Chip Popociciu on top of the world.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., Raleigh mountaineer Chip Popoviciu will discuss his successful summit of Mt. Everest at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh’s Cameron Village. Yesterday, we began a two-part interview with Chip with five questions about his background and preparation for Everest. Today, The Climb.
1. The disastrous 1996 climbing season, chronicled in Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," showed not only the dangers of climbing the world's highest peak, but also hinted at how just about anyone with enough money could get to the top (in some cases, practically by being dragged via short-roping). Based on your experience, do you think that's changed? Is the mountain being taken as seriously as it should be?
One of the reasons I like spending a lot of time in the mountains is the fact that altitude is a good sifter of human characters. The harder it gets the more amazing the rewards; However, more people forfeit the opportunity and prefer the easy way out so they don’t get too far up. Everest, however, has such a draw that ... the commercialization effect makes the sifter less effective. We did see people on various places on the mountain who should have not been there, who already reached the limits of their conditioning. However, they were driven by all those powers which made them successful in one aspect of their life or another.
We had a bomber plan and stuck to it during the expedition but on summit night we had to take off earlier because a lot of people took off earlier than usual just to get a head start. You do not want to get stuck behind people on the fixed rope, so we raced up the triangular face passing people who were already exhausted even though they were on a 3-4 litters of oxygen (we climbed on 2, worried that we would get stuck along the way in the traffic jam) and had a long way up. You could see that the brain was driving even though the wheels were about to come off.
Let me just set the record straight though. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, up there you have to carry your oxygen and nobody is short roping you up (at least not that I have heard, in spite of the 1996 account, which was rather unique). There are plenty of people who will help you down if you are in trouble (even though one should not rely on that, we saw some teams leave partners in a bag, on the face, to wait for them to return from the summit bid). There were rich people on the mountain who afforded to pay for two western guides and a few Sherpa. I must admit, it is hard not to get envious when you see them without a pack and being greeted by Sherpa with hot tea and cookies even though they were 20 minutes away from the camp. BUT … these people had to climb during the summit night like everyone else so it is not fair to take that away from them. One annoying thing, though: guides of high-end expeditions blocking the line so their clients complete sections without the annoyance of us passing them.
Regarding Jon’s account and the fallout. It is said that mountaineering is still a sport simply because people forget so quickly the hard times. Well, same goes for Everest. It served us a lesson and particularly to the folks who climb too close to the edge of their limit and have no resources to deal with changing variables. But give it time, we will all forget the lessons and the Mountain will twist again in its slumber claiming a few overeager lives in the process.
2. What was the hardest part of the climb for you?
Before my final rotation I cracked one or two ribs. Don’t know how, it might have been the Khumbu cough or I rolled over a water bottle in my tent. It bothered me a bit but not a big deal. Heading up the Ice Falls you exert yourself a bit which, combined with coughing, led me to reach Camp 1 bent in half in pain with every cough. I rested a bit in Camp 1 and headed for Camp 2 but every time I had to cough I had to lie down on the snow in a particular position just to reduce but not eliminate the pain. When I got to C2 I was in bad shape, physically but mainly mentally. I was wondering how will I handle the Lhotse Face. Lhotse in those conditions. So I nursed my ribs every way I could imagine (and I must say, the plastic bag with ice applied to the skin was not fun because the cold ice melt would inevitably find its way all over my body). I taped myself up and from there on, including the summit bid, I climbed on 4 Ibuprofen every 3 hours.
It might sound New Age-ish but when I got back to the EBC from that rotation, the worries I still had for my ribs denying me a summit push were blown away by the “Happy Birthday” messages I got from the students at Martin Middle schools. Those kids and teachers were true partners in this experience.
3. What was the hardest part of the climb that the rest of us never hear about?
When you climb is fun, you have a goal, you execute on the plan, you adapt it to conditions, you have fun. The hard part is when you are tormented by the uncertainty of the things outside of your control: Will the weather hold? Will there be a window? Will we be allowed to climb (in 2008)? Climbing Everest is a mental game just as much as it is a physical one.
4. How did you feel when you reached the top? And what was it like up there (I've never read a good description of the top: Is it a spiky peak? Or is it more of a small platform?)
I can send you some pictures or share a video if you are interested. It is a slanted surface of the size of 2, 3 cars, with a pile of offerings right on the top (one person in 2008 left up there an object that belonged to pope John Paul). Vance and I were the second team to reach the summit that day, behind a Korean team. It was rather quiet, no high-fives or raging shouts. At least for me, I can say it was not because of fatigue or the oxygen mask, we got there in great shape and I stayed up there without oxygen the whole 30 minutes. It must be the views, which were spectacular. The moon was setting over a sea of clouds far below our feet. Then the sun came out turning cornice after cornice into a bright silver lining of the summit ridge. As light hoped over the South Col all the great peaks poking through the sea of clouds exploded with light. Ama Dablam in particular seemed eager to stay true to its reputation as of one of the most beautiful peaks in the World.
If I were to try to define the feeling, something I never was keen on doing, I would say it was one of awe at the beautiful and humbling views. We all fly at that height often but … it is not quite the same.
5. What's next?
Well, according to my wife just small climbs and according to my mom, retirement from mountaineering. I want to do a bit more rock and ice climbing, I didn’t do much of it in a while (they are a bit more manageable time wise but still exciting). Vance and I are planning a Rainier trip this summer (Kautz glacier). Beyond that, I have only loose ideas. Vance and I are researching some peaks for first ascents in the Himalayas. Both of us would also love to try another 8000+ meters peak but we did not decide on which one yet or when.
Ohhh, and I would like to go back to school.
Chip shares more on his climb at LearnNC.org.