Joby Ogwyn is subdued and exhausted, but not defeated.
He still plans to jump off Mount Everest next spring, he tells Zap2it in a long interview, in the same Manhattan hotel room where he spoke with such enthusiasm a month ago.
Then he was about to climb to the summit, and fling himself off in a customized wing suit to become the first man to fly from the world’s tallest peak.
Ogwyn had planned the trip carefully and trained extensively. Discovery Channel had been set to air it, slated for Sunday, May 11. Then the most fatal day in the great mountain’s history happened on April 18, when 16 sherpas died in avalanche.
Ogwyn was there. He tried to help save men. Instead he was part of a recovery mission.
Discovery Channel is instead airing “Everest Avalanche Tragedy” Sunday (May 4), featuring first-hand accounts and capturing the intricate rescue.
Ogwyn knew all 16 sherpas, as he has been climbing there for 15 years. For most of his climbs, Ogwyn did not use a sherpa, but for this expedition he needed additional equipment, so he requested three particular sherpas.
“I knew they would appreciate what I was trying to do,” he says.
Ogwyn arrived in Nepal on April 4, and took a week to walk to base camp.
He was well aware of the dangers, and had said so before he left. He’s witnessed many avalanches before, even getting caught one in 2005 in Pakistan, but nothing like this.
“Most people don’t survive avalanches in the Himalayas because they tend to be pretty big,” Ogwyn says.
Ogwyn explains the difference between an Everest avalanche and one in Colorado, where the snow is fluffier and people can be extracted from it. On Mt. Everest when a glacier breaks fee “it buries people like concrete buries them,” he says.
One man was pulled out alive because he was buried only waist-deep. Others were entombed in the ice.
“It was a hanging glacier, a big piece of ice that came off the west shoulder of Everest,” Ogwyn says. “It had been there for millions of years.”
Ogwyn was in his tent, having just awakened. It was still cold at 6:45 a.m., and he was waiting for the light to hit the tent and go to breakfast when he heard it. It’s a deep, angry sound and Ogwyn knew instantly.
Like the others at base camp, he scrambled out and toward the disaster. A fast climber, it took Ogwyn an hour to climb the half-mile, yet he knew this was likely a recovery not a rescue mission.
“I knew this was going to be bad,” he says.
There was a powerful helicopter in the area and Ogwyn watched as it made trip after trip, with a long line onto which the other sherpas attached their fallen colleagues, wrapped in sleeping bags or tents.
“I sat there and watched the whole thing,” he says. “They found body after body.”
One of the world’s most experienced climbers, Ogwyn is certain there was nothing anyone could have done different.
“It was incredibly bad luck,” he says. “If they had been 30 minutes later it probably would have hit nobody. The guys who were in front turned around and saw guys get blown away by an avalanche. It was just an act of God.”
The misconception he would like to dispel is that sherpas are treated as second-class citizens.
“I think what people don’t realize is how much the sherpas enjoy their jobs,” he says. “They are far from slaves.”
“My goal went from climbing and jumping off the mountain to raising money for the families,” Ogwyn says.
For those who want to donate, Ogwyn asks they give to: The Sherpa Family Fund where 100 percent of the proceeds will go the sherpas’ families.
One can’t have climbed all of the major mountains and taken up the hobby of wing suit flying without knowing casualties, and Ogwyn says he lost three close friends flying.
“I was thinking before this trip that if I could pull this off, I was going to retire,” he says. “I was not going to go to Everest again and I was going to step back from wing suit flying.”
No one would fault Ogwyn for leaving the challenge at this point, but he’s determined to still sail off the mountain.
“I want to finish what I’ve started,” he says. “I’m 39. I can’t reset to do anything else. I have done a lot more producing and setting up lecture, and a lot is based on this. I’ve got to do this. Next spring will be my opportunity.”
The man who says he’s afraid of heights glances out the window on the 35th floor, and says, “The mountain is not going anywhere.”