughter called the “death march,” for five to seven hours while carrying a full backpack. Frankly, I just tried not to drown.
Next step: plan your micro-goals to prepare for technical climbs
Once you are competent with the basic elements of climbing, start getting a bit more specific with your goals and your training. On Everest, you’ll need to be able to follow and transition on fixed lines, cross crevasses, as well as be familiar with specific skills such as the Sherpa rappel. Work with an expert like Willie and go to harsh environments. Adventure and training can be the same thing.
Awesome places to go climbing when training for Everest
Any time in the mountains will help. Look for summits that are high in altitude, require crampons and an ice axe, and are windy and cold. Fun times! North American’s can try alpine climbing in the High Sierra, Washington Pass or Mount Superior in the Wasatch Mountains (you can even book Willie as your guide!). Our friends in Europe will certainly enjoy the fabulous alpine climbing in Chamonix. I recommend climbing Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua in Argentina, the Ecuador Grand Triple for Everest training, all of which you can do with Willie as your guide.
What Does Climbing Mount Everest Look Like?
The first stop of your journey is Kathmandu. It is a busy and interesting city. Then you fly to Lukla, and begin your trek up the Khumbu Valley. It is a 40-mile trek to the base camp which takes about ten days. These ten days hiking through the Khumbu is a fabulous trip of a lifetime in and of itself. The beauty of the valley and the people of Nepal make this an unforgettable experience.
Finally, you reach Base Camp which is around 17,700’ above sea level. Although many operators have perfected making a temporary home on a high glacier as comfy as possible, it’s still pretty high, it still gets cold, and you are still sleeping in some form of a tent.
The Everest Base Camp trek leads to the first stop on the climb
Rising from the valley, you traverse mountains feeding a river of ice and towering over rocky moraines. The terrain is constantly molding and changing. After ten days of hiking and acclimatizing to the altitude, you’ll reach the Base Camp. Before heading up the mountain, you’ll participate in a traditional Puja ceremony to ask the mountain for permission to climb and for safe travel. The ceremony includes a display of prayer flags and the act of spreading flour on your face then throwing it in the air to honor the god of the mountain.
The acclimatization process on Everest typically includes two to three rotations up the lower mountain. Going up to Camp Two, maybe touching Camp Three, on a couple of trips from Base Camp, with rest in between trips gives you a higher chance of safely preparing yourself for the extreme altitude you will face on summit day. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want to climb more than 1000 meters higher on any given day. Most people try to climb higher during the day and retreat to sleep a little lower. Slowly exposing your body to increasing altitude is a key component of safely adjusting to the thinner air.
The Khumbu Icefall: a surreal and dangerous section of Everest climbing
Thank god for Sherpas. Climbing Everest, for normal people at least, is not possible without the tremendous support of climbing Sherpas, porters, cooks, kitchen staff, yak herders, tea house operators and a host of people from Nepal. There is just no way I would have made it past Base Camp without their contributions. The huge bonus is that these are awesome people and make the entire Everest experience so rich.
When a glacier flows down a mountain, it must adapt to the contours and the terrain below it. As the Khumbu Glacier moves down the valley, an unreal world of monstrous blocks of ice the size of buildings and deep and wide crevasses cluster just above Base Camp and below Camp One. To me, the Khumbu Icefall is absolutely one the most beautiful, unreal and terrifying places on Earth. Climbing up through it is fun, risky, and would NOT HAPPEN without the Icefall Doctors.
The Icefall Doctors are a specialized team of Sherpas who set the route through the Icefall by laying a fixed rope attached to various anchors along the route. They also set ladders across crevasses and up ice walls to allow the Sherpas, porters, and climbers to pass through the Icefall.
Depending on when you climb Everest, you’ll have to scale anywhere from 10 to 30 ladders. I wasn’t keen on scaling the ladders when they were suspended a few feet above the ground. Taking controlled steps across a wobbly, thin ladder above a giant ice hole was on another level. When I looked down, all I could see was how dark and deep they were. All I found myself thinking was how much I didn’t want to be there.
Reaching Camp Two requires a sweltering hike through Western Cwm
Camp One is just above the Icefall at around 6,000 meters (19,600’). Camp Two is around 6,500 meters (21,300’). One of the hottest places I have been in my life was on the way to Camp Two. Crossing the “Valley of Silence” was my hardest day on Everest. We left Camp One a bit late, since I was comfy in my sleeping bag. The reflection of the sun on the valley of the Western Cwm can be intense. It is also the place where you can first get a good view of the top of Everest. This was one of those places that remind you how small you are in the midst of it all.
Camp Two is pretty comfy, but Camp Three is not
Camp Two is like an advanced base camp on Everest. Teams usually spend a decent amount of time there acclimatizing, and a tiny helicopter “pad” gets established to ferry supplies for some teams and can offer medical evacuations.
Teams used to require members to sleep one night in Camp Three before their summit push, but that is changing. Camp Three is on the Lhotse Face, and the face can be kind of steep and wind scoured.
Camp Four is called the death zone for its serious altitude
Camp Four is placed on a plateau high on the mountain that resembles a moonscape. It’s one of the more surreal sections of the climb. This section is called the “death zone” for a reason. You cannot just stay here. Your body is not happy. Your goal is to reach Camp Four, catch a nap, get up very early, summit, return to Camp Four, “sleep” one night and get down to Camp Two.
What about supplemental oxygen?
Today, most climbers start using supplemental oxygen when they start up the Lhotse Face. You are just over 6700 meters (22,000’), and the climbing gets steep. You carry an oxygen cylinder in your backpack and use a mask to get oxygen to flow past your mouth to increase the percentage of oxygen in the air you breathe. You stay on supplemental oxygen from here on up, maybe with some breaks from it while you are not sleeping in Camp Three and maybe some in Camp Four.
The Everest summit is finally within reach
On our final day, I remember having gotten barely any sleep. Next thing I know, Willie is waking up me and my tent buddy, Mac. It was dark and cold outside, and I was surprisingly comfortable in my sleeping bag, even though I was at 26,000’. But up we got, and we were out of the tent pretty quickly. As soon as I exited the tent, I saw a line of headlamps winding up the face. It was a beautiful sight. But, wow, it looked like we had a long way to go.
Hitting the weather window and avoiding crowds
The primary Mount Everest climbing season starts in April and ends in May. We summited on May 25th. To climb Mount Everest, you have to wait for the jet stream to move off of the top of the mountain. This typically happens around May 8th to May 28th, but it varies.
As I mentioned above, Everest attracts a lot of attention around the world, and this means a lot of people try to climb it. Crowds on certain parts of the route have become one of the greatest dangers, let alone an irritation. If you can, it is awesome to climb when the crowd is light, and this is certainly doable. One huge challenge in climbing with a light crowd is determining when to make your summit push. If you go as soon as the weather window opens, you will likely be in an unwanted crowd. If you go later when the masses have either gone up or away, will the weather window still be there for you? It’s an art, and Willie was an artist.
Onto the Everest summit
Walking out of Camp Four on our final push to the summit was kind of confusing. It’s dark and your headlamp helps, but you want to see more. It’s cold and that is hard to ignore. You have an oxygen mask on your face so it is hard to communicate, and, while you are really happy that you have it, it is still a little weird to breathe. You try to relax, but you are on your Everest summit push. How can you relax? Eventually, you get into a rhythm with your steps. Before I knew it, we were reaching the Balcony, and the sun was coming up. Wow. That was awesome. We are really high.
For us, on May 25, 2017, we had an incredible summit day. The crowds were light, the wind was pretty calm and the skies were clear. My summit day was fun, and beautiful, and unreal, and fulfilling, and safe. I’m very grateful.
The Hillary Step was on my mind as we neared the top, but I had heard that it was much different following the devastating earthquake in 2015. When we crossed that area, with not many people around us, it was kind of fun. The climbing was more like hopping on and around snow pillars, and it was a welcome break from just walking up steep snow. Now, we knew we were almost to the top, and we knew our energy was good and the weather was favorable for our descent. Time to enjoy the moment. Time to reflect on how fortunate we were to have been allowed to be in this place.
Your team matters and your climbing company matters
An expedition to Everest takes a long time in an unfamiliar and challenging environment. I was incredibly fortunate to have special teammates that will be friends for life. Summiting with Mac and John was a wonderful gift, and they definitely carried me and my spirits through the Khumbu Valley and up the mountain.
Climbing Everest is hard in the best conditions. When things go south, people can die. Guides and climbing operators are people. People vary. Willie was awesome.
Give more to Nepal than you take
Nepal is a beautiful country with wonderful people. Adventure sports make up a meaningful amount of Nepal’s GDP. Climbing Everest employs scores of Sherpas, porters, cooks, staff, teahouse operators, and many, many people in the Khumbu Valley and in Kathmandu. And they’re not just here for Mt. Everest, they help you along many different popular routes, such as the Annapurna Circuit Trek.
Everest and the wonder of Nepal are not unlimited resources. Your footprint on the country, the mountain and the valley will be felt for decades and possibly shape the future of this special place. As with most things, how you commit to climbing Everest and what type of impact you make on the environment and the people will matter much more than whether you are lucky enough for Sagarmatha to allow you to reach her summit and return safely home.
If you want to hear Reagan and Willie share more about his adventures on Everest together, watch their 57hours Adventure Talk: