Brian Dickinson Interview taken in 2014
Brian Dickinson from the USA reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 15th May 2011. His Sherpa became ill and turned back leaving Brian to reach the summit alone. Just as he was to start the long descent his vision became blurry, his eyes started to burn, and within seconds, he was rendered almost completely blind. Brian was all alone at 29,035 feet, low on oxygen, and stricken with snow blindness.
Brian has written an excellent book called ‘Blind Descent’ which tells his extraordinary experience on Mount Everest.
You can buy his book at http://www.briandickinson.net/blind-descent
You climbed Mount Everest via the South East Ridge. Did you consider the North side at all?
I did consider the North side but I had an opportunity arise from the South, which made my decision easy. I know a local coordinator who was able to help with the logistics through Kili Sherpa to climb the South side. Plus as dangerous as the Khumbu Icefall is, it’s always been intriguing to me. That and experiencing the Lhotse Face, South Col and Hillary Step.
While climbing Everest what one item would have made your life easier while there?
Because I climbed independent I spent a lot of time alone on the mountain during my 2 month expedition. I’m very close with my wife and 2 young children so I tried to call with my Nepali 3G phone as much as I could from base camp, but the technology was very spotty. The satellite phone company messed up my order so I never received my phone for the expedition. Having that phone would have made all the difference, especially being able to call my family from the summit.
Do you have a favourite mountaineering book that you have read?
I really liked Touching the Void by Joe Simpson not so much because of the climbing but because of Joe’s willingness to survive in an almost impossible scenario. How little I knew that I would be placed in my own “almost impossible survival” situation on Everest in 2011. I think those that read these stories wonder what they would do in similar situations, but nobody truly knows what they are capable of until they are there.
Did you have any worries or fears of going into the Khumbu Icefall for the first time?
I always have fear going into the unknown, especially in areas like the Khumbu Icefall. I would never want to climb with someone that lacks fear or claims they have no fear, since fear is a natural survival response. Each time I went through the icefall it looked different with the constant falling of seracs and surrounding avalanches. The same overhanging ice shelf that calved off in April of this year, killing 16 Sherpa, loomed over me the 8 times I passed through. I moved as fast as I could but that’s not saying much since life is in slow motion at altitude. Fortunately it wasn’t my time.
While climbing the Lhoste Face you dropped your goggles damaging them. I thought that most climbers carried a spare pair but I guess you didn’t?
When climbing in an expedition you have limited space and weight you can carry so most don’t carry extra goggles. In fact if you look at any mountaineering guide equipment list for Everest or other peaks you will only find the requirement for one pair of goggles. I always bring sunglasses, which I typically use but with oxygen the mask configuration doesn’t allow for the sunglasses I used so I was forced to use my damaged goggles. Later that year I climbed Vinson Massif in Antarctica and I brought an extra pair of goggles but less because of the risk of snow blindness and more for swapping the two pair out due to their constant freezing at low temps.
Up near the Balcony your Sherpa turned back to camp after becoming ill, what made you continue alone and looking back on it now, do you think you made the right decision to continue?
Pasang and I had a conversation just below 28,000’. We both agreed that I should continue up based on the calm conditions and my abilities. Pasang agreed to wait at the balcony, just below where we were. Unfortunately he ended up feeling worse and went all the way down to the South Col. Nobody could have predicted what happened and I’m blessed to be here. If I had to do it again and knew the outcome then I wouldn’t have soloed the rest of the mountain, but if I didn’t know the outcome then I would have made the same decision based on the information I had at the time.
The Sherpa’s work incredibly hard on Mount Everest, do you think that they are treated and paid fairly?
My experience has been very positive with the Sherpa. They are amazing hard workers with simple but important values. Everest doesn’t get climbed without their support. They get paid better than other jobs and I’ve never heard one complain. The Sherpa I worked with and are still friends with love what they do, know the risks and accept them willingly to have similar experiences that other climbers have.
Once you became snow blind did you think, ‘this is it I’m going to die’ or did you have that survival instinct in you not to give in?
As a USN Air Rescue Swimmer we were trained to never panic in extreme situations since panic kills. A lot of that came into play as I never panicked. I was at the top of the world, dropped down to grab the fixed rope and assessed the situation. I started moving very slowly and deliberately and never lost my focus. I felt a calming presence with me the entire time, so although completely alone I never felt alone. What should have taken 2-3 hours to reach the South Col took me 7 hours. Everyone thought the worst but miraculously I stumbled into the South Col in the early afternoon. My eyesight didn’t fully return for over a month.
How did you manage the descent the Hillary Step in the condition you were in?
The Hillary Step is made up of large boulder type rocks cemented with snow and ice. It’s actually easier than the South Rock Step, which is just below the South Summit. I was attached to the fixed lines and used my sense of touch and sound to make my way down. A quarter of the way down I pendulum swung as I slid down. It took a lot of effort and I knew there was a 2 mile drop on each side of me. I was relieved to hit the flat ice at the base and hunkered down to rest and get water.
Do you think that the real adventure of climbing Mount Everest has now gone and it is just another mountain to add to your list?
Absolutely not. Everest will always be the highest peak, the pinnacle of any mountaineers goals. My biggest regret is not being able to see the majestic view during my descent. I don’t have plans to go back to climb it again, but you never know what the future will bring.
You have climbed the Seven Summits, which was your most enjoyable mountain to climb and why?
The final moments of reaching the summit of Everest are unmatched, but obviously short lived in my case. Each of the 7 summits is so unique that it’s tough to pick just one. However Vinson Massif in Antarctica stands out on it’s own since being on that continent is like being on the moon. It’s so pristine and everyone there is there for a purpose. It was -70F on the summit, so it’s the coldest I’ve experienced but there are peaceful moments high on that mountain that I’ll never forget.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I think they climbed the Second Step but never reached the summit. I feel the conditions weren’t ideal and they may have been blown off of the Step or reached the top and then took a fall. It will remain the biggest debate in climbing history, which really fuels the intrigue of climbing…the unknown.
If you would like to find out more about Brian Dickinson the head over to his website at www.briandickinson.net