A senior ‘hipster’scales world’s highest peak


By Albert Amateau

Donald Healy was back home last week talking to The Villager after returning from his successful expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest, at 29,035 feet, the world’s tallest peak.

“I lost 15 pounds but at least it wasn’t bitter cold. There was no frostbite and I came back with all my fingers and toes,” he said.

Healy had to interrupt the interview while he took a brief phone call.

“How are the ribs?” he asked the caller.

It was not about a restaurant meal. The caller was one of Healy’s fellow climbers on the Everest expedition.

“He didn’t make the summit ascent because he fell while rappelling on one of our rotations and broke a couple of ribs,” Healy said. Everest climbers do “rotations,” a series of short climbs from Base Camp to get used to changes in altitude, he explained.

Healy, a dedicated mountaineer, made the Everest assault shortly after his 65th birthday and two-and-a-half years after having had a hip replacement because of a cycling accident.

“The hip was no problem at all,” he said. “My orthopedic surgeon told me that I’d be able to make the climb, but even he was surprised yesterday when I told him I had done it,” Healy said in an interview on June 6.

“We had nine people in our expedition who started from Katmandu but three had to drop out,” he said. “Two of the six who made the ascent were women — one was Vanessa Folkerts from London; she had taken a year off from studying at Princeton to train and make the climb. I climbed with her last year on Denali [20,320 feet] in Alaska. To climb Everest, you have to have done either Denali or Cho Oyzu [27,000 feet] in Tibet. Vanessa did both of them. The other woman was Alison Levine, a motivational lecturer. She’s 43 and had climbed the seven highest peaks in the world, including the north and south faces of Everest,” he said.

Healy’s expedition, operated by Alpine Ascents of Seattle, arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 23, got to Katmandu, Nepal, on March 28 and began the trek and climb to Everest Base Camp on April 1.

“We left Base Camp May 17 and got to Camp Two — 21,500 feet — where we had to wait three or four days because the weather forecast for the summit was high winds, and you definitely don’t want that,” Healy said.

“We went on to Camp Three on May 20,” he continued. “You start using oxygen after 23,000 feet, and Camp Three is at 23,500 feet. You don’t want to stay at that altitude very long because you don’t want too much oxygen exposure and it’s difficult to carry oxygen bottles.” Healy said.

On May 22 the party got to Camp Four at 26,000 feet.

“A lot of expeditions just rest at Camp Four and then try for the summit, but we stayed overnight because of the weather,” he said. “We made the summit ascent at 9:30 at night. It was pitch black and you could only see the ropes and the climber in front of you with your headlamp.”

At the beginning of the climbing season — which lasts only about 40 days a year — Sherpa guides lay out a trail to the summit from Camp Four and set parallel ropes for climbers to clip onto their ascent lines.

“You have two lines to the ropes, but every 200 feet where the ropes are anchored you have to unclip from one and clip onto the next one,” he explained.

Sherpa guides must make maintenance climbs during the season to readjust the ropes because the ice moves several feet in the summer, he said.

A blinding snowstorm blew up unexpectedly not long after Healy’s group started the summit assault.

“The snow was blowing almost horizontally and my face felt like it was being sandblasted,” Healy recalled.

They reached the summit after the storm passed at 8:50 a.m.

“We stayed 10 or 15 minutes and then began the descent. It was a little anticlimactic after all that preparation,” he said.

The descent to Camp Four took four hours. They stayed overnight and descended the next day to Camp Two, skipping Camp Three. They reached Base Camp on May 26.

“You aren’t carrying as much on the descent,” Healy said, explaining the shorter descent time.

“You have to carry six liters of water per day from Camp 2 for drinking, washing and cooking. There’s a barrel latrine at Camp 2 but from there on you go where you can and you don’t worry about privacy,” Healy said.

No one among Healy’s group was killed but he had heard there had been four fatalities previously this season.

“We were one of the last of the season,” he said. “On K2 and Annapurna [nearby Himalayan peaks] the death rate is more than 20 percent,” he said. “It used to be the same on Everest until 1990 but with the fixed lines and the newest gear, the fatalities have come down.”

Healy said later that the oldest person to reach the Everest summit was a 76-year-old Nepalese citizen.

“According to the Himalayan database through the spring of last year, I’d be the third-oldest American to summit Everest and the 20th person at age 65 or older,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, I’m the first person to make the summit with a total hip replacement.

“From Base Camp we were able to take a helicopter back to Katmandu,” Healy continued. “The thought of another three days on the mountain was too much. Only one of us decided to trek back — Alison Levine,” he said. “She’s a very small woman — seemingly frail but obviously not frail at all. I don’t know how she did it. She barely ate.”

Healy, a founding partner of Visual Graphic Systems, a prosperous sign manufacturer, dedicated his Everest ascent to the Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children in Katmandu.

“Bruce Moore, the field director of the American Himalayan Foundation, took a few of us to visit the hospital just outside Katmandu,” Healy said. “The work they do is amazing. There were kids born with clubfeet — a genetic defect that seems to be common in the region. There were kids from remote areas who had broken bones that didn’t heal properly because they weren’t able to get treatment soon enough.”

The hospital manufactures all its own therapeutic and prosthetic devises, Healy said.

“My total hip replacement cost me $50,000. The average cost of an operation for a child at H.R.D.C. is $150. So your tax-deductible contribution goes a long way,” he said. For more information, visit www.himalayan.foundation.org. Healy’s company and Chelsea Piers made donations to the hospital.

“Nepal is a very unstable country,” Healy observed, recalling a visit he made with his family as a tourist — not a mountaineer — in 2001. “We arrived three days after a royal massacre. There was a noon curfew but we managed to get out,” he recalled.

During his Everest expedition, from March to May, there were disturbances attributed to Maoists.

What about the next expedition?

“I’m not planning anything for a while,” he said.