Battling frostbite, exhaustion and a frozen oxygen mask, UC Davis senior Tanner Bixler relentlessly made his way to the summit of Mount Everest on May 24.
Climbing the 29,035-foot Mt. Everest had been a childhood dream for Bixler. The economics major is no novice when it comes to trekking mountains – he started hiking at the age of 3 with his father and eventually worked his way up to serious climbing.
At the age of 10, Bixler scaled California’s Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. His success inspired him to try harder things.
Although Bixler aspired to climb Mt. Everest, there were a few things preventing him from doing so.
“He’s wanted to climb since high school, but he couldn’t take the time out to go,” said Steve Bixler, Tanner’s father. In addition, the costs of climbing were just too much.
But Everest became more of a reality when Bixler met Rob Casserly while mountain climbing in Alaska.
Casserly had scaled Mt. Everest several times and asked Bixler about taking a quarter off of school, getting a loan and climbing Mt. Everest with him. Bixler agreed, and in April he found himself at the Tibet-Nepal border at Everest base camp, where he prepared by practicing on the lower mountain.
“We had a group of 14 trekkers and three of us were actually climbing the mountain,” he said. “We just kind of had our own little support team, it was pretty cool.“
But the trip was nerve-wracking from the get-go. The base camp was set at the base of the Khumbu icefall, which forms from a glacier going over a steep ice cliff. In the process, large crevasses are formed and pieces about the size of a car or house break off and fall down the glacier.
“The first night we [got] there, base camp was on the glacier in a safe spot,” Bixler explained. “But you listen to the glacier at night and it’s cracking and popping. I didn’t get much sleep … because you hear that and then there’s a ton of avalanches going off.… I was definitely a little freaked out.“
To add to the suspense, stone altars for every climber who died on the climb to Mt. Everest were marked along the way to the top.
“You’re just hiking up this hill and you crest the top, and you just see all these monuments,” Bixler said. “It’s really overwhelming just to see that. Usually on most other expeditions I’ve been on, there is a climber’s cemetery at the mountain, but it’s not on the mountain. You don’t see it along your way.“
Bixler also ran into physical complications along the way. He had a severe chest infection that affected his breathing a week or two before the ascent. Although he left for Everest feeling healthy, it was difficult for him to climb after being so weak for some time.
When he was at about 26,000 feet, otherwise known as the beginning of “the death zone,” Bixler’s oxygen mask began to malfunction.
“I arrived at camp four [the camp set up at 26,300 feet] pretty much exhausted,” Bixler said. “My legs were shaking, they were cramping too. I just felt horrible.“
Bixler didn’t have much time to recover. He was told to leave in seven hours if he wanted to reach the summit.
“You don’t want to spend that much time there, otherwise you start getting altitude-sickness and your body just starts eating itself. It’s just so pushed for air,“ Bixler said.
By the time the group had to leave, Bixler felt that he was able to go for the summit.
“I felt like it was do-able to at least make a try, but I promised my family and I promised myself that I’d be safe,” Bixler said. “Every step I took going up, I would say ‘can I make it down from here with some margin of error? If something were to go wrong, could I have the energy to carry on?'”
Then, the intake valve on Bixler’s mask froze. This meant that Bixler was now receiving 20 percent oxygen with his oxygen tank. The other 80 percent of breathing air comes from outside.
With the lack of air, Bixler had no choice but to rip off his mask, causing the cold wind to freeze his eyelids. Without oxygen, Bixler began to get cold.
“My face had gotten minor frostbite and so did my ear,” Bixler said.
To top everything off, Bixler was no more than five minutes from the summit when a cornice broke off nearly taking the young trekker with it.
But Bixler finally made the summit. Sherpa Ang Namgyal, Bixler’s guide on the Everest expedition, took a picture and the group left immediately.
“Most people spend a little bit under an hour if they can,” Bixler said. “It’s a great feeling but…there’s this voice inside of me screaming ‘OK, you have to get down safe.‘ People don’t die going up. Generally, it’s going down.“
Dan Schack, Bixler’s Delta Chi fraternity brother and organizer of a facebook group in support of Bixler’s trip, knew the dangers Bixler faced, but also had confidence in his judgment.
“Tanner is very safe and wouldn’t go ahead and do something he thought he couldn’t do,” Schack said. “That’s why I wasn’t really worried about him other than normal wear and tear.“
Bixler’s father is proud of his son’s accomplishments.
“To be only 20 years old and climb Mt. Everest – that’s something” Steve Bixler said.
Currently, Bixler has no plans to return to Everest.
“If someone really wanted to do it, I would say it’s an absolutely amazing experience,“ Bixler said.
“But I put my family and friends through so much worry and I probably wouldn’t do it again,” he said, adding that it’s also too much of a time investment. “In terms of what I learned about myself and the people that I met, I would definitely do something like that again, just not as dangerous.“
Bixler also wants to focus on volunteering to help others.
“I’m trying to start raising money for the [American] Himalayan Foundation,” he said.
The American Himalayan Foundation’s mission is to improve the living conditions, rebuild culture and restore the environment for the people of the Himalayas, according to its website.
While in the Himalayas, Bixler was impressed with the generosity of the Sherpa, the local people of the Himalayas, many of whom are employed as guides for mountaineering expeditions.
“The Sherpa … are just the greatest people in the world,” Bixler said. “They have the biggest hearts and they have absolutely nothing. They risk their lives and they do all the work on the mountain. None of us could have summited without them.“
He hopes to raise money and awareness for the Sherpa of the Himalayas by participating in marathon races and triathlons.
“It’s just like Tanner to look for another way to help someone else out,” Schack said. “He comes back [from Everest] and he’s not looking for an adventure for his own personal benefit. He’s looking to help others, and I’m looking forward to hearing his next adventure.“
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