Dr. Jon Kedrowski knew a storm was coming, but it arrived early.
Less than 1,000 feet from the top of the world, with 100-mph winds blocking the path, Kedrowski and his team turned around and went back to camp. He was fine but, on a day when a rare and abbreviated break in the weather convinced hundreds of climbers to attempt to summit Mount Everest and caused dangerous overcrowding, several were not.
Four climbers perished May 19 and 20 while descending from the summit, the deadliest time on the mountain since eight died May 10, 1996. What Kedrowski saw helped motivate the former Central Washington University assistant professor of geography to make a second, successful summit attempt at about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, May 26.
“The reason I wanted to go back up was to reconfirm, honestly to see those bodies again, and kind of reconfirm and replay those events that happened the other time,” Kedrowski said Monday via telephone from Vail, Colo. “Because I’ve somewhat dealt with death before on expeditions, I knew that, because of what transpired, the family members of those who died would be contacting me probably, and so I also wanted to use that time to be able to tell them about a little bit more about the situation and help them understand maybe why their family member died or help them deal with it.
“It also made me appreciate mountaineering even more than I have before. I’ve always taken it seriously and felt fortunate any sort of times I’ve been able to climb and avoid any disaster. Those were the things I thought about, and why I wanted to do it again.”
Kedrowski, 33, is fueled by the motto “No Off Days,” and it shows in his vast array of talents. He has climbed the highest peaks in North America, South America, Europe and now Asia. He is a mountain geographer, a motivational speaker and an author, with a book out this week. He also played intercollegiate basketball at Valparaiso University and hosts No Off Days basketball camps in his home state of Colorado.
Kedrowski was drawn to Colorado’s peaks when he was a young athlete, and he used it as a training tool for team sports.
“If you’re out on the peaks, 10, 20, 30 peaks a summer climbing all the time and mountaineering, you beat the tar out of yourself physically,” he said. “When you come back to training and do team sports, you’re that much more fit.”
While in Washington, he spent two summers on Mount Rainier working with the park service and climbing. Those endeavors, he said, were great training for his biggest task.
Kedrowski’s Everest expedition also served as a research trip in collaboration with the Mount Everest Biogas Project, a Seattle-based volunteer group focused on limiting human waste disposal on and around Everest via biogas digester technology. His tasks included testing water quality and taking photos of the nearby Nepalese villages to help determine feasible locations for building and placing biogas reactors.
“It’s pretty difficult because it’s high altitude; it’s above about 15 or 16 thousand feet where these villages are,” Kedrowski said. “We tested for E. coli and fecal coliform, which come out with human waste in water, and found that a lot of these locations near the villages are between five and 15 times more polluted than the EPA legal limit for drinking water in the United States. They’re thinking that by building these sealed, contained reactors, they can get all the waste to be contained within those and they can, No. 1, use it for energy, and, No. 2, prevent it from leaking further and clean up the water.”
This climbing season at Everest was unusually short, with poor weather conditions forcing many climbers to wait for weeks to have a chance at reaching the top. The first time frame of good weather was May 18-19, and about 300 people made their way up.
“People get summit fever and they also kind of get impatient, because they’ve been there for six to eight weeks on the expedition, and the people just want to get up and get their summit done so they can go home. That’s why a lot of people went on that day, the 18th to the 19th, and just too many people went,” Kedrowski said. “We thought, by the 20th in the afternoon, the winds would probably get high by then, but about 12 to 14 hours early, in the middle of the night, the storm came in, and that led to a lot of the problems people had.”
Too many people trying to summit a mountain at the same time can cause a traffic jam of sorts. At higher elevations, being stuck with such little oxygen is unsafe. When the storm rolled in, the situation became tragic.
Kedrowski had a mental checklist of three priorities — himself, his teammates, then anyone else who needed help. Three of his teammates and other climbers required assistance, so he attended to his teammates and helped another save a Polish climber who was about 400 yards from camp.
“Two or three of them near the camp we had to help them get back because they were pretty delirious from lack of oxygen and the elements,” Kedrowski said of his teammates. “Fortunately, I think maybe it’s because I grew up here in Colorado at higher altitude and I’ve been on a lot of expeditions, my body has kind of adjusted to altitude pretty well, so I felt completely fine that night.”
‘Fast and light’
For years, Kedrowski has climbed “fast and light,” meaning he only carries what he absolutely needs and he doesn’t waste time reaching the summit and returning to base camp. That approach, he said, helped him succeed when climbing Everest, especially since it minimized the time he spent at dangerously high elevations.
“It’s going to maximize your recovery period, and then to be able to go back up and skip two camps and get to high camp in time to make the good weather, it was something we were kind of forced to do,” Kedrowski said. “Since I had done it on Aconcagua (in Argentina) and Denali (in Alaska), in terms of soloing those and skipping camps and carrying very light gear, as long as you know the weather’s good, you can get away with it.”
Kedrowski said he made it up from Camp 4 at 26,000 feet to the summit at 29,035 feet in about seven hours and spent just 12 hours above the danger zone.
“I know that definitely makes a difference,” Kedrowski said. “A lot of the people who were stuck or caught up there had been up above in the death zone for 20 or 25 hours, so that’s why they succumbed to the elements. I definitely believe that speed is safety, as long as you know what you’re capable of doing.”
On lower ground earlier in the trip, fast and light took on a different meaning. While heading toward a monastery at 13,000 feet, he waited for a convoy of yaks to pass when, as he put it in his blog, “one of the large yaks became impatient with the caravan queue and stepped out of line and came right toward me!”
In this case, he had to think and move quickly. With no escape route, he braced himself, lowered his shoulder into the yak and reached for the horns to avoid being gored. He was forcibly sent down a mossy embankment but, besides a sore left shoulder and torn shirt from a horn, he was fine.
The next step
Kedrowski spent the past two years at CWU, but being an author and climber of the highest peak in the world has opened up other opportunities.
He and best friend Chris Tomer, a TV meteorologist in Denver, wrote a book called “Sleeping on the Summits: Colorado Fourteener High Bivys” that details climbing and camping on all 55 of Colorado’s peaks above 14,000 feet in 95 days last summer. That book is out this week, and Kedrowski will go on a promotional tour this summer throughout Colorado.
He also will make appearances to give motivational talks, first in Colorado then elsewhere, including the Northwest. He said he is working with the CWU’s Outdoor Pursuits and Rentals program to return to campus during the fall quarter, likely in October, to discuss Everest and the “Sleeping on the Summits” project.
From there, Kedrowski hopes to write another book about his Mount Everest experience.
“I’ve got plans on the slate to write a book about the tragedy on Everest and analyze the disaster from more of a critical level and use a lot of my background,” he said. “And also, just talking to the families, too, I want to write an account that suits them as well to kind of help them understand what happened up there.”