Laval St. Germain, a Calgary pilot and father of four, reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 24 and became the first Canadian to make it up and down the massive mountain without the aid of oxygen. The 41-year-old was part of the same expedition as Briton Peter Kinloch, who died during his descent. Mr. St. Germain spoke to The Globe and Mail from his Katmandu hotel room before arriving home on Friday.
When did you set off for Everest?
On March 27. It's a long trip. It's over two months on the mountain. You have to build up red blood cells to get you higher without the affects of acclimatization. I flew into Katmandu and stayed there for about five days and then went overland to the Chinese/Nepali border. It's spectacular. Lush mountain gorges with waterfalls everywhere. The roads literally cling to the side of a cliff.
What was it like when you first laid eyes on Everest?
It's something I've thought about my whole life. But to be honest with you, it's not a very attractive mountain. It sticks up way beyond any of the other mountains but it doesn't have any beautiful lines to it. It's just this great bulk of a mountain. But it certainly demands your respect.
How did you train?
I'm always training. I ride my bike to work all the time, I go to the gym every day. I do ultra-marathons, so I run 140 km mountain marathons. I do adventure races, like Eco-challenges. … I'm continuously training. A lot of people train for two years specifically for Everest, but I didn't really have to do any modifications for my training. …I'm not your typical 41-year-old dad when it comes to physical activity.
Were you confident you could climb it?
I was. I didn't have altitude sickness, but lots of people did. The typical symptoms are nausea and insomnia and severe headaches. Other than myself, the whole team was on Diamox, which is a pharmaceutical that people take to deal with altitude. I didn't take it because I thought it would kind of be cheating.
You didn't take oxygen either.
I didn't take oxygen with me. The day I climbed the summit, I climbed with a Briton, an Aussie, a Bosnia, and a Sherpa who had an extra bottle of oxygen with him in case of an emergency. I thought that climbing the highest mountain in the world with oxygen is somehow - I don't want to say cheating, but it's not the pure way to do it. I thought if you couldn't climb a peak without oxygen then maybe you shouldn't be up there. There's so many different ways to climb it. There's people who climb it with two Sherpas and eight bottles of oxygen. Everyone just wants to puff as much oxygen as possible and get up there no matter what it took. It goes with the whole commercialization of it and the attitude of "summit at all costs," which I don't agree with.
Do you actually run into a lot of people as you're climbing?
It's kind of a gathering place for some really strange people. You've got this 77-year-old Italian guy who shows up every single year with no plan, no expedition, he's got a permit and just kind of wanders around and mooches off people. You've got Brazilian starlets that just show up out of the blue with no permits and they sort of bat their eyelashes to get to the top, borrowing Sherpas and borrowing equipment. It's really a bizarre place. I was shocked.
A British man named Peter Kinloch died recently after reaching the summit.
He was on my team. I was on the first summit team and then he went up the next day … I lived with him for two months. I just came back from dinner with the guy who tried to get him down, the expedition leader named David O'Brien.
How is he dealing with the death?
He's getting a lot of trouble from the British press. They're insinuating that he abandoned Peter up there. And they did, but after 29 hours of struggling to get him down. David actually had to bend down and move Peter's feet one foot at a time along a precipice, because Peter had gone blind and was dying. When they got to the point where they were dying, the expedition leader called it off. Peter was already well beyond being saved. He was throwing oxygen bottles down the mountain. High altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is a very insidious, terrible way to die because of the pressure that builds up in your brain. Your brain is swelling and you do stuff that is not conducive to survival: you rip your mitts off, you rip your jacket off, you're combative. It's a terrible way to go.
Is there any rhyme of reason as to who gets it? Is it a lack of oxygen?
I could climb Everest this year without oxygen and go back next year and get HACE. The trick in high altitude climbing is to move quickly: get up and get down fast. Peter was just really slow and he got caught up there too long.
How does it affect you knowing that he died up there?
When we were up there, you're passing dead bodies. There are eight of them on the route I did. I only saw three, which is three too many as far as I'm concerned. These people died doing exactly what I was trying to do. And they're not dead in any dramatic fashion. They're laying there with their arms curled up under their head like they're taking a nap. There's one Indian climber we called Green Boots, he's been there since 1996 …. The way I justify in my own head, is that if I'm driving back from a ski trip and you see a white cross in the ditch showing where somebody died, I don't think you change your driving. You think about it, but you don't change your driving. The only difference in Everest is that the body's still there because you can't get them down. Climbing without oxygen, it made me really hyper aware that I had to monitor myself and not stop no matter what. People stop to take a nap and never wake up.
Did you ever feel like you weren't going to make it?
No, I felt great the entire climb. The summit day I was incredibly exhausted. I climbed 29,000 feet without oxygen. But I was super aware of what was going on and had no temptations to sit down and take a break.
When did you reach the summit?
May 24 at 10:07 in the morning. Normally when I reach the summit of a big mountain, I sort of get emotional, I get goosebumps and I get choked up. This one I didn't, and I'm not sure why. … I think I was so focused on getting down. I knew I was only at the half-way mark and that the summit was only part of the trip. So I had a lot of nagging pressure to turn around and get down safe. So I spent about 20 minutes up there taking photos. There was no view at all, it was snowing and visibility was poor. I could have been in a field in Saskatchewan.
What did you carry with you?
It's two months of backpacking around. Once you get above 7,000 meters, you're always in your full down suit. You've got a head to toe mountaineering suit. We've got heavy duty boots with electronic boot heaters in them. Climbing without oxygen, you can freeze very easily because your body directs all the blood to your chest and your brain and not to your extremities. You just can not keep your digits warm. I've got three fingers that from the first knuckle up are completely black and the finger beside my pinkie finger is really black and it's now shrunk down about 50 per cent.… It really hurt when it thawed out. It's like made of wood now.
Is that something you were anticipating?
It was something I was aware of and watching for. As I was climbing on summit day I could feel that my right hand was starting to freeze and I had to make the conscious decision to turn around and try to save my fingertips or risk losing the tip of my finger. I decided it was worth the risk after all that effort. I thought it was a fairly minor price to pay, believe it or not. But I'll never be a hand model.
I don't think I ever really had my neck stuck out. I didn't have one butterfly. The only thing I have a misgiving about is that I phoned my wife on May 16 to tell her we were going for the summit bid and that she'd go for six or seven days without hearing from me. I told her I'd be okay. She was suffering for that whole time because she didn't know what was going on. That really bothers me that I put her through that. It's not something I'm proud of. But I don't know how I would have avoided it.
You're trying to climb the Seven Summits, one on each continent. You've done five so far. What will you do when you've climbed them all?
I don't know. I'd like to ride my bike from China to Pakistan. I'm considering a bid for the North Pole and maybe Antarctica. When I was a kid I saw a picture in National Geographic of an American expedition to K2 on the Chinese side. I'll never forget the picture, I can still see it in my head. As a little kid, I said 'I'm going to wear those boots and stand on big mountains and I'm going to do that.' That image has stuck with me my whole life.
How does it feel to be the first Canadian to summit Everest without oxygen?
There have been other Canadians who have summited, but they've all died on the descent. There's one guy laying up there, I had to walk right past him, a Calgarian who died last year. I'm grateful and very flattered that I was able to do it. It hasn't really sunk in yet.