The Man, The Mountain, and Mother Nature
By Kathy Bedell, LeadvilleToday.com
Note: This story is dedicated to those who lost their lives on Manaslu, may they rest in God’s peace.
Most stories are relatively straightforward. The reporter does the interview, writes, edits, re-writes and publishes it. Other stories take on a life of their own; this is one of those.
It was late August when I did the initial interview with Leadville’s Ken Chlouber as he prepared to take on his latest challenge: Mt. Manaslu, a 26,759 ft peak located in Nepal’s Himalayas and the 8th highest mountain in the world.
Even up to that point, the adventure had taken an unexpected turn when Chinese officials closed access to Tibet, thus re-arranging Chlouber’s first summit choice: Choy Ocho, the world’s 6th highest peak. While both are 8,000+ meter peaks located in the Himalayas, it was Choy Ocho that Chlouber initially had his sights set on and for specific reasons. But, more on that later. In fact, all of that is covered in the first part of this story, which you’ll – ironically – find at the end.
This past weekend, I spent re-writing the second part of this story, to include an update, informing readers that Chlouber’s summit attempt on Manaslu had to be abandoned due to a pulmonary embolism or a blockage of the main artery of the lung. Not to worry, Chlouber’s back home now, in Leadville where he has been receiving medical care and expects to make a full recovery. But, more on that later. In fact, all of that news is covered in the second part of this story.
Unfortunately, the third part of this story is a tragic, deadly accident that has been making headlines around the world over the past 24 hours.
Nine Climbers Die in Nepal Avalanche
In the early morning hours on Saturday, Sept. 22 a massive avalanche wiped out Camp Three at Mt. Manaslu, leaving 9 climbers dead and at least 15 others seriously injured.
As reported in the International Mountain Guides’ (IMG) blog, which many friends, family and fans were following for weeks to keep track of Ken Chlouber’s summit progress, were these startling posts:
September 22, 2012
IMG Manaslu leader Mike Hamill reports that about 4:30am (local time) a serac fell triggering a slide that hit Camp 3. The IMG team is at Camp 2 and they are all safe and sound. Mike and several other guides are now responding to Camp 3 to assist. We’ll be waiting for more info.
September 23, 2012
This is a very sad accident, apparently caused by a random act of nature. When a serac (a big ice block) falls on a slope, it will cause the snow to be dislodged. Our thoughts and prayers go to the climbers and families.
“The mountain lived up to its reputation as a pretty deadly place to visit,” said Chlouber in a phone interview with Leadville Today on Sunday morning. In fact, if the details of the disaster hold true, then this would be the deadliest single avalanche in Himalayan climbing history.
While initial reports indicated no Americans died in the tragedy, members from the French, German, Italian, British and Spanish teams all lost or are missing climbers, including one Sherpa. The names of the dead and missing won’t be released until family members are notified. No one from Chlouber’s climbing team was involved in the accident; they have all come off Manaslu safely.
The Associated Press explained in its reports that it is the beginning of Nepal’s autumn mountaineering season. The autumn season comes right after the end of the monsoon rains, which make weather conditions unpredictable, and is not as popular among mountaineers as the spring season, when hundreds of climbers crowd the high Himalayan peaks.
While Nepal’s lofty peaks have avid mountaineers arriving by the hundreds to stake their flag at the summit, in recent years, many climbers have complained that conditions have deteriorated and that the risks of accidents have increased.
But even those reports didn’t deter Chlouber from making the trek. Which leads us to the second part of this story.
Chlouber Abandons Climb, Recovers at Home
“Every second I was over there was a great adventure,” said Chlouber during a phone interview on Sunday. “It was an incredible adventure, although very little of it was fun,” he quickly added.
While the climb started out at 11,000 feet – an elevation just one thousand feet higher than Chlouber’s hometown of Leadville – he said it didn’t feel right. As he made it to Manaslu’s base camp at 16,000 feet, things still weren’t going well; he wasn’t breathing right. But Chlouber’s legendary “Dig Deep” mantra, pushed him up to Camp One at 20,000 feet.
“During that climb, I had to use every bit of Leadville strength that I had – every “dig deep” portion I had, just to get there,” explained Chlouber. While it took the rest of the climbing team less than 5 hours to get up to Camp One, Chlouber barely made it in ten. The lungs weren’t working.
“I just got hammered,” said Chlouber. Chlouber’s very capable guides got him down off the mountain and into a hospital in Katmandu on Sept. 14. Once he was medically cleared to travel, he headed home and landed stateside on Sept. 15. From there he spent a couple of days in a Denver area hospital and has also been receiving additional medical treatment over in Vail. The end diagnosis for Chlouber was pulmonary embolism, often referred to as blood clots in the lungs. Simply put, if not caught early enough, the end prognosis is usually death, second only to cardiac arrest in sudden deaths.
But for a man like Ken Chlouber, his oft heard chant, “I commit, I won’t quit!” is more than advice he doles out in motivational speeches to racers, it’s a way of life.
“I’m darn sure going to do it again,” states Chlouber in response to the question everyone asks of climbers who don’t hit the summit on their first attempt.
“Something inside me says that I gotta do it, even more than something I want to do, I gotta do it.” But, he adds that if the Chinese government cooperates, his first choice is to do Choy Ocho, not Manaslu. Which bring us to the first part of this story.
Chlouber’s Peak Performance
“Mountain of the Spirit.” The phrase itself sounds like something that Ken Chlouber would say to motivate a room full of Leadville Trail 100 racers.
Or perhaps these words were bandied about during Chlouber’s political years under Colorado’s Golden Dome representing Leadville and Lake County as both a State Representative, and then State Senator. Maybe the phrase could be used by someone describing Chlouber’s generous spirit in giving back to his community through his Leadville Legacy Foundation.
But today, “Mountain of the Spirit” represents more than all of that to Leadville’s Ken Chlouber. Today, it represents Manaslu – the 8th highest peak in the world, standing at 8,156 meters (26,759 ft) above sea level. In fact, the Sanskrit meaning for Manaslu is just that: “Mountain of the Spirit” and it is in Chlouber’s sights for a summit sometime within the next couple of weeks.
“What I’m about to do,” explains Chlouber in an interview with LeadvilleToday.com prior to his August 24 departure date from Leadville, “is attempt to climb the 8th highest mountain in the world. If I can accomplish this – and I think that I can – I will be the oldest American to summit an 8,000 meter peak.”
A good challenge is not unfamiliar territory for Chlouber. An avid mountaineer, Chlouber summited Mt. Aconcagua on his second attempt in February 2009. At 6,960.8 m (22,837.3 ft) Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas, located in the Andes mountain range, in Argentina. And while everyone else in his mountaineering group turned away at 21,000 feet of the journey, Chlouber and a guide continued on to reach the pinnacle. After all, for a man like Ken Chlouber perseverance is not the way to a goal, but simply evidence that you are really committed.
“I commit, I won’t quit,” is a Chlouber mantra known to many around the globe, more specifically to Leadville Trail 100 racers. In fact, for most, his “Race Across the Sky” vision is Ken’s most successful and noteworthy accomplishment. It was 1982 when Climax Molybdenum Mine, located just outside of Leadville, suddenly shut down (since re-opened), taking with it the paycheck of nearly every able-bodied man in town, including shift boss Ken Chlouber. Overnight, Leadville had become the most jobless region in North America.
The rest – as is often said in Leadville – is history. Chlouber started a 100-mile footrace through the mountains; an event sure to put Leadville on the map and help the local economy by bringing in the money-laden tourists to stay a night or two. What started out in the pre-dawn hours one August morning in 1983 as the first-ever 100-mile ultra-endurance race, has exploded into a series of running and mountain biking races that have exceeded the economic resuscitation goal, pumping millions of dollars into the Leadville community over the past 30 years.
In 2010, Chlouber sold the races to Lifetime, A Healthy Way of Life Company based out of Chanhassen, MN. Which in a roundabout way, brings the story back to Manaslu. Lifetime Fitness is one of the sponsors of Chlouber’s latest feat.
“There is a commercial value in reaching this age and staying healthy and fit,” explains 73-year-old Chlouber. “(Lifetime) will be documenting the trip as we go. They will put that training film in their health clubs across the nation.” Lifetime was in Leadville over the summer filming Chlouber’s training techniques which included climbing up Leadville’s 14,000 foot mountains, as well as dragging an old tire behind him to mimic the drag climbers experience from the deep snow of Manaslu.
As the interview continues, it’s hard not to make mention of the antique ice pick that hangs above his desk. A gift from long-time business partner Merilee Maupin on his 70th Birthday, the tool is from mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary’s collection. Fortunately, today’s equipment is much more efficient, not to mention pounds lighter. But certainly Sir Hillary’s pick serves a motivational tool in Chlouber’s biggest challenge to date.
So why? Why does anyone attempt such a feat?
“My passion for this (trek) is my connection with Lifetime Fitness,” says Chlouber. “I have a deep and residing belief that fitness should last a lifetime. So if I can accomplish this – and I think that I can – I will be the oldest American to summit an 8,000 meter peak. And hopefully in doing so, ignite that sort of flame in my age group. That you can go out and do what some say couldn’t be done. That’s my goal, my aim, my target.” Ultimately, Chlouber adds, he hopes to change the nation’s discussion from health insurance to health fitness.
Change was something Chlouber himself had to adapt to just weeks before he left for his adventure. Originally, his summit sights were set on Choy Ochu, the world’s 6thhighest peak. But six weeks before the onset of the trek, the Chinese government closed the border to Tibet, ultimately scrapping Plan A. However, like any good plan, in fact, like most of life’s plans, one’s ability to adapt to change is crucial.
“It dramatically affects my attitude,” says Chlouber referring to the change of venue. “I was so absolutely certain on that mountain – that I could go up there with grit, guts, and determination and go to the top of that. That plan was simply a matter of putting your nose down and keep plowing through the snow and going up and up and up until you got to the top.”
Most would agree that Manaslu offers challenges that Choy Ochu did not. It gets a lot more snow. It’s prone to more avalanches. It’s prone to icefalls. There were basically two ice walls to climb on Choy Ochu; there’s numerous ice walls on Manaslu, including places where you have to hurry underneath some significant ice seracs (a block or column of ice formed by intersecting crevasses on a glacier), that occasionally do come loose.
“Yeah, it’s got my attention. It’s certainly increased the serious nature of the climb. But it’s achievable. It’s do-able. And hopefully some good will come out of it,” says Chlouber, thoughtfully.
“I’ll stay until we can get the job done,” states Chlouber. Summiting Manaslu is a process of acclimatization – a process of going up and down the mountain, carrying loads from four different camps, starting at about 18,000 feet at the base camp and then 21,000 feet for advanced base camp, and then a couple of more camps on up to the 26,759 ft peak.
“We’ll start using oxygen at about 24,000 feet. It will be an up and back process depending on the weather, depending on how you feel. Hopefully, everyone on the climbing team should be acclimatized by the end of September. Then it’s a five day assault on the summit,” explains Chlouber.
But before he’s even done packing his cramp-ons, Chlouber’s already thinking about the next challenge. “My long term goal – and this is a bite of the big apple – I want to go to Everest. Sir Edmond Hillary and the men of his day were beyond incredible. Maybe they’ll say that about me some day,” says Chlouber, adding, “I hope.”
They already do, Ken. They already do.