Everest's Stephen Koch: "I learned so much more by not obtaining the ultimate goal."
10:11 a.m. EST Nov 20, 2003
Stephen Koch recently returned from the North side of Mount Everest and his bold alpine style attempt on the Japanese Couloir and Hornbein Couloir. His intended goal: Snowboard the entire descent from the summit. The small team included friends Eric Henderson and Jimmy Chin as well as Kami Sherpa and Lakpa Dorje Sherpa. Upon arrival at Everest Base Camp the last week of July, the team had the world’s highest peak all to themselves.
Their first summit attempt on August 29 ended when unstable conditions resulted in a harrowing serac fall that collapsed too close for comfort. They turned around and waited another week before heading up for a second and final attempt on September 9. The team climbed through the night and reached 6900m, quite short of the 7800m goal they’d planned. After evaluating the climbing conditions, the lateness of the hour, and the chance of success in continuing on with no fixed ropes, high camps or bottled oxygen at the pace they were moving, they made the difficult decision to turn around and end the expedition.
ExplorersWeb recently caught up with Stephen and chatted about his going face to face with his Seventh Summit:
ExWeb: Tell us about your final push up the Japanese Couloir.
Stephen: We left camp at midnight and headed out across the bergschrund over to the foot of the North Face and began climbing. We were feeling great. We climbed by the light of the full moon. Didn’t need our headlamps. It was beautiful. But as the night progressed, the snow got deeper, up to about knee deep, and the conditions varied. Some places were definitely firmer than others.
At about 8:00 in the morning, after 8 hours of climbing, we’d just arrived at the top of the Japanese Couloir. We’d needed to reach 7,800 meters in the first push in order to have a chance at the summit the next day. But since midnight, it had been slower going and there we were at 6,900m with some decisions to make. In the previous 60 hours, we’d had only a few hours of sleep.
Our fatigue and the deeper snow up high slowed our progress a great deal, and the sun was starting to come out. 7,800m was still a good distance away, and in the snow conditions we were climbing through, it became obvious that we weren’t going to make our goal. The toughest part of the climb was going to be up high. And we were behind the schedule we’d set for ourselves. So we considered the risks we would face if we continued up the route. It wasn’t looking realistic and we made the decision to turn around.
ExWeb: What was the biggest surprise of the expedition?
Stephen: The biggest surprise was how incredible it was to be on the North Face with no one else there. I’ve never had a whole mountain to myself.
ExWeb: What was the scariest moment?
Stephen: There were two, actually. The first was the serac fall that occurred on our first attempt. We’d navigated our way over to the base of the Face. The night was misty and warm and there was a light snowfall and we’d spent about 6 hours post holing though thick fog and wet conditions.
At around 1 am, Lakpa fell into a crevasse up to his armpits. We were able to pull him out, and then stopped to rest. That’s when we heard a roar. We didn’t quite realize what was going to happen because we couldn’t see anything. But the sound above us was very loud. My first reaction was to turn to Lakpa and I asked him, “What do you think?” And in the time that the serac started to fall to the time we were hit – which seemed to be an eternity, but really it was only about 30 seconds – he said, “Oh, don’t worry.” It happened so fast. It was dark. We were roped together, and there was nowhere to run because it was a crevasse-filled area. There was nowhere to hide, so we just stood there… waiting what seemed like forever in the dark. We had no idea how close we were to the serac fall or how big it was and we all waited for the worst. We took a pretty good dusting… we could see the massive cloud in our headlamps a moment before the air blast hit us. No one was seriously injured. (Stephen, Lakpa and Kami dove onto their packs and Jimmy was blown 25 feet away, pulled taught and held on the rope. The guys decided to return to Camp 1, and tried another day.)
The second scary moment, and in hindsight, it was definitely the scariest moment, occurred when Jimmy and I had just returned to C2 at about 6100m right after turning around on our final attempt. Eric, who had stayed at C2, greeted us wearing only his tent booties on his feet. He took a step back to take a picture of us and disappeared down a crevasse up to his eyebrows. He was standing only on a very tiny ledge, which started to collapse. We had no rope in Camp 2. I extended my snowboard out to him, he grabbed the binding and we pulled him out. It was really frightening. Looking down, the crevasse fell away to nothing. He easily could have been killed.
ExWeb: Was there ever a time you second-guessed your decision to try this route, or considered an alternate route?
Stephen: We did briefly consider going up the North Ridge, but we came to the conclusion that our expedition was not just about summiting or climbing. It was about the integrity of the style by which we’d chosen to climb. The goal was to reach the summit and snowboard via the Hornbein Couloir, alpine style. In our eyes, alpine style climbing is the purest way to climb, going up in a single push, carrying everything you need on your back. So, the ultimate goal was not attained in that sense, but we remained committed to that goal until the end.
ExWeb: What was the best thing about the expedition?
Stephen: That everyone returned safely, and got along so well. You know, it’s the old motto, “ Come home with ten fingers, ten toes and everyone still friends.” As friends, we’re closer than ever because of this experience. I used to hear people say, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and think, “Well, everyone says that when they fail. It’s just an excuse.” But this trip was a revelation. It was about the journey. In this instance, it was a fantastic journey. Just incredible. We had the mountain to ourselves. It was a dream come true to pull it off like this. This will be hard to top. This was all about the experience.
ExWeb: You’ve mentioned that, at this time, you feel no inclination to return to Everest. You are satisfied with the journey and the incredible trip you had. So you’re okay with the decision to end your quest to snowboard the Seven Summits?
Stephen: Now I don’t feel I need to go back. I feel I can put this behind me, so yes, I can put to rest the quest for the Seven Summits. I’m good with that. You know, the chance of making it to the top of Everest in the style we were climbing in … it’s so elusive. I don’t want to spend another year organizing another trip. At least that’s how I feel right now. We did well. The chances of success were so slim. It’s not for me again.
But it is possible. And if people keep throwing themselves at it – trying to ski or snowboard the complete Hornbein Couloir without oxygen or fixed ropes – it will be done.
I have to say that I honestly feel like I’ve learned so much more by not obtaining the ultimate goal. I’ve learned more about myself, about life, about dealing with people. It was a good ego check. I’ve been trying to go to Everest since 1994, but I realized, I wasn’t ready until now.
ExWeb: What did your family and friends think of this particular trip?
Stephen: They were very excited for me. I’ve been trying to raise the money for Everest for many years, so they were excited, but worried as well. Some are surprised with my decision to not go back.
ExWeb: If you ever did decide to return, is there anything you’d do differently knowing what you know now?
Stephen: I’d take much lighter equipment. Lighter everything.
ExWeb: What would you tell anyone else who is considering snowboarding down the Japanese/Hornbein Couloir?
Stephen: Go light. Go fast. Take chances. Listen to your instincts. Trust your heart. Not your ego. Your ego can get you into trouble. It has for me in the past. The mountain is beautiful. Risk is dangerous, but we make it dangerous.
ExWeb: What’s next for you?
Stephen: I’m giving some slide shows in the upcoming months to share some of my experiences. Also, I am working for Avalancheawareness.org, a company that I started to educate backcountry users about the dangers of avalanches and how to avoid them. This includes snowmobilers, snowboarders, skiers and mountaineers. (For information, go to www.avalancheawareness.org.) I am also doing some massage. After that, I’ll focus on alpine style climbing… without my snowboard.
Stephen Koch’s goal was to snowboard the Seven Summits. With only one left – Everest – he chose the hard way; down one of the world’s most famous direct lines, the Hornbein Couloir. Jimmy Chin planned to climb to the top with Stephen and photograph the experience. Eric Hendersen participated in all of the acclimatization climbs and descents (Tele master that he is) but did not climb with Stephen and Jimmy on the face. He handled communications from all the camps, including C2 when the team was on the face. Lakpa Dorje Sherpa and Kami Sherpa accompanied Stephen and Jimmy on the climb: Lakpa has summited 4 times without oxygen and Kami has summited twice with oxygen. Off season in the monsoon, there were no fixed ropes, no camps and no O2. It was a truly bold dream and the climbers dared to act on it.
The expedition used Contact 2.0 software to provide Web updates. Stephen extends his deepest thank to sponsors: Toray - Entrant Fabrics (for keeping them warm and dry the whole time), SoBe Beverages, David Koch, MSR, La Sportiva and Innovation Sports and to the many individuals who supported the team throughout and helped make their expedition possible.
Images photographed by and courtesy of Jimmy Chin Photography. 1.) Stephen climbing Everest's North Face. 2. & 3.) Stephen making turns down the North Face. 4.) Stephen at ABC shrine.