John O'Meara and the call of Everest

Chris Gaitten

At 60 years old, the former Metro Parks directoris taking a "fun" trip back to the world's largest proving ground.

John O'Meara appears to be squinting, like he's looking into the wind. His eyes glint with curiosity, and the corners of his mouth are upturned ever so slightly, as if he's struggling to contain a smile. He's sitting in The Boat House restaurant talking about Mount Everest, about his upcoming attempt to reach its summit this spring. He's making the case for why this will be a great and enjoyable adventure, rather than the dramatic and death-defying expedition many people imagine. "I look at it as a fun challenge," he says. "I'm going to be out playing in the snow for eight or 10 weeks exploring exotic, interesting places, right?"

He would know; this isn't his first attempt. The summit turned him back once before, in 2012, and as O'Meara concedes, his age will do him no favors this time. He's 60, a noteworthy statistical figure for all the wrong reasons. He admits it's a very difficult climb, an understatement to say the least. It's one of the coldest, harshest, most hazardous obstacles on the planet, born of granite, limestone and ice over millions of years. The mountain's lack of oxygen cripples internal organs: lungs, stomach, muscles, brain. Climbers sometimes cough hard enough to break ribs. Everest's upper reaches are uninhabitable.

But it's great fun, or so says O'Meara. His eyes crinkle at the corners a little more, and he lets out a self-aware laugh-heh heh heh heh-because most people find it hard to believe.This will be fun.


John O'Meara is accustomed to success. During his 16-year run as executive director of Metro Parks, O'Meara led the park system to greater heights, more than doubling its size from about 13,000 acres when he took over in 1998 to more than 27,000 acres when he retired near the end of 2014. Annual attendance increased by almost 3 million. Six new parks were added during his tenure, including the realization of the city's long-sought Downtown park, Scioto Audubon, which O'Meara helped bring to life in 2009. His success has carried over to mountaineering; he's reached the highest peak in every state and five of the world's seven continents. Everest, however, remains elusive.

People have always looked to the world's highest peak with wonder and awe. It rises 29,035 feet above sea level near the borders of Nepal, China and Tibet. It was indomitable for most of recorded history, only yielding to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, partially thanks to technological advances like improved equipment and bottled oxygen.

Even today it's only accessible in the narrowest terms. Spring has become the most popular time to make summit attempts-before the monsoon season but after warmer air pushes the jet stream and its 100-plus mph winds north of the peak. The sweet spot typically lasts only a few weeks in May. The perils of the region's climate and the physique of the mountain are complicated by an entire galaxy of other calamities, which range from tectonic to microscopic.

The most common dangers are sudden blizzards, falls, extreme subzero temperatures, avalanches and climber mistakes. The list goes on, but the biggest challenge is the altitude. Breathable air is scarce everywhere on Everest, but it's especially limited above 26,000 feet, the range of the mountain known as "the death zone," which has a third of the oxygen of sea level. The physical effects of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea, insomnia, weakness, confusion, and in extreme cases, cerebral or pulmonary edema, the accumulation of excess fluid in the brain or lungs. Altitude sickness is like drowning very slowly, except the victim is five miles into the sky. It's less dire in the short term, but the net effect is the same-the body, starved of oxygen, simply begins to shut down.

Despite the risks, the death count on Everest is relatively low-248 fatalities compared to more than 6,000 successful summits from 1921 to 2013, according to research compiled on The Himalayan Database's website. But even success can be punishing. According to aBritish Medical Journal study of climbers who died after ascending above 26,000 feet, 56 percent perished on their descent after reaching the peak.National Geographic reported that a pair of climbers survived a successful summit in 1963, but lost 19 toes between them after the descent went awry.

So the ever-present, often-unanswerable question: Why? Why would someone struggle against this treacherous landscape, where even success can bring such pain?

"It's one of the most beautiful places you'll ever visit in your life," says Greg Vernovage, who will direct O'Meara's ascent as the expedition leader for International Mountain Guides. "You can get no closer to outer space while still standing on the ground."

It also attracts a certain kind of person. These climbers generally have Type A personalities-"people who think they can do anything," O'Meara says with a laugh. For him, the quest first began when he read "Seven Summits," a book about two amateurs' attempt to climb the tallest peaks on each continent, and "Into Thin Air," Jon Krakauer's harrowing tale of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. By 2003 O'Meara had already climbed Rainier and Denali, the highest peak in the U.S., when his wife Helen suggested they try for the highest point in every state, a feat he completed in 2010. He needed a new goal, and there Everest stood, waiting.

O'Meara's friend and fellow Columbus mountaineer Andy Politz has traveled to Everest seven times, once as part of the 1999 expedition that discovered the frozen bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, the first pair to make a summit attempt in the 1920s. Politz, who successfully summited in 1991, says that Everest is still frequently seen as the world's preeminent test of mettle, symbolic of the struggle and potential of humankind. He distills its lure: "It's the ultimate piece of real estate on the planet."


Everest's splendor is obvious in pictures. O'Meara sits at a table in a nook adjacent to the kitchen in his Linworth home, flipping through photo albums and recalling the details of his last trip to the Himalayas. He displays a picture of him pointing to a sign for Yeti Airlines, proof he saw the mythical animal he says with a wry smile. Here's another one, of a marketplace where the Nepalese have gathered for thousands of years. And here's a photo of his mangled backpack-one of the straps was ripped in two by the horn of a yak that tried to gore him on the long march to Base Camp. He escaped with only bruises and fond memories.

It was 2012, and O'Meara was still the executive director of Metro Parks in Central Ohio. He took a three-month sabbatical to pursue his Everest summit with International Mountain Guides, a company based in Washington that charges $40,000-$120,000 to lead hopeful mountaineers to the peak. After flying into the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, O'Meara rode a small plane into Tenzing-Hillary Airport, a single landing strip 9,000 feet high on a mountainside in Lukla, Nepal. From there, the climbers began a 10-day trek along an ancient trading route, which immerses them in local culture as they make their way to base camp at 17,600 feet.

O'Meara's pictures continue to illuminate the voyage. He and his fellow climbers prepare at Base Camp, a sparse constellation of tent clusters from different guide companies assembled in the valley below Everest. They train on the nearby mountains of Lobuche and Pumori. Both stand in excess of 20,000 feet, training mountains only in comparison to the world's tallest. Climbers haul equipment up to the higher camps, stay for a couple days and then descend back to base. All of this for the sake of tricking their bodies into producing more red blood cells and carrying more oxygen, says Vernovage, who led O'Meara's 2012 expedition as well.

They hike nearby hills, train on ice, read books and watch movies. IMG even provides professional speakers for entertainment. Meanwhile, the Sherpas-the ethnic Tibetan and Nepalese who assist most expeditions-fix rope lines and set ladders to facilitate the journey upward. The ascendants wait and acclimatize.

Vernovage, who's preparing for his eighth season on Everest, says it's important to let internal organs recover from the beating they take as the climbers carry load after load in the increasingly thin air. "If you come to me and say, 'I feel OK,' well that's not where we want to be to climb Mount Everest," he says. "We want to be feeling bulletproof."


O'Meara's retirement from Metro Parks near the end of 2014 was partially motivated by the desire to spend more time preparing for this attempt. Last year he again climbed Rainier with Helen and their son, and he also summited Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica. In 2014, he climbed Russia's Mount Elbrus, the highest in Europe. A successful Everest ascent would be his sixth of the seven summits, leaving only Australia's Mount Kosciuszko, a mere 7,310 feet high. It's the champagne celebration peak that many experienced climbers save for last.

For now, he trains. He goes for an 8-mile walk five days a week while carrying his 30-pound light pack around his neighborhood. He and Helen carry heavy packs, about 60 pounds, at Highbanks Metro Park two or three nights a week. He hikes 15 miles over the 400-foot Hocking County hills of Clear Creek Metro Park once a week. Some days he walks up to 25 miles. He also climbs at Vertical Adventures and at the rock wall at Audubon Metro Park. He works out in his basement gym, and he has improved his diet since 2012.

"I do believe I'm in better shape now, frankly, because I just have more time to get prepared," O'Meara says.

Effective training is practical, rudimentary, says Vernovage. Take eight- to 10-hour hikes and eat every 45-60 minutes-fuel is important. Lay a ladder on the ground and practice crossing it. Use a Stairmaster. Drag a tire around. Just go outside and "be cold." The climbers must prepare for the abuse. The ascent is not merely physical or even psychological-it's also emotional. It's more than two months away from home, away from family and friends, and Vernovage says that affects people.

O'Meara called Helen from Base Camp every other day or so during his first attempt on Everest. They discussed her work at Ohio State and his climbs up and down the world's tallest mountain, experiences separated by a chasm oceans-wide. "It occupied my thoughts a lot," Helen says. "You're worrying, but you're still hopeful that everything's going well."

She will join him for the first couple of weeks this time. She has always wanted to visit the Himalayas, and it also reduces their time apart. They will fly into Lukla, hike to Base Camp and then climb the training mountain of Lobuche. Shortly afterward, she'll return to Columbus while he sets about the business of reaching the planet's highest point.

O'Meara's photos show the precarious path forward from Base Camp-toward Camp One, baby-stepping across ladders strung together over the bottomless crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall; through the basin to Camp Two; up onto the neighboring mountain of Lhotse. Camp Three sits high on its face. His picture of Everest's peak from that point appears to be tantalizingly close. He felt strong most of the way, but that's as far as he made it.

In this enormous undertaking, his downfall was miniscule-germs. Millions of them, all tracing back to the international microbial cocktail of Base Camp, where people from 70 countries gather and bring their sundry regional bacteria and viruses. O'Meara picked up bronchitis, which may as well have been emphysema in the ultrathin air. He sat in his tent coughing, gasping. An oxygen meter confirmed he was done.

Requiring medical attention, he turned back while more than half his team pushed forward to reach the peak. There's a photo of this, too; he and a guide trudging down the basin toward distant peaks brushed with early morning light. This image is the darkest, still beautiful, but muted and melancholy. The summit is no longer in view.


The final stretch of the ascent-after the climbers pivot on Lhotse's face and move to Camp Four-is especially grueling. Everyone feels the brunt of the altitude at that point, and Politz says even using supplemental oxygen only brings temporary clarity and warmth, not relief from the disorienting, crippling effects.

Politz could taste how close he'd been on three previous expeditions when he climbed again in 1991. He was drawing near the top when he broke a crampon (the spikes attached to climbing boots) and had to rewire it at 28,000 feet. He struggled upward alone; he said it was like being stranded out on a tree limb. The higher he went, the more he felt the limb bend beneath him. A blizzard overtook the mountain after he finally reached the summit, but he caught up with his team and survived. Despite the intense struggle, he didn't want success to be any easier. Everest's unforgiving nature fuels its allure.

O'Meara was very disappointed when he turned back, in no small part because it was mostly an unlucky break. He thought he had prepared well enough and felt he was capable. Sometime afterward, he and Helen began discussing his return, this time with her by his side for the first part of the journey.

"I understand the idea of if you don't make it, it's still out there, still calling," she says.

What O'Meara missed at the top was particularly brutal, though, even by Everest's standards. The weather on the morning of May 19, 2012, was good for making an attempt, clear and not too windy. But as the summit has become more accessible-thanks to commercial guide companies, better equipment and accurate forecasting-it has also grown more crowded. Everyone receives the same weather reports, and hundreds of climbers tend to make the final push around the same time. Traffic jams have become common as climbers wait in line for routes to clear, leaving people exposed and vulnerable. Some climbers were still waiting to summit as of midafternoon on that Saturday, and then the good weather disintegrated. Six climbers died, though none from O'Meara's team was among them.

The 10 total fatalities in 2012 made it the third-deadliest year on Everest to that point, after 2006 and 1996, when 15 people died. That has been surpassed now-twice. In 2014, an avalanche at Base Camp killed 16 Sherpas, including the one who climbed alongside O'Meara in 2012; and 19 climbers and Sherpas died after an earthquake triggered an avalanche in April 2015. As Jon Krakauer reported inThe New Yorker in 2014, from 1921 to 1996 there were approximately four successful ascents for every death; that number is now about 60 to one. But as Everest has become more attainable, more are tempted to try, resulting in more annual deaths.

"There's an understanding that people don't come back from these sometimes," O'Meara says. "But I don't really feel nervous, I don't feel scared."

He imagines all of the pitfalls that may confront him, hoping he'll be ready when his decision-making is impaired by the dearth of oxygen. He will carry additional antibiotics this spring and, unlike last time, he'll go to the doctors if people around him start to get sick, even if he doesn't feel the symptoms yet. He plans to avoid the crush of eager adventurers by making his summit attempt on the second good weather day, not the first. That decision will be up to Vernovage, though, and ultimately to the meteorological whims of the mountain. No ascent ever stays faithful to a preordained itinerary, particularly on a mountain as capricious as Everest.

"By definition, it's not going well," Politz says. "That's what an adventure is."


"This is a one-shot deal. Surprisingly, your odds of success do not go up as you get older." Those are O'Meara's words from four years ago, and he laughs now after hearing the first sentence aloud. "Yeah, yeah, I told a few people that," he admits, a bit sheepishly. What can he say? It's the lure of the mountain.

But he was correct in 2012, at least on his second point. O'Meara's years of climbing experience will serve him well, but the same can't be said of his age. According to a study published in the scientific journalBiology Letters, Everest is enticing a greater number of older climbers, but researchers found the odds of success decline progressively after 40. The odds of dying are consistent across all ages-until 60. Then they increase approximately threefold, and they skyrocket for climbers over 59 during descent from the summit.

"I'm not going to deny that age is a factor," O'Meara says. "But preparation is more important."

This is a prototypical response for him. He shies away from the cinematic drama of the experience, and though he's clearly among those drawn by Everest's extreme test of will, he isn't some freewheeling daredevil. "I know he's smart and is cautious enough that he won't take undue risks," Helen says. O'Meara relishes even the planned, routine aspects of the adventure. And these fantastic notions of adventure aside, for him it's as much about setting an ambitious goal and finding a way to succeed.

On March 28, O'Meara, his wife and the rest of the IMG team will arrive in Kathmandu to begin the journey to Everest's hallowed ground. Despite the summit's magnetic pull, the ultimate piece of real estate on the planet is not particularly photogenic. It's a flat, snow-covered boulder the size of a long table, littered with various mementos-the debris of success. But the panoramic vista compensates, offering a clear view all the way to the curve of the Earth, with other immense peaks scattered below like white-tipped foam on an ocean of sharp rock.

It's worth the wait, yet years spent waiting are no guarantee of success, and O'Meara is cautious enough that he'll turn back if conditions aren't just right. It's only fun if he comes home afterward. But if he fails, is this his last shot? Will he return to the mountain if he's unsuccessful?

"No," he says flatly, then he laughs. "But that's what I said last time, too."

Everest waits, howling its siren song.