JACKSON — Not many towns in New Hampshire can lay claim to having two residents who have stood at the top of the world, but Jackson's not like other towns. It has Thom Pollard and Mark Synnott, who both took part in an Everest expedition this spring during one of the craziest climbing seasons the mountain has ever witnessed.
Pollard, who turned 58 on July 1, summited from the southern, Nepalese side in 2016 and his friend, big-wall climber Mark Synnott, 49, recently achieved that feat from the northern, Tibetan (Chinese) side on May 30.
They join fellow Mount Washington Valley resident Rick Wilcox, 71, of Eaton in having scaled Everest (Wilcox of International Mountain Equipment led the successful 1991 New England Everest Expedition).
To mark the achievement, Pollard and Synnott recently presented a banner created by Tonya Ring of Carolyn’s Valley Tailoring Shop of North Conway to the Jackson Police Department.
As Jackson Police Chief Chris Perley noted Wednesday at the presentation ceremony: “I think it’s pretty neat that these two regular Jackson guys achieved what they have, showing tenacity, stick-to-it-tiveness and vision. It’s a goal that we share at the department.”
While the two climbers were both part of the same National Geographic-sponsored expedition to Tibet this past spring, due to a health scare that arose at higher altitude, Pollard was forced to pull out just as the team departed for high camp.
Though disappointed, Pollard, the father of two sons, said he is at peace with the decision, even though it meant he could not say he'd summited the world’s tallest mountain from both sides or reach it with well-known climbing friend Synnott (who appeared in the Oscar-winning film "Free Solo" on Alex Honnold's ropeless El Capitan ascent and also wrote a book about it) .
Having to turn back “was the hardest decision of my life,” Pollard recalled. “I was prepared to go up, in my gear, literally minutes from departing to the North Col, and the foremost authority on altitude physiology, Dr. Peter Hackett, texted Mark — his message said if my condition returns at altitude, I’ll die. That’s when the team basically said ‘Pollard, it’s over for you. You’re going down.’ We were less than three days away, a straight shot to the summit."
Incredibly, given the circus-like climbing crowds that typify most Everest ascents these days, Synnott, his three team members and six Sherpa support guides had the summit all to themselves for 10 to 15 minutes.
Team members summiting with Synnott were their guide, six-time Everest summiter Jamie McGuinness of New Zealand, and Renan Ozturk and Matt Irving, both of Utah.
In addition to Pollard, other members of the team who did not summit for health reasons included Jim Hurst of Colorado and Nick Kalisz of Utah.
Part of their story is what most people became aware of this year — that it was a deadly one on the world’s tallest peak, with 11 people perishing in climbing incidents. One reason for that is made clear in the photo that has now gone viral of climbers caught in a single-file traffic jam on May 22-23. This meant climbers were spending as long as 20 hours in the “Death Zone,” the area above 26,000 feet where the air is thin and most need supplemental oxygen.
Of the 800 who attempted to summit from the south side this year, nine died. Of the 300 who tried from the northern side, two died. This compares to a total of five in all of 2018.
This year's toll was the highest number of climbers killed since 2015, when more than a dozen died, most in an avalanche at base camp. In 2014, when Pollard was there on a filming assignment, 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche.
A key part of Synnott and Pollard’s story is that their team chose to wait to ascend until May 30.
It was a gamble, because there were few good summit days this season. And during the wait, it allowed Pollard’s health issue to arise. However, he said he's just thankful Synnott reached his goal and they all made it home safely.
After returning to the Mount Washington Valley in early June, the two recently shared details from the epic adventure during an interview at the J-Town Deli in Jackson.
A New York Times best-selling author of “The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan and the Climbing Life,” Synnott said he is now writing a book about his Everest expedition and that a film is also in the works.
Like Synnott, Pollard is an accomplished climbing writer, as well as a noted filmmaker and photographer.
In addition to summiting in 2016, Pollard was part of a PBS “Nova” television expedition in 1999 that found the body of pioneering Everest explorer George Mallory, who died while climbing Everest with Sandy Irvine in 1924.
In 2014, Pollard accompanied a California climber vying to become the oldest American ever to ascend the 29,029-foot mountain. But those plans went awry when a terrible avalanche occurred on the south side at the Khumu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas.
The following are excerpts from Pollard and Synnott's interview in Jackson. (Note: The climbers are not yet free to speak about the entire focus of the National Geographic expedition pending the publication an article by Synnott, the publication of which has yet to be determined.)
Q: So, how does it feel to have represented Jackson so commendably at the world's highest peak?
POLLARD: To have two from Jackson, yeah, that is pretty awesome!
SYNNOTT: Especially from a town of what, 800 residents? Pretty cool.
Q: There has been a lot of controversy about the guiding/climbing business on Everest. Your thoughts?
SYNNOTT: One of the reasons why we were there was to try and explore the spirit of people who want do these crazy things — it’s sort of what we celebrate here in Mount Washington Valley, with all the climbing etc., right? It’s really the same thing, but just an extreme example.
Q: But what about the crowding?
SYNNOTT: China handles things differently than Nepal concerning the issuance of permits. China does set restrictions at least on the number of permits they allow to be given on the mountain, and they are limiting the operators to be able to carry those permits. So they are weeding out a lot of the weak links that do lead to the deaths.
POLLARD: The south (Nepalese) side does have a certain lawlessness to it, like the Wild West, almost, you know, where “anyone with a gun and horse can ride into town.” And without being too disrespectful to the Nepalese government, they seem to be more interested in getting the $12,000 per than keeping people safe.
Q: As two people who achieved that goal (and Thom, your passion has brought you to Everest four times), has the crush cheapened the significance of the accomplishment?
SYNNOTT: It’s an obvious conclusion for everybody to take on this — I guess I thought that myself before I went, but now that I have been there and interacted with these people and gotten a feel for it and everyone we met … my take on it is that it is cool that people want to climb.
Do you really want to fault someone who wants to stand on top of planet Earth?
Now that I have been there, I sort of want to defend these people. Sitting at home and talking about what a junk show it is (and it is a junk show), that’s one thing; but now that I have been there, I appreciate that it takes a lot of grit to do what they did in getting there.
But to fault someone for wanting to climb Everest is like faulting people wanting to climb Mount Washington.
POLLARD: Yes, agreed, but there are too many people up there without the perquisite experience to do it. (Synnott nods in agreement.)
Q: Please share with us, Mark, how it was that, given the overcrowding issue, you and your team members had the summit to yourself?
SYNNOTT: There had been terrible weather leading up to it, but then we got an opening.
Our guide, Jamie, had hired a professional meteorologist to provide us with weather forecasts, who was saying we had a good forecast, and then we had the Chinese calling us on the mountain and telling us we had terrible weather forecasts ahead so, there were a lot of unknowns.
The Chinese really wanted us to come down, as they were afraid something bad was going to happen to us.
When we were moving up (on May 29) to Camp 3, which is the final camp at 8,300 meters (27,230 feet), we were at about 8,000 meters in between the two camps when Jamie called us and said the climb is off; something like there were too many factors working against us.
There was an abandoned tent there, and we (Matt, Renan and I) climbed into it, and we said we don’t want to come down, we think the weather’s good, and we want to keep going. About half of our Sherpas bailed out for various reasons – but then Jamie called back and said we’ve got six Sherpas, we’re going to keep going.
When we got to high camp, we crawled into some abandoned tents that had been left there by past expeditions at about 5 in the evening. This was May 29.
We rested until 10 p.m., then we headed for the top. We climbed all through the night, summiting at 7:12 a.m. We spent 10 to 15 minutes on top of the world! It was so hard to get there.
An indication of that? Renan, who had been taking photos and filming constantly throughout the entire trip, was so smoked when we got to the top that I don’t think he took a single photo on top. He crawled the last 50 feet on his hands and knees.
He’s 39 and a world-class climber — probably his oxygen wasn’t working properly. As for me, I didn’t feel like my oxygen was doing its job, either — I was sucking on my mask for all it was worth and thinking that I was not getting crap anything out of this!
It’s a lot harder than people might imagine. I trained hard, and I was fit, and I have climbed all my life, but it was the hardest thing I have ever done. Again, it makes you appreciate what all these other people, the Indians, for example, who have Everest fever, are attempting to do without having climbed all their lives!
I would also have to say that all my years of climbing Mount Washington is a good training ground for Everest: I have climbed lots of other places than Everest, and I cannot think of a better place to prepare for it than Mount Washington, due to its high winds and cold …
On Everest, the big thing is the cold — but it ended up not being that big of a factor on summit day (May 30), as it was only minus-20 or so, with no wind. But if you stopped, you could feel the cold seeping into your suit, so, it was important to keep moving.
So, four from our party — Renan, Matt, Jamie and I — and six Sherpas summited. As I looked around, there was no one there! I looked down that ridge, where hundreds of people in that now viral photo (on May 22) had been shown to everyone around the world and here we were, and there … was … no one!
After spending time on the summit, Synnott and his teammates began their descent, with perfect sunny weather. They climbed down to Camp 3, arriving at 1 p.m. They were supposed to pack up and keep going, but Synnott says he was so exhausted he climbed back into his sleeping bag to rest.
Synnott and Ozturk left Camp 3 at approximately 5 p.m. Scrambling in 20- to 30-minute spurts, they descended another 4,000 feet to reach the North Col at 23,000 feet by 8 p.m., where the air was thicker.
After coming 6,000 feet from the summit, Synnott says he was so spent and dehydrated that when he tried a little freeze-dried food he vomited. He also realized he couldn’t remember the last time he had urinated because he was so dehydrated. He took three sips of a Coke and passed out — for 12 hours of much-needed deep sleep.
SYNNOTT: The next day, we woke up, and I was pretty freaking beat. I had hurt my knee coming down, and we had to hike out 13 miles to Base Camp, which is at 17,000 feet.
Thom took a photo of me there, and I was pretty smoked.
POLLARD: It was fantastic to see him. I was at Base Camp when the team summited, and there had been almost no calls from the team up to that time, but Mark called while they were still up there on the mountain (on their way down) and said, "Wish you had been here on the summit, and our blood pact (made last June that they were going to go to Everest no matter what) is alive."
There’s more to their story, but it will have to wait for the National Geographic coverage — and, no doubt, talks to be given by the two Jackson-based, world-traveling climbers.