Aspen’s Beidleman to talk Wednesday on climbing Everest and Cho Oyu in one push
Aspen resident and world-class climber Neal Beidleman is doubling down rather than slowing down on expeditions in the Himalaya.
Beidleman was part of a team that summited two peaks over 8,000 meters in just 23 days last spring. The team was driving to the base camp of Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak in the world, on April 29 and reached its summit on Day 9. They reached the summit of Mount Everest on Day 21 and were on a plane back to the United States two days later.
The average expedition to Mount Everest is about 65 days.
The key to the rapid ascent was acclimating prior to the trip. Beidleman, 59, slept in the comfort — and sometimes the discomfort — of his own bed in Aspen with an altitude tent for nearly eight weeks prior to the trip. The percentage of nitrogen is gradually increased to displace oxygen until it produces the equivalent of sleeping at 18,000 feet of elevation and more.
“With the acclimation, there’s no trek really,” Beidleman said. “You just show up and off you go. That definitely changes the whole experience. You can go quicker.”
He will talk about the trip Wednesday with a presentation at the first Potbelly Perspective of the winter at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. ACES is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a stellar lineup of presentations (see factbox). The location of Beidleman’s presentation will be Paepcke Auditorium.
Beidleman twice previously had been on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point in the world. He worked as a guide in the deadly 1996 season portrayed so vividly in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” He revisited the peak in 2011 with friend and former Aspen climber Adrian Ballinger.
Ballinger and his company, Alpenglow Expeditions, have pioneered the use of hypoxic tents for high-altitude expeditions, according to an article earlier this year in Climbing magazine. Beidleman and a friend hired Ballinger for an abbreviated trip to the Himalaya. The idea wasn’t to achieve any speed records, Beidleman said. They just needed to get back to their jobs and families as quickly as possible. They added Cho Oyu to make it a unique trip.
They approached the big peaks from Tibet, where it is possible to drive to the base camps on paved roads.
“I just had this idea. We still had to acclimate a little bit, so why not try to acclimate and do our first sojourn over 8,000 meters on Cho Oyu?” Beidleman said. “Since you can drive between them, you basically do the same work you would have done on Everest but are able to climb a separate 8,000-meter peak, and then scoot over to the Everest Base Camp and go as fast as you can.”
As a result, the only faster ascents were made by people specifically trying to set speed records, Beidleman said.
They ascended the north side of Mount Everest. Beidleman had gone up the south approach on his previous trips.
“I would say the north side on Everest has less objective dangers. I wouldn’t say it’s safer because there’s some hard, difficult climbing up above,” he said. “There’s several kinds of Hillary Steps up there on the north side, but you’re not exposed to big valleys with sharac fall like you are on the south side.”
Acclimating with an altitude tent isn’t for everybody, Beidleman said. And it’s not like it magically makes mountain climbing easier.
“You still do your time but you’re doing it in a different place,” he said. “Instead of doing it on a mountain you’re doing it (at home). You’re training hard and sleeping in the tent.”
At the end of the training period, when the tent was set up at the equivalent of 18,000 feet, sleep was an unpleasant experience.
“That last two weeks is brutal. It’s every bit as hard as sleeping at altitude over there,” Beidleman said. “The only difference is you can get out of the tent and be in your house.”
The big advantage is they can dash for upper altitudes as soon as they reach base camps on the high peaks. They don’t have to work their way up and come back down to acclimate. That also exposes climbers to less danger. In 1996, Beidleman estimates he made 11 round-trip passages through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest.
He said the journey up the north side was “pretty mind-blowing” because of the different perspective, particularly when reaching the summit and looking down at the regular route. However, he prefers the south side because of the culture and particular geographic features.
“I really love the trek and I know a lot of people and locals there,” he said. “Walking up the Khumbu is really great.”
On all his climbing adventures, he likes to take a lot of pictures.
“I try to use that as a way to relay stories and get people perhaps interested or inspire them to pursue things they want to do or see,” he said.
What he witnessed in Tibet was “jaw-dropping.” The Chinese government, which has occupied Tibet since 1950, is undertaking massive infrastructure projects, preparing for an influx of people.
“The infrastructure projects are on the Great Wall of China scale,” Beidleman said. “They’re pumping tens and tens of billions of dollars into roads and train stations, dam and other water projects and electrical projects out in these high Tibetan plains where there aren’t even people right now.”
An online story by NBC News in August said China is investing $97 billion in infrastructure in the Tibetan mountains. The number of tourists, mostly from China, is expected to soar from 25 million in 2017 to 70 million by 2022, according to NBC.
The development is bound to affect Mount Everest. There is already the paved road to the base camp on the Tibet side, Beidleman noted. There is speculation that someday there will be oxygenated cable cars to the North Col.
Beidleman is uncertain if he will return to the world’s highest peak. He doesn’t feel a particular need to revisit Everest, but “never say never,” he said.
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Local fire officials in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties are heightening their fire concerns, and starting this week Stage 1 fire restrictions will be enacted. Stage 1 means no campfires in undeveloped sites, no fireworks and no smoking outside unless it’s in an area cleared of all combustible materials.