On Mount Everest, where Mother Nature is a beautiful but fatally ruthless witch, George Pesek has carefully planned his moves. He followed a line of other climbers on a rope, heading for the Himalayan peak over snow and rock in a relatively mild 0 degrees Fahrenheit. During the ascent of this peak and a neighboring peak, he came across the frozen corpses of four mountaineers.
The physical training that got him there had involved dragging a 60-pound pack through the dunes of Lake Michigan. That wasn’t the hardest part. He arrived mentally prepared, he said, for “any difficulty the mountain will throw at you”.
In his comfortable home, the 56-year-old local businessman had woken up at night, sometimes thinking, “Am I going to fail? I could die.”
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He had come to Everest in May thanks to his father. Growing up in what is now the Czech Republic, his father celebrated Pesek’s 15th birthday in 1981 by taking him to climb Europe’s tallest peak, Mount Elbrus in Russia, at over 18,000 feet. His father, who wanted to spend some time with him, also suggested that his son take a day hike to all seven peaks, the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Pesek, who wanted a bike for his birthday instead, hid the idea until his father died in 2015.
Thinking his dad would be “really proud” if he summitted seven in seven years, Pesek soon began climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He came to Everest in Nepal in May as number 6. In October he could pick up his seventh, Carstenzs Pyramid in Papua New Guinea – as always, if the mountain wants it.
A company based in Ashland, Washington organized all the logistics, tents and food and tracked the most important weather. Pesek simply needed to come and climb, guided by a native Tibetan Sherpa named Fura Gyalzen Sherpa. Not so simple for a human body at extreme altitudes.
Pesek told the story recently at a Mishawaka rally.
His wife, Tammy, was among those who walked alongside the climbers at the start for support, admitting: “I have a list of everyone who died (on the mountain) and their ages.” The altitude made her sick in one day and she had to make the 1.5 hour helicopter flight from the base town of Lukla to Kathmandu.
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Pesek, who celebrated his birthday at base camp, continued to acclimate his body in the standard way, with a series of treks to higher camps and back. On a beautiful sunny day, he scaled the blue ice and, he recalls, “it was almost surreal”. Then 70mph winds kicked in, forcing climbers to sit in their tents and grip the frame poles to keep from flying or collapsing.
The altitude played with his stomach. The chocolate, to which he is addicted, made him nauseous. He instead inhaled freeze-dried food and ramen noodles. Climbers burn calories just sitting at this altitude, a fact that caused him to lose 22 pounds.
Intense sun caused him to become dehydrated in one of the camps. The resulting fever, shaking and vomiting ceased just in time as on May 11 a window of perfect weather opened with winds of only 10-15 mph, good enough to reach the summit.
He and his Sherpa left early, at 8 p.m. Climbers ascend during the night so they can descend the mountain before the sun heats up the glaciers, risking avalanches, and before the sun creates thermals and tricky weather.
Slowly, patiently, Pesek made his way along with the line of other climbers, among at least 100 who attempted him that day. He should pause while the climbers in front of him exchanged oxygen cylinders.
The sun has risen. It cast a shadow from the top: a “perfect pyramid,” said Pesek, who told him he was close.
“It was almost more emotional than reaching the top,” he said.
When he reached the top, at 29,029 feet, he said to himself, “There is nothing higher than that. I am on top of the world.
The worst was just ahead. At Camp No. 2, he realized that his tank was running out of oxygen to get back down to base. Neither did his sherpa. Time was critical. So, Pesek recalls, “We were flying down the hill.”
Her feet and toes became very cold. His Sherpa, normally a humble and gentle young man, became aggressive and temperamental towards other climbers. By the time they reached Camp No. 3 and recovered, his sherpa said it was the fastest descent he had ever made, although he didn’t remember anything. All the symptoms of a lack of oxygen.
Feeling good again, they decided to climb nearby Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, 2,900 feet lower than Everest, in 24 hours. There is much less traffic there, with only six other climbers making it to the summit that day.
They walked over scary “hairpin bridges” of ice and snow and reached the top.
For two weeks after the climbs, he says, “You got a little foggy because your body burned all the sugars.”
After overcoming hurdles, he reflects, “There’s a million reasons why you shouldn’t do it. That’s the dream.”
Find columnist Joseph Dits on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures or 574-235-6158 or [email protected]