Climbers don’t send friends off to the top of the world with a pep rally.
That’s why the small talk seemed to traverse around the topic of success Tuesday night, as dozens of mountaineers gathered in Spokane to celebrate with Dave and Emily Gordon, who are leaving this week for Mount Everest.
Even if Dave were a 30-year-old with equal parts of testosterone and blood surging through his veins, fellow climbers likely would have avoided reference to conquest or victory.
“That’s not the way you approach a mountain the size of Everest,” Gordon said. You approach a football game with adrenaline. You approach a 29,028-foot peak with respect, he noted: “Especially when you’re 55 years old.”
Dave Gordon, who teaches at Panorama High School in Colville, is the oldest of 12 climbers on an expedition to retrace the route of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The British explorers disappeared in 1924 near the summit of Everest in what would have been the peak’s first ascent.
Emily Gordon is a librarian at the Spokane County Law Library, who says she’s “following Dave’s passion” on this expedition. Although she’s not a climber - “Luckily, I have bad knees” - Emily has assumed the burden of being one of the expedition’s base camp managers.
The team of climbers from as far away as Australia was organized in 1993 by a Los Angeles lawyer. But Dave’s energy and Emily’s penchant for detail quickly put the Gordons in the boiler room of expedition madness.
“In early December we flew to L.A. and packed 84 crates and 20 duffles - and that was just the food we’ll need for 75 days on the mountain,” Dave said.
His eyes darted around the room as though they were looking for a good hand hold on slick rock as he pondered a long list of last-minute errands.
“I’m trying not to get overwhelmed with all the details. It keeps you up at night. We’re a week away from leaving and I’m still on the phone to suppliers, trying to find out where the hell our bacon and cheese is.”
The couple has been scurrying around Spokane, paying bills, getting parts for a tent, and enduring the last round of inoculations for a half-dozen Third World threats including hepatitis B and malaria.
“I’m getting a three-shot series that helps delay the effects of rabies,” Dave said. “We hear the rabid dogs from Tibetan villages like to come up and raid camps. I’m also thinking of taking a slingshot.”
The expenses and logistics to climb the world’s highest mountain are staggering.
So far, the 20-person expedition has spent more than $260,000 for food and equipment, despite a year of begging to more than 100 outdoors gear and food suppliers for freebies and discounts.
The bills keep coming in.
“We’ve probably saved $12,000 on food costs alone by getting donations and discounts,” Emily said. “The large companies don’t want anything to do with expeditions because they’ve been hit up so many times. But smaller companies were quite responsive.”
Dave has personally pumped in $18,600 for a climbing dream trip he can’t quite define or defend.
“It’ll take us eight years to pay it off,” Emily said.
To join the expedition and assume the responsibility and headache of maintaining a base camp, Emily will pay at least $6,800.
“It was supposed to be around $4,500, but the Chinese keep tacking on extra fees,” she said.
“They think all Americans are rich,” said Dave.
Oxygen bottles are among the big-ticket items. Cost for 72 bottles - six for each of the 12 climbers - is a whopping $45,000.
“You pay dearly to save weight,” Dave said. “The cheaper steel bottles we could purchase in the United States weigh 23 pounds apiece. We went for 8-pound titanium bottles from Russia. When you’re carrying those things at high altitude, the difference in weight could be the difference between life and death.”
The many tons of gear will have to be transported halfway around the world at $121 a bag overage.
Then there’s the weeklong acclimatization trek and another weeklong trip in the backs of trucks on dusty roads from Katmandu to base camp at 17,200 feet.
Yaks will carry 3,000 pounds of gear to advanced base camp at 21,200 feet. From there, the loads, including 10,000 feet of climbing rope, will go up the mountain on the backs of the climbers.
The Chinese charge $15,000 for the team permit to climb Everest from the Tibetan side. That’s a bargain compared with the $50,000 being charged by Nepal.
Himalayan nations plan to use the new fees to deal with the garbage left on their mountains by expeditions. They also are recognizing the still-growing demand for climbing permits.
Everest was first climbed in 1953. It was still a quiet place in 1961, when Jim Whitakker became the first American to reach its summit.
Chris Kopczynski of Spokane became the ninth American to climb Everest in 1981. Spokane physician Jim States was the 17th American and the 135th climber in the world to reach the summit in June 1983, followed that fall by Spokane’s Kim Momb, who became the 22nd American to summit.
The number of expeditions boomed in the 1980s. Going into the 1995 spring climbing season, at least 664 climbers have reached the summit, including 70 Americans, according to the American Alpine Club.
But only two other persons of Dave Gordon’s age have accomplished the feat.
“My experience might be a little on the light side for Everest,” Dave said, understating his 34 years of climbing.
He coped with numbing cold in reaching both summits of McKinley in 1975. He learned the distress of intestinal disorders on major peaks in Ecuador and Peru. He sobered to the danger of mountaineering when a Sherpa and fellow climber were killed in an avalanche while trying to scale 26,775-foot Manaslu in Nepal.
He climbed 23,400-foot Peak Lenin in the Russian Pamirs, and was in Moscow when the tanks moved in to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Everest expedition did a shakedown climb on Rainier last year. It was Gordon’s 15th ascent of the peak by the 10th different route.
“I know that even climbing Rainier is largely a matter of luck,” he said. “I’ve probably been to the mountain a hundred times in order to make those 15 summits.”
The Gordons expect to reach the base of Everest in mid-March and return to Kettle Falls in early June.
“We’re trying to hit the good weather between winter and the monsoon,” Dave said. “The mountain gives you a 10-day window, if you’re damned lucky, probably around the second week of May. We’ll try to put all the camps up the mountain during the winter storms so we’ll be in place to go to the summit if the weather clears.”
Gordon knows that some climbers will get sick from altitude. Some will be out of position when the good weather hits. He also knows that for every five climbers who reach the summit of Everest, one dies trying.
Meanwhile, Emily is mostly concerned with maintaining the expedition’s gastronomic harmony.
“It could be a nightmare,” she said. “We have two climbers who are vegetarians and one that actually requested Spam.”
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: OLD MEN OF EVEREST Climber Nationality Ascent Age Ramon Blanco Venezuelan April 1993 60 Dick Bass American April 1985 55 Chris Bonington English April 1985 50 Jozef Psotka Slovak Oct. 1984 50 Gerhard Schmatz German Oct. 1979 50 * The youngest person to climb the highest peak in the world was Bertrand Roche, 17, of France in 1990. His feat also marked the first father-son team to reach Everest’s summit with dad Jean-Noel.