April 16th, 2014
Omaha, NE — It’s not easy to keep the attention of a cafeteria full of easily-distracted seventh graders at eight in the morning. But for more than an hour Robert Kay captivated students from Lincoln’s Lux Middle School with pictures and tales of faraway places, adventure and danger. Tales of climbing on the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest.
Kay was about the age of these kids when he read“Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak” by French mountain climber Maurice Herzog. The book has been called “one of the great mountain-adventure stories of all time,” detailing the climb but also gruesome frostbite, snow blindness and near death on the mountain. “I’m 15- or 16-years-old reading this book, and I’m thinking this is fantastic, which make no sense at all,” Kay recalled. “It shows you that teenage boys aren’t real bright. I decided then and there I was going to climb Mount Everest.”
By this age Kay had already seen the world’s highest mountain. Born in Australia, his family vacationed, then lived in Nepal for a couple years. As a teen they moved to Colorado, which further fueled his passions for mountains, skiing and climbing. But Everest still seemed like a distant, unlikely dream.
Flash forward to a few years ago. By this time Kay owned a Lincoln motorcycle dealership and his kids were getting old enough that he felt ready to start his pursuit of Everest. He started intense workouts, and started climbing all the other continental high points. He’s also climbed, and sometimes skied on, many of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, and he’s been to the high points in 49 of the 50 states.
“The primary reason for the rest of it was to prepare me for Everest,” Kay said, “and it’s been a fantastic way to prepare. I’ve seen people in cultures and scenery and things I didn’t even know existed. Had a fantastic time. It’s just a great way to see the world. You meet very interesting people. But Everest, for me, it’s the bottom line. It’s the most important thing that I’m aiming at right now for my climbing.”
He’s tried two other times. In 2010, Kay got within 1200 feet of the peak before a storm forced him to turn around. Last year, the threat of frostbite stopped him 1400 feet from the top. Seemingly short distances, but when you’re close to 29,000 feet that’s several hours of climbing, sometimes past the remains of climbers who didn’t make it back. Eight died last year alone.
“People do get summit fever,” Kay said. “They push on when they shouldn’t. I hope I wouldn’t be that way. I’ve not been that way the last two times and you’ve got to have a conversation with yourself when you’re still in Lincoln, and the conversation is basically how far will you push it? At what point do you turn around? Are you willing to risk it all? I will not risk dying or coming back maimed.”
It’s a tough call, especially considering the cost of climbing Everest which is tens of thousands of dollars and two months of time, not counting preparations before climbers even get near the mountain. Because the weather window for getting to the top is small, just a couple weeks, there’s no second chance.
In spite of the obstacles, the number of people summitting Everest has grown dramatically from approximately 100 in the late 1990s to around 600 in recent years. With this has come questions about too many climbers with too little experience on the mountain, and concerns about traffic jams near the top. A couple years ago a National Geographic article questioned whether Everest was “maxed out” with too many climbers.
“It sounds like a lot of people, but it’s slow motion,” Kay said. “It’s like watching grass grow is how fast people are going. You’ll take one step and then you have to take 10 breaths to before you can take your next step. That’s if you’re doing well. You might be 15 or 20 breaths. So if there’s somebody in your way and he takes one step, all of a sudden, you’re a minute behind him. So the crowds really aren’t an issue.”
Now that he’s in Nepal, Robert’s wife Patty is watching his progress from Lincoln. “We just kind of go on with our lives, pray a lot and talk to him when we can,” Patty Kay said, “and get our questions ready so that when he does call we can just communicate quickly, because we only usually spend a few minutes on the phone. We just keep going on, and just hope and pray that everything’s okay.”
The “we” includes their three children, two adopted from Nepal. Their connection to the country, and it’s people, runs deep. Robert Kay himself has been there more than a dozen times. Everest is still the main attraction, though. He calls it an obsession.
“If you talk to anybody who knows me, that’s my number one topic of conversation,” Kay said. “At work, I have a hard time focusing on my job at hand because I’m thinking about every minute aspect, a pair of gloves or something to eat or you name it, anything to do Everest-related. I read the books. I read the magazines. I read the blogs and websites. Yeah, I’m focused.”
All for the dream of standing on top of the world for a few minutes in early May.
“I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like if I get to the top of Mount Everest,” Kay said. “I say ‘if’ because there are no guarantees. But assuming that I do, obviously, I’m hopeful that I will, I’m going to be pretty emotional that day I think.”
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