In 2015, newly minted Penn Law graduate Andrew Towne was just weeks away from fulfilling a dream — summitting Mount Everest — when a devastating earthquake roiled the region, sending an avalanche tumbling into base camp, claiming 19 lives on the mountain plus 8,000 more across Nepal, and scuttling his plans.
Towne helped medics scramble to save lives at base camp, volunteered awhile in Nepal, then returned to the United States. In May, though, he got a second chance at his once-in-a-lifetime attempt.
This time, he made it to the top, in a climbing season that saw record foot traffic on Everest (in part from people who received extensions on their 2015 mountain permits, which cost around $11,000), and at least a half-dozen deaths along the way.
For Towne, 35, a consultant who raised about $30,000 for a student exchange program called Youth for Understanding in his climb, it represents an even greater accomplishment: the completion of what’s known as the Seven Summits, or the tallest mountain on every continent. The feat took 15 years and cost close to $100,000.
He spoke about the ups and downs of extreme mountaineering, and why his next hobby might be something less perilous, like competitive ballroom dancing.
Why Seven Summits?
In college in 2002, I was an exchange student in Kenya and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. I never really thought I would climb the tallest mountain on every continent at that point, but in 2009 I climbed Mount Rainier, which is much more technical, and that’s when the bug bit me that maybe I could become a good enough mountaineer to do it.
What’s your training regimen?
I put 50 pounds of sand in my backpack, I put the treadmill on max incline, and I walked uphill, three or four miles per hour, for an hour every day. The treadmill told me I was climbing 3,000 feet. I used to do it at Sweat on Walnut Street, and more than once people stopped and pointed at me through the windows and started laughing. Once, someone stopped and recorded video of it because it looked so ridiculous.
What was it like to go back to base camp?
When I walked into base camp for the first time in April, I had vivid flashbacks. I recognized the exact portion of the ridge that had collapsed on the base camp, and I saw the area of the lateral moraine that funneled all that ice and rock down to base camp. Intellectually, I appreciated the risks as I went back, but I was unprepared for that gut-wrenching flashback as I set foot in the base camp. I saw the layout of the camp and I saw dining tents similar to what we had two years ago, and I remembered treating patients in those dining tents and wiping blood off the walls. It all became very real.
Why return to that?
For me, I have always appreciated the risk of the mountain. I think a person who does not appreciate the risks of Mount Everest is naïve. I had read as many books as I could get my hands on. I had watched the documentaries and the TV shows, and done everything I could to get a sense of the risk of altitude, the danger of cold and of temperature changes. Coming to grips with that made it easier to stomach going back and accepting that risk. Now why would I do it? It’s a combination of, No. 1, “because it’s there,” as George Mallory famously said, and No. 2, that risk is part of the draw for me. The draw of mountaineering is the intense focus required and the requirement to be absolutely present, and to get that in some of the most beautiful places in the world. I never feel more alive than I do in some of these tough spots in the mountains.
It was another deadly year on the mountain. Were you aware of that at the time?
I have to admit that, unfortunately, on our summit day, we witnessed a great deal of this year’s tragedy. One of the climbers died very close to the trail, so we were reminded of the risk of the mountain as we had to climb past this deceased climber. As we came down they were in the process of rescuing two other bodies off the mountain, so we were descending the Lhotse Face next to a group of sherpa who were lowering bodies down the face. Ueli Steck, a famous Swiss mountaineer who we met while we were hiking up to base camp, one of the most talented mountaineers in the world, was unfortunately climbing just a few thousand feet above us when he fell to his death. We mourned his death and all the other deaths on the mountain, and it brought a certain sobriety to our expedition.
What was redeeming about this experience?
I loved seeing the shadow of Mount Everest stretch into space. When we arrived at the summit just minutes after the first rays of sun broke over the horizon, and the angle of the sunrise combined with the fact that Everest is the single tallest mountain in the world meant the pyramid shadow stretched forever. I’ve never seen anything like it.