They spent the night at 26,000 feet, watching their tent come apart around them.
For Tim Gage, of Asotin, and Markus Hutnak, of Pullman, it was a last-gasp effort to reach the highest point on Earth.
The two were part of a 1989 expedition to Mount Everest organized by Lewiston native Gary Speer. Together with University of Idaho graduate Kurt Fickeisen, of Seattle, Spokane physician Dick Walker and two British climbers, they’d spent the better part of a month trying to summit — first by pioneering a new route along the Northeast Ridge and then, when that proved impossible, by the North Col route.
Now it was late in the year, and Gage and Hutnak were alone on the mountain, the last two climbers on the entire north face of Everest. They were at the 8,000-meter mark — an elevation higher than all but the 14 tallest mountains in the world — trying to hold on as hurricane-force winds ripped their shelter to pieces.
“We got caught in the jet stream,” Gage recalled during a recent interview. “The tent was shredded. The wind was blowing 100 mph — not gusts, but steady. It was stupendous to watch. When we were climbing, I remember seeing it pick up snow slabs as big as houses. They’d go floating out, looking like boards you could ride. Then they’d turn around and smash into the mountainside.”
Their hopes of reaching the summit were similarly destroyed. They turned back the next morning, less than 3,000 feet shy of their goal.
“That’s the hardest thing about Everest,” said Hutnak, whose parents still live in Pullman. “The summit is right there. You’re looking right at it, but it’s still a world away. To this day I don’t think there was any way we could have gone on and survived. It was all we could do just to put our crampons on and get out of there.”
As disappointing as that was, experiencing such dire conditions is part of the appeal of high-elevation mountaineering: It tests one’s ability to maintain focus in the face of extreme hardship, stress and uncertainty.
“You can’t breathe, you’re undernourished, you don’t know what day it is,” Hutnak said. “My boots were marked with an ‘R’ and ‘L,’ so I’d know which foot they went on. It was that level of functionality.
“But that’s the beauty of it. It’s like you’re an astronaut, alone on the mountain, and there is no ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ It’s just you and your decision-making ability and physical talent. You’re in a place where the wrong decision can be catastrophic for yourself or the team. When you get in that space, it brings out a clarity in life. It pushes you into your soul.”
Nothing like it in the world
Given the demands of high-altitude mountaineering — the fortitude and strength of mind it requires — it came as a shock to many when Gary Speer committed suicide five years later.
The grandson of Speer Ammunition founder Vernon Speer, Speer worked in his father’s investment firm and wrote a mountaineering column for the Lewiston Tribune.
In one 1984 story, he noted that his fascination with climbing began as a boy, during a hike at Mount Rainier.
“The purity of the high wilderness and the immensity of Rainier overwhelmed my 10-year-old sensibilities,” he wrote. “All around were jagged peaks pointing towards the heavens. I stood there, awestruck, wondering what it would be like to be on top of this majestic volcano. … Twenty years later, the experience still rings.”
Speer first teamed up with Gage and Hutnak in 1982, for an expedition to Mount McKinley, in Alaska.
Now known as Denali, McKinley is the highest peak in North America, at 20,310 feet. The expedition’s goal, however, was to climb the 19,470-foot North Summit via the Wickersham Wall.
Considered one of the largest mountain faces in the world, the Wickersham Wall rises 15,000 feet, from its base at Peters Glacier to the North Summit. As of 1982, it had only been climbed twice.
“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” said Gage, who had previously climbed McKinley in 1974. “I’d become enamored with it. It’s just massive, but you can’t really get a sense of the scale from photographs. That’s why I wanted to be there.”
Just reaching the Wall proved to be an adventure in itself. The idea was for Gage and Speer, together with two other climbers, to tackle the mountain. Hutnak, who at the time was a 16-year-old Pullman High School student, was part of an eight-member support team whose job was to hump supplies across the Alaskan tundra.
“It was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I was just a kid with a backpack, fulfilling a dream. But the terrain was tough. It was 40 miles from the end of the road to the base of the mountain. There was permafrost, bears, mosquitoes like no tomorrow. The logistics were just very, very difficult.”
What was supposed to take a couple of weeks ended up taking nearly a month. They finally established base camp on Peters Glacier — high enough to get away from the mosquitoes, but close enough to reach running water.
From the glacier, Wickersham Wall loomed upward at a 40- to 60-degree angle. It had every kind of snow or ice feature imaginable, from glaciers to snowfields to overhanging seracs (a block or column of ice). Sitting in camp, the group watched as avalanches poured down the face all day long.
“It looked a whole lot more feasible sitting around a conference room at home than it did (from base camp),” Hutnak said.
Combined with the delay in reaching the mountain, the prospect of climbing such a monster proved daunting. At some point, a decision was made to cache the supplies higher up on the mountain and then return the following year to make a summit bid.
“Some of the climbers thought (the Wall) was just a death wish,” Hutnak recalled. “Of the dozen people on the team, only three of us thought coming back the next year was a good idea: Gary, Tim and myself.”
Even though he was still in high school, Hutnak just assumed he’d be part of the return team.
“It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be back,” he said.
After some cajoling, Gage and Speer agreed.
“We were thinking maybe we’d have to go back by ourselves, but we wanted a third person,” Gage said. “Markus was a star of the support team. He wanted to come along, and in the end we were glad to have him. It was a really scary route, but he was cool as a cucumber.”
Extreme and savage beauty
The ‘83 expedition was nearly derailed at the very start, when they discovered that another group of climbers had raided their supply cache earlier that summer. They’d punctured one of the gas cans with an ice ax, and took all the ready-to-eat food.
“We weren’t carrying a lot of extra gear,” said Hutnak, who is still disgusted by the raid nearly 40 years later. “Everything was contingent on us finding that cache. We thought we were well-stocked, only to find that wasn’t the case. We were handicapped by it later in the expedition.”
The good news, though, was that they were finally on the mountain, with just enough supplies to try to reach the summit.
Their route initially followed the path taken by a Canadian group in 1963 — the year Wickersham Wall was first climbed — but later veered across the upper face of the mountain.
They were climbing “alpine style,” meaning they carried all their gear with them. The packs weighed about 100 pounds. The altitude caused problems as well. Because of the cache raid, they didn’t have enough supplies to acclimate appropriately. They had to climb quickly, camping just four times on their way up the mountain.
The last camp was at about 15,000 feet. They started for the summit early in the morning, walking under seracs that towered several stories high. Hutnak’s ribs hurt from trying to breathe the rarefied air. The whole world was ice and snow.
And then they were at the top.
After the ‘82 expedition, Speer wrote a column suggesting that the greatest pleasure in climbing comes after the fact.
“It’s easy, retrospectively, to perceive some of the long-term benefits in the experience of danger and hardship,” he wrote. “Easier still to remember only the extreme and savage beauty of McKinley’s north face. Climbing in this awesome grandeur produces an addictive mixture of sublime feelings with rushes of adrenaline.”
As Hutnak recalls, they spent 15 or 20 minutes on the North Summit before returning to camp. They had a satellite phone with them, so he called his parents. They also did a broadcast for a local radio station. Then they started down.
“The next day, there was a feeling of great jubilation,” he said.
The feeling was short-lived, though. Because of the cache raid, they were literally out of food. Rather than take a day to enjoy their triumph, they had to start climbing again, crossing up and over the West Buttress and walking halfway around the mountain to reach the airfield on the Kahiltna Glacier.
“We had nothing left other than some drinking water,” Hutnak said. “But there was tremendous joy and a feeling of satisfaction. You can’t really have stories like that anymore, going into the unknown. That’s the tragedy. In today’s world, with the big, guided expeditions, you have all kinds of support. We had three guys, one rope, one tent, one stove.”
In a Tribune story following the climb, Speer attributed the success of the expedition to friendship. But looking back today, Hutnak also credits the confidence they had in each other.
“You were with guys you enjoyed being with, and who you knew had what it takes,” he said. “If something needed to get done, it was going to get done. You recognize that there will be obstacles and surprises, but you deal with it. Challenge, overcome and continue; challenge, overcome and continue. That’s the mentality you have to have.”
Winter came early
Even before the Denali expedition, Speer had his sights set on Mount Everest.
He spent years planning and securing permits for the trip. In those pre-internet days, he scoured libraries for accounts of previous expeditions, and then wrote letters to the trip leaders seeking information and advice.
“He became an expert on anything he wanted to do,” Gage recalled.
While Everest today is a top destination for well-funded adventurers who can pay to join guided expeditions, in 1989 it was still the preserve of do-it-yourselfers. Climbers, often organized into national teams, arranged their own sponsors; together with the local Sherpas, they hauled their own equipment, set their own ropes and broke their own trail.
At the time Speer’s group set off from Seattle, only about 235 people had successfully climbed the mountain — about half the number who summit in a single season today — and no one had climbed the full length of the Northeast Ridge.
The ridge is nearly 3 miles long, with steep drop-offs on either side. It’s above 22,000 feet for virtually its entire length. Near the 25,000-foot level are three steep rock formations, called the Three Pinnacles, that had never been successfully negotiated.
After spending a few days in Kathmandu, Nepal, to buy more supplies, Speer’s group took a bus to the Tibetan border. From there they picked up their Chinese liaison, transferred to a Chinese bus and made their way to the Everest base camp near the Rongbuk Glacier.
“They definitely didn’t want us going anyplace in Tibet by ourselves, so we had to be supervised by a liaison,” recalled Fickeisen, who had graduated from the University of Idaho a few months prior to the trip.
Fickeisen grew up in Seattle, where his father was president of the Seattle Mountaineers. He’d done quite a bit of climbing himself, including an ascent of Denali via the Cassin Ridge. However, he’d never experienced the extreme altitudes in the Himalayas.
The group arrived at base camp in late August. The plan was to spend a few weeks acclimatizing, then start transferring gear to an advanced base camp at the base of the ridge. They hoped to establish Camp 1 atop the Northeast Ridge by Sept. 1, which would give them about six weeks to pioneer a route to the top.
“We were trying to climb the mountain before the jet (stream) hit in mid-October,” Fickeisen said. “You don’t want to be on the mountain when they hit, at any elevation.”
The altitude quickly took a toll, though. Dick Walker, the team doctor, developed pulmonary edema and had to go back to a lower elevation.
Base camp was nearly 17,000 feet high, while the advanced base camp was at 21,000 feet — higher than the summit of Denali. The team eventually put Camp 1 along the ridge crest, but then the wind and snow took over.
“A big part of Himalayan mountaineering is working high, establishing camp and then coming back to lower elevation to recuperate,” Hutnak said. “Then you go back up and try to advance the route. Eventually you have enough equipment and food in position that, when you get good weather, you can push through to the summit.”
In the fall of 1989, though, the weather never cooperated.
“Winter came early,” he said. “No one summited from the north side that year. Trying to put in a route, you’d punch through the snow up to your knees. Then overnight the wind would fill it in, so you had to break a fresh trail the next morning.”
The end of the string
Stymied by the snow and wind, and exhausted after a month above 20,000 feet, Speer returned to Kathmandu with Dick Walker at the beginning of October. Much to their Chinese liaison’s dismay, Fickeisen and the two British climbers took a short trek through part of Tibet before hopping a bus to the border.
Hutnak and Gage, however, decided to make one more attempt.
“We were there, so we decided to go for it,” Gage recalled.
They received permission to try the North Col route — now the most common north-side route to the summit — and got a couple of bottles of oxygen from another expedition.
“That was enough to make a summit push from about 27,000 feet,” Gage said.
After camping atop the North Col, at 7,000 meters or 23,000 feet, they pushed on to the 8,000 meter mark before the jet stream blew away their chance of reaching the summit.
“Walking back down, you wonder the whole way whether there was anything you could have done different, whether you just didn’t think of the right solution,” Gage said. “But above 26,000 feet, you aren’t thinking anything new. It’s pure momentum; you’re just following through on everything you did up to that point. We reached the end of our string.”
Hutnak has absolutely no recollection of returning to base camp or the trip back to Kathmandu. What he does remember is getting back to Pullman and going for a run.
“After a month at 20,000 feet, running around Pullman was a lot of fun,” he said.
Speer did some running as well. Two months after returning from Everest, he was off on another expedition, this time to South America. By December, he was standing atop Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia.
The joy didn’t last, though. He committed suicide in 1994.
“We spread his ashes on Mount Rainier,” said Paul Speer, Gary’s brother. “He always loved that place. Reading what he wrote about mountains, I feel like that was his spirituality, that was where he felt connected to the universe. He never talked about ‘conquering’ mountains. He wanted to experience them.”
After Speer’s death, Gage said there was talk in the climbing community that he was overcome with guilt about the death of a friend during an earlier expedition. He rejects that suggestion, though.
“The fact was, he had clinical depression,” Gage said. “It’s an illness just like cancer, and it tries to kill you. He sought help and attempted to do what was needed to get well, but it caught up with him.”
Gage is retired now and owns a small peach orchard in central Washington. He never returned to the Himalayas after the ‘89 expedition.
Hutnak’s path in life, by contrast, was forever colored by his experiences on Denali and Mount Everest. He returned to the Himalayas in 1991, serving as videographer on the American North Face Everest Expedition, which put 10 people on the summit via the North Col route.
In 1995, he climbed Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. He would later go to work for The North Face and other outdoor companies, helping them design clothing and equipment capable of withstanding the extreme environments found in such locales.
He still misses the do-it-yourself days, though, when he came of age. And he misses his friend.
“Gary did things his own way,” Hutnak said. “He had ideas and made them happen in his own chaotic way, bringing dreams to life. There was never a problem that couldn’t be worked through. Without Gary, the path of my life would have been very different.”
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.