You’re wondering if this is your day. Is this your day to summit? Is this your day to die? —61-year-old Alpine man Greg Paul
It was a scene from his dreams.
Greg Paul stood at the South Summit of Mount Everest during the early hours of May 13 and listened to the guide discuss the deteriorating weather conditions that now threatened to stop his third attempt to summit the iconic mountain.
“The conditions (were) so bad,” Paul said during a phone interview from Katmandu last month. “I’m standing there and I can see the Hillary Step. I know it’s just a half hour to the top. I can’t stop here. I’ve dreamed of the Hillary Step. It’s sacred ground.”
He offered a silent prayer.
“Please let me get to the top of it,” he said. “I could see why they wanted to turn around, but I didn’t want to.”
The 61-year-old Alpine man and his climbing partner Sherpa Nawang Tenzing, 24, began their ascent to the summit about 1 a.m. that morning. Paul was the oldest in his expedition group, the only one with two artificial knees, and a life-long climber who'd attempted this climb three times in five years.
Despite feeling stronger than he had the entire expedition, he said he was also haunted by past failures, even as he and Nawang passed team after team along the route.
“Having so much bad luck over here kind of deep inside of me, I felt apprehensive, that something would deny me a summit again,” Paul said. "I trained hard, harder than I ever had trained for any previous climb.”
The company that made his artificial knees, Ortho Development, sponsored his trip, and the Highland/Alpine Crossfit gym put together a training plan that he credited with his improved fitness. His decision to come back for a third attempt was based in part on his desire to show support for the Nepalese climbing community he'd grown to love and from a desire to show his children and grandchildren that they should never give up on a dream.
While he grappled with personal disappointments, the community that made these climbs possible was still reeling from two consecutive seasons of devastating natural disasters that meant no summits on Everest in two years. When he arrived in Nepal in the spring, he realized two years of tragedy had deterred a lot of people.
“There was probably half the normal crowd because people were concerned,” he said. “There was a concern that there would just be a repeat of the same problems.”
As Paul and Nawang started their climb up the unforgiving slopes, he noticed there were only about 20 people with them. This led to some unusual experiences for the pair.
“It’s really rare, a special opportunity to pretty much have the mountain to yourself,” he said. “Three hours later, you’re going up, up, up, and the sun starts to come up about 4 a.m. and off to our left, there is a dark, ominous group of clouds. We could see the clouds lighting up with lightning, and my heart just sank. I thought, ‘Oh no, not again. I’m so close. Please don’t do this to me.’”
As they continued to climb, the weather shifted and a clear night gave way to wind and so much blowing snow, there was almost no visibility.
They pressed on, and Paul’s mind moved through his motivation, his family, the fact that the toes on his right foot were cold.
“You notice so many little things,” he said. “The storm, we’re in the middle of it, and all these things you’re taking into account. You’re wondering if this is your day. Is this your day to summit? Is this your day to die?”
A dream deferred
Mount Everest’s unpredictable weather wasn’t the only reason Paul’s dream had been repeatedly put on hold.
“It had always been in the back of my mind, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s, my knees started to degenerate.”
Paul had pushed his body to its limits, and the price had come in a dire diagnosis of severe arthritis in both knees.
“I was in almost constant pain,” he said.
An avid skier, rock climber, mountain climber and lover of just about anything outdoors, Paul finally went to a doctor in January 2003. The doctor told him he needed to find a new sport and suggested something along the lines of croquet.
“He told me my skiing and climbing days were over,” Paul said, adding that a life without those things was incomprehensible. But after he took a group of Boy Scouts on a hike in Corner Canyon and couldn’t walk down the trails, he realized he had to do something if he wanted to continue engaging in any of the activities he loved so much.
His wife, Billie, got a reference for a knee replacement doctor from the wife of baseball legend Dale Murphy.
“Prior to having his knees replaced, (Dale) was hobbling around practically with a cane,” Paul said. “So I went to his doctor — Dr. Marc Mariani in late May 2008.”
Mariani recommended knee replacement, and this time Paul was desperate enough he agreed.
“Obviously, if I wanted to do anything I enjoyed, I had to figure something out,” he said. “I was convinced I wanted to give it a shot. It was that or sit around. And that wasn’t an option.”
The day after Memorial Day 2008, Paul had his right knee replaced. His motivation to work hard through painful physical therapy and rehabilitation was training for the Huntsman Senior Games in October.
Fantasy becomes reality
Mount Everest taunts dreamers.
The highest point on the planet at 29,028 feet, the snow-covered peak has long captured the affection and attention of the world’s best, most ambitious mountaineers.
It was first conquered by New Zealand legend Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. Since that lonely climb, which was part of a British expedition that actually included about 400 people, more than 4,000 people have successfully ascended to the mountain’s summit.
Conversely, the mountain has also claimed the lives of more than 200 climbers, including many for whom the treacherous peaks became a final resting place. It isn’t just the mountain’s altitude that can be deadly, it’s the frigid temperatures, the unpredictable weather, the treacherous terrain, like the massive, constantly moving Khumbu Ice Falls that have become the mountain’s deadliest obstacle.
Like most climbers, Paul harbored a lifelong desire to climb Mount Everest. But it wasn’t until a man named Martin Frey walked into the Momentum Indoor Climbing Gym, a company in which Paul is part owner, in February 2012, that what had been a fantasy began to take shape.
He and Frey struck up a conversation and eventually a friendship. Frey had become the first person to climb the seven summits and sail the seven seas, and he’d last summited Mount Everest in 2011. He invited him on an expedition he had planned in the spring of 2012.
“My wife and I were driving to St. George, and she said what I was kind of feeling, ‘You’re not getting any younger,’ ” he laughed. “So I ended up going on the 2012 expedition.”
His wife came with him to base camp, but the team’s trip to the top was canceled after repeated minor avalanches, including one that missed their group by about 10 minutes.
“I came home disappointed, but that’s the way it goes,” said Paul. “I also found during the expedition that I was rather slow coming down the mountain. The one part of Everest where you can’t afford to be slow is through the Khumbu Ice Falls. I couldn’t keep up with my teammates. The more time you spend there, the higher your chances of getting killed by falling ice.”
So in November 2012, he had his left knee replaced.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Tragedy on the mountain
In 2014, Paul, his wife, and the youngest of their five children, Kevin, then 14, enjoyed time at base camp before a planned ascent for Paul and his group. The day after his family left, tragedy struck.
On April 18, 2014, the climbing community suffered its worst disaster on the mountain when 16 Sherpas were killed in a matter of seconds due to an ice avalanche at the Khumbu Ice Falls.
“That ended the season right there,” he said. “It was devastating to the local community. It happened a mile from base camp.”
Then, a year later, on April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, killing 21, making it the deadliest day on the mountain. Across the country, nearly 9,000 were killed and more than 21,000 injured, with about 3.5 million losing their homes, including Paul’s good friend and guide, Sherpa Nawang Tenzing.
There were no expeditions in 2015 and the dream was starting to fade, not just for Paul but for others who debated if the Everest expeditions were harmful or helpful to the local community.
“The dangers had become more apparent after two disastrous seasons,” Paul said of 2014 and 2015. “If Nepal doesn’t have (mountain) climbers, those people don’t have jobs. But even with all the downsides of climbing Everest, it’s still such an alluring mountain. I didn’t want to give up.”
A legacy of adventure
Climber Greg Paul shows letters from family and sponsors that he took up Everest.
Paul’s voice chokes with emotion again as he tries to articulate why achieving the dream meant so much to him.
“I was climbing for myself, but also for my children and my grandchildren,” he said. “I want them to pursue adventure, follow your dreams. It had become kind of symbolic of the legacy I wanted to leave them.”
In addition to wanting to show his family that they should never give up on a dream, he wanted to support the community he’d grown to love in Nepal. To that end, he climbed a different mountain in the fall of 2015 to support the country’s efforts to lure mountaineers and tourists back to the mountains.
“We had a marvelous time,” he said. “On summit day, it snowed really hard a few days before, and we decided not to summit because of avalanche danger. Again, I was denied a summit.” While he was disappointed, he said he relished what each trip had offered him.
“Four years of incredible journeys and experiences I never imagined I’d have,” he said. “Each time was an adventure, an unexpected adventure. But the first question people would ask was, ‘Did you summit?’ And I was getting tired. I tried to stay upbeat, but eventually, you want to summit.”
The final climb
Greg Paul, left in orange, and guide Nawang Tenzing Sherpa were the first people to summit Mt. Everest in two years. They are holding a prayer card, which is blessed and left at the summit.
On that May day this spring, as he and Nawang reached the South Summit, just feet from the Hillary Step, they stopped to change oxygen tanks and listened to the conversation about whether they should attempt the summit.
Paul couldn’t wait long, and he reached over to his friend and guide Nawang and tapped his arm.
“Let’s go,” he motioned.
And Nawang, who’d helped him move from the back of the expedition to the front of the pack, answered a prayer he hadn’t heard.
“He looked at me and smiled, and he got up and turned to the guide,” Paul said. “And he said, ‘We go.’”
The guide told Nawanga that he knew the mountain, and so if he felt good about continuing the ascent, he could continue.
“We crossed the traverse to Hillary Step together,” Paul said, emotion choking his voice. “It was kind of like going into the void, but I felt very comfortable doing it. He’s a young guy, and he just got married two years ago. I knew he wasn’t going to do anything that jeopardized his life. He knows my family. We helped him rebuild his house that was destroyed in the earthquake. He’s part of our family. I knew in my heart that we were doing something dangerous, kind of just on the edge, but that's kind of what I thrive on too.”
A piece of equipment meant to keep Paul safe as he navigated the sheer cliffs of the Hillary Step wasn’t working. They switched from rope to rope every 100 feet or so.
“Those transition points are where people die,” he said. “At that altitude, if you screw up, if you think you’re on and you’re not, that’s how people fall off the mountain. Two-thirds of Everest is so steep that a mistake is death.”
Paul called that final stretch “unreal” and the “ultimate thrill.”
When they got to the top of the Hillary Step, they were alone.
“We passed a two-man team that had been in front of us,” Paul said. “Suddenly we have the mountain to ourselves. It is such a unique experience.”
Paul motioned to Nawang to climb the final steps to the summit first.
“He would have let me summit first,” Paul said. “But I felt it was the right thing to do, to let him summit. I had him pull me up. I wanted to respect the Sherpa for all he did.”
They sat down because the summit was so windy. The pile of flags and prayer cards and mementos that usually sits on the summit was covered with snow.
“It was a whiteout,” he said. “We were by ourselves for about 10 minutes, just alone, hugging each other, in awe of where we were and the fact that we’d made it up there. We were the first team in two years to get to the top of Everest. We broke the jinx. It was incredible. I’ve never felt so exhilarated in my life.”
Paul is still stunned by how strong he felt on that final ascent.
“I had this strength on that day that I don’t know where it came from,” he said. “I didn’t have it for a lot of the other days. I was pretty worn out on every other acclimatization day. It was like a gift. I got another day added to my life. I don’t know how I ever deserved it, but it was amazing.”
The pain associated with constant cold can be discouraging, even debilitating. He said cards and letters of encouragement from friends, families and employees of Ortho Development sustained him in a way that still brings tears to his eyes a month later.
“I just remember coming down,” he said, emotion overtaking him again, “looking around and looking back at the top of the mountain. The feeling that day wasn’t menacing. It was friendly, really peaceful, almost a spiritual feeling. I’d done a lot of (praying) through the entire process, all day that day. It was just incredible — emotionally, physically, spiritually, it was one of the highlights of my life.”
Email: [email protected]