Texas And New Mexico Take The High Ground For A Change

Separate climbing expeditions from Texas and New Mexico, historical rivals, have begun acclimatizing at Everest Base Camp for their attempts on the summit of the world’s highest mountain in May. Not that they’re competing, but it is an interesting situation.

The New Mexico party is former Gov. Gary Johnson, two other climbers and their three American guides. Everest is 29,038 feet, and the highest Johnson has ever climbed is Denali, 20,320 feet, and he has limited experience on glacial ice. He broke his leg skiing in January and dealt with a blood-clot complication. But he’s in good hands.

The expedition leader is Dave Hahh, whose hand-picked assistant guides are Tap Richards and Ben Marshall. Hahn and Richards are Everest summiters and were in the group that found the remains of the legendary Everest pioneer George Mallory at 25,000 feet on the north side four years ago. Johnson, characteristically, has discouraged publicity.

Although it is private, this could be called the New Mexico expedition. Besides the ex governor — surely a first on Everest for any American state — Hahn and Richards are from New Mexico. Hahn is a professional ski patrolman at Taos Ski Valley, where famed “Al’s Run” is named for Richards’ adoptive grandfather. No information was released on Marshall and the two other climbers, Charlie Hyde and David Pierce Jones.

Logistics are being done by Eric Simonson’s International Mountain Guides, based in Ashford, Wash, but the guides are working directly for the climbers, according to the IMG Web site. The New Mexicans will ascend the South route. IMG has another expedition, led by Simonson, on the North side. These are the eleven and twelfth IMG Everest trips since 1991.

Johnson before he departed New Mexico declined to discuss the cost of the private expedition. It is not, however, a modest climb, as shown by the 3,100 kilograms, nearly 7,000 pounds, of high-value gear. It was flown as high as a big chartered MI 17 helicopter would go, then was transferred to two yak trains for the climb to EBC, at 17,600 feet. Johnson and party spent a week walking up from Lukla, where they flew by commerical air service from Kathmandu. The Twin Otters land on a short, steep strip surrounded by high peaks.
Will the “New Mexico” team summit? The 50-year-old ex-governor, who left office Dec. 31, is in top shape, and he has been planning this for eight years. He said in an interview in January 2001 that he wasn’t accident prone, even though he had sustained a half dozen injuries that required medical attention during his tenure to that point.

The only serious accidents, he said, were a fall on a patch of ice while running, resulting in a compression fracture of two vertabrae, and a fall in a ski race that required knee surgery. The others were only a few scrapes and bruises and a broken hand, he said. Although his headlong flight down a chute at Taos might have been serious if he had not recovered before hitting a tree. It made him buy a safety helmet.

The next few weeks should be uneventful, as the group acclimatizes and tries the ice. The usual routine is to work up a little at a time, dropping low to rest, even as low as Periche, 12,000 feet. (There’s a fine hotel with a warm stove there. We met three of the Alpine Ascents guides there a year ago as they chowed down on multiple maccaroni and yak-cheeses in final prep for the successful summitting of their group four weeks later.)

As to the Texas expedition, it’s a lot more forthcoming and public than the New Mexicans because it’s a motivational event. The party represents the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. Three of its 10 climbers, plus two of their sherpas, had been forced to turn back before reaching EBC.