Matter within 200 ft of Everest summit [UPDATED]Published 11:03am Monday, October 22, 2012 Updated 11:11am Monday, October 22, 2012
Jim Matter never thought he would be climbing mountains.
Growing up in scenic Decorah, which he described as the “Little Switzerland of Iowa,” he never imagined that at the age of 70, he would be pushed to his physical and mental limitations by facing the hardships and dangers of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at over 29,000 feet.
Having practiced radiology in Fergus Falls for the past 38 years with the Lake Region Healthcare system, Matter decided he needed a change of scenery.
It all began in 2006. After reading Ernest Hemingway’s novels, The Sun Also Rises, and The Snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, Matter was inspired to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
“It was more of a hike than a climb,” said Matter, “but the altitude of 19,340 feet can be a challenge.”
This led to Matter’s initial experience with authentic climbing — Mount Rainier in Washington (14,410 feet). It was his first time using equipment such as an ice axe, crampons and climbing ropes.
“I found the climb to be the most challenging thing I had ever done,” said Matter.
Throughout the next few years, Matter reached the top of six of the Seven Summits, which are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.
“One of my most favorite climbs was Denali in Alaska,” said Matter. “At 20,370 feet, it is the tallest mountain in North America, and therefore one of the Seven Summits. I also especially liked climbing the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, which are in the Alps.”
In September of 2011, he traveled to the Himalayas to summit Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world at 27,000 feet. After successfully reaching the summit, Matter decided to take on Mount Everest.
“I had already trained hard for Cho Oyu, but for Everest I used an online personal trainer who had experience training climbers for Everest,” said Matter. For five months, he followed a strict training schedule that had him spending two to three hours every night lifting weights, doing floor exercises and using an elevated treadmill, Stairmaster or elliptical trainers while carrying a 40-pound backpack. During weekends, he would spend three to four hours hiking up hills in his neighborhood while carrying a 50-pound backpack.
“I got in the best shape of my life with my pulse dropping down to 52, and I decided I was ready to tackle the tallest mountain in the world,” he said.
Matter arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 31, 2012. The group flew into Lukla and hiked for six days to reach Mt. Everest’s Base Camp at 17,500 feet. Base Camp is a large area with enough tents to accommodate about 900 climbers and Sherpas. Sherpas are Himalayan people who are famous for their skills as mountaineers and serve as guides for climbers on Mount Everest.
Base Camp is just one of four other camps that are established anywhere from 19,500 feet to 26,300 feet.
“Base Camp was a very busy place with climbers from throughout the world,” said Matter. “There were many climbing companies at base camp, including Alpine Ascents out of Seattle, which is the company I have used for most of my climbing.
“A reputable company such as Alpine Ascents has requirements as far as previous mountaineering experience before they let you climb Everest,” he explained. “Some companies are more interested in taking their clients’ money than in caring about training and experience and that can be dangerous to their climbers and other climbers on the mountain.”
Matter’s group included eight climbing clients, two western guides and about 20 Sherpas. “We had our own cook who did a great job considering the challenge of cooking at high altitude,” said Matter. “Climbers tend to lose their appetite at high altitudes, but it is very important to take in lots of calories. Our menu varied from yak meat to salmon to eggs and hash browns.”
Warm water was occasionally provided for a hot shower, and if the sun was out, the solar-powered cell tower permitted Matter to call his family. “As on my other climbs, I found that you really bond with the other climbers in your group because you depend so much on each other,” he added.
Over the next four weeks, Matter’s group made four trips up the Khumbu Icefall, which is considered one of the most dangerous stages of the climb up Mount Everest due to deep crevasses and shifting ice flows.
“Each trip we would go farther up the mountain and spend nights at higher camps to help us acclimate to the higher altitudes and then go down again,” explained Matter. “I have never had a problem with high altitudes, but altitude sickness is always a risk and can be fatal.”
While the group spent a lot of time preparing for the summit, there are only a couple of opportunities when the weather is agreeable for climbing. These are a few days near the middle and the end of May, which is called the “summit window.” Improved weather forecasting has enabled climbers to know when they should attempt the climb, but it also means everyone tries to climb at the same time.
“Then there are way too many climbers going for the summit the same night, which can cause severe congestion — making the climb even more dangerous than usual and can cause time delays so that climbers run out of supplemental oxygen,” Matter explained.
After careful consideration of the weather forecast, Matter’s group started up the steep Lhotse Face to Camp 3 at 23,500 feet, where they stayed the night. They began breathing supplemental oxygen at this point and would continue to do so until they came back down to Camp 3. The next day, the group climbed to Camp 4 at 26,300 feet.
“Altitudes above 26,246 feet are called the death zone, since the human body can tolerate that altitude only a relatively short time and death from cerebral edema or pulmonary edema become a real risk,” explained Matter.
They had planned to summit the night of May 19, but too many climbers increased the risk, so they waited another night.
“Lying in my tent at Camp 4, I thought about my life and whether I would survive the climb,” he said.
About 40 percent of climbers make it to the summit and about 3 percent die trying. The risks are even greater for older climbers like Matter. For climbers over 60, only 13 percent make it to the summit and 25 percent die coming back down. No matter how old, every climber faces the risk of death due to fatigue, running out of supplemental oxygen or poor judgment at high altitudes.
“It was a wise decision for our group to wait to summit until the next night, since four climbers died the previous night,” said Matter. “We were not aware of the deaths that had occurred; it was very sobering to come across the dead climbers who were still clipped with their carabineers to the fixed ropes.”
50 below zero
The climbers had to battle temperatures of 50 degrees below zero and 30-mile-per-hour winds during their ascent.
“My guides and the very experienced Sherpas, one of whom had achieved the summit 16 times before, said it was the worst weather they had ever experienced trying to summit Everest,” said Matter. As the group approached the last stretch of the climb, Matter made the decision to turn around.
“Although I was only 200 vertical feet from the summit, which I could see, I had lost all feeling in my hands due to frostbite,” he said. “I was worried that I would not be able to hang onto the ropes and clip and unclip myself for the half hour it would take to reach the summit and then the many hours it would take to descend.”
Matter had successfully reached the summits of every other mountain he had climbed. He would have been the oldest American to summit Mount Everest.
“I decided it was more important to get down safely without losing any fingers or dying,” he explained. “I was disappointed that I did not make the summit, but I know I made the right decision to turn around.” Some of his fingers are still numb, but he has otherwise recovered fully from the attempt.
“Climbing Everest was the biggest challenge, physically and mentally, that I have ever experienced,” said Matter. He found out later that the climbing season of 2012 was the third deadliest ever on Mount Everest with 10 deaths total.
Although he did not reach the summit of Mount Everest, Matter is glad for the experience.
“I will always remember my Mount Everest climb,” he said. “It stretched me to my limits and reinforced how precious life is. Climbing Everest or other high mountains is like other challenging things in life: one day at a time and one step at a time. We all have our mountains to climb.”
Matter’s parents were the late Roger and Arlene Matter. He says he’s done climbing big mountains but will continue climbing in Colorado and possibly the Alps. “If I was younger, I would go back to Everest, but at my age just going back to do the final 200 feet doesn’t seem worth the effort, money, time and risk,” he said. This past summer he hiked in the Grand Canyon and is currently hiking the Appalachian Trail. He still works full-time as a radiologist and has no plans to retire.
By Katie Hansel
For The Journal