BARTLETT — Ever wonder what it’s like to stand at the 29,029-foot top of the world?
Not many towns can claim that three year-round residents have stood on Everest’s summit, but Mount Washington Valley can, and come Nov. 8, the local trio of high altitude climbers‚ 1991 New England Everest Expedition leader Rick Wilcox, 71, of Eaton; 2016 Everest climber/filmmaker Thom Pollard 58, of Jackson; and 2019 climber/author Mark Synnott, 49, also of Jackson‚ will be speaking at a fundraiser for the non-profit Mountain Rescue Service at Theater in the Wood in Intervale.
“Everest: ’91 to ’19,” will be presented from 6:30-9 p.m. at the theater located at 41 Observatory Way in Intervale.
“It will provide a good opportunity for folks to get an inside look at Everest and climbing, and to have a discussion with the climbers,” said event organizer Tyler Ray of Backyard Concept, the new local advocacy organization focused in outdoor recreation.
Beginning with Wilcox’s days pioneering the New England Everest Expedition in 1991 to Pollard’s quest to locate and eventually discover the body of famed 1924 Everest explorer George Mallory in 1999 and, finally, to Synnott’s experience in the “death zone” during one of the most crowded — and deadly — years on Everest this past spring when he climbed from the Tibetan, or north, side, there will be plenty to discuss, three of the participants (sans Synnott, who was away) noted in a pre-event interview in North Conway on Wednesday.
Pollard was also part of this year’s Everest expedition with Synnott, but due to health concerns had to bow out of the final ascent high on the mountain three days before his friend Synnott made his ascent this past May. Like Wilcox and Synnott, he has had a driving passion about all things related to the mountain, which they will share in the talk.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the Mountain Rescue Service, for which Wilcox served as president for 40 years and rescue team leader. He and Synnott remain on the board of directors, and like all members, Pollard is often called upon to help in search and rescues with the MRS team that is now led by Steve Dupuis.
The event also will launch The North Face concept store, a collaboration project with sponsors The North Face, Ragged Mountain Equipment and Synnott Mountain Guides, located inside Ragged Mountain Equipment in Intervale.
A free pre-event reception open the public will be held at Ragged Mountain Equipment from 4-6 p.m. on Nov. 8, and will feature book signings, giveaways, food and beverages, and new The North Face products, including those made from the ultra-light and breathable FutureLight fabric.
The format for the presentation, Wilcox, Pollard and Ray noted, will allot 15 minutes to each climber, accompanied by a slide show and other displays, followed by questions form the audience.
A major part of the presentation, no doubt, will be comparisons between what it was like in the less-crowded climbing days of when Wilcox, then 43, scaled the world’s highest peak from the south side versus today’s modern era, as illustrated by the photo that went viral this past spring. It showed lines of climbers in a single-file traffic jam on a rope in the “Death Zone” above 8,000 meters on the south side of Everest, when climbers were spending as long as 20 hours in the oxygen-thin air above 26,000 feet and where overall, 12 people died this climbing season.
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 different filming assignment, 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche. In 1996, 15 people died, including eight on May 11, a disaster that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, “Into Thin Air.”
About 800 people now attempt to climb Everest every year and the latest data show that 5,294 have succeeded, while 200 have died trying.
That all contrasts to Wilcox’s ascent in 1991, when a total of two climbers unaffiliated with his New England Everest Expedition died.
That was when just 30 climbers attempted it in five different parties — three of those groups turned back before they reached the South Col, while two parties made it: Wilcox’s (with four of the eight on the expedition reaching the top) and another led by noted mountaineer Ed Viesturs.
New England team members who summited on May 15, 1991, included the late Yves Laforest of Quebec and Mark Richey of Essex, Mass., (at 8:30 and 9:30 a.m., respectively), followed by Wilcox at 9:45 a.m. and partner Barry Rugo of northern Massachusetts at 10 a.m.
When Pollard summited, he left high camp at 7 p.m. on May 21, 2016, Nepal time, climbing with a Sherpa and reaching the summit at 2:40 a.m. on May 22. They were alone together at the top for 30 minutes before descending back to Camp 4.
Synnott — New York Times best-selling author of “The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan and the Climbing Life,” and a world-esteemed climber and guide and member of The North Face athlete team — opted not to make a summit attempt on the day that turned out to be immortalized by that viral image of the crowds on the South Col that was taken May 22 and 23.
He gambled instead that another opportunity for a summit attempt would happen despite the bad weather that had thwarted this year’s turbulent climbing season.
That day came on May 29, just prior to the arrival of the monsoon season, when Synnott and three fellow members of the expedition along with six Sherpas left high camp at 10 p.m., arriving at the summit at 7:12 a.m., and spending 10 to 15 minutes at the top of the world which they had to themselves on a cold but windfree day.
Wilcox says in their presentation Nov. 8, he, Pollard and Synnott will talk about how while many things have changed, the motive to climb Everest remains the same, no matter the much-storied crowds.
“When we climbed (in 1991),” said Wilcox, owner of International Mountain Equipment of North Conway, “the biggest thing we had to cope with was to get through the Khumbu Ice Fall (at the bottom part of the mountain from the South side), which is the most treacherous section. It’s pretty straightforward after that, high climbing and difficult … But now, the biggest thing you have to deal with is all the hordes of people! I think a great part of the story is that both Thom in his 2016 ascent from the same South side that I took and Mark in his success this year from the North both avoided the crowds and how they did that.”
Wilcox said the challenge for a real climber today (as opposed to adventure clients who pay thousands of dollars to get the opportunity to try the world’s tallest peak) is: “How are you going to avoid the crowds? In both of their recent trips, (Pollard and Synnott) were able to avoid the crowds. Today, in their recent climbs, they had fixed ropes (set already) and a lot more technology than we had back in ’91, but by avoiding the crowds, they could experience pretty much what we had, where you weren’t waiting in line behind people, taking one step every 20 minutes.
“When we climbed the summit,” added Wilcox, “we sort of climbed in pairs, but we climbed at our own speed, and the pace that you set at high altitude is the most efficient pace where you can keep going all day.
“But you’re not wasting time, either, and that pace is different for every person. You wait and wait and wait, and you get to Hillary Step, and it takes you 20 minutes to wait and go up 40 feet of rope, versus with us, we just frickin’ climbed the thing and went on!”
Looking back, Wilcox said, “Although it wasn’t the toughest climb I ever did, it was the most rewarding, especially in terms of our business.”
In a phone interview Thursday from the Banff Film Festival, Synnott — who is writing a book about his and Pollard’s Everest adventure — said despite the oft-told contemporary story about the crowding on Everest, the mountain’s appeal remains, for lack of a better word, “paramount” in the eyes of climbers, adventurers and mankind in general.
“At the talk, I will speak of the Everest spirit that is still alive and which lies underneath all the chaos we hear about,” Synnott said.
“That spirit is still there — I saw it and heard it when Thom and I were there this spring, among the people who were there, and I think that is admirable because it is the same spirit that had led mankind to so many achievements.
“I think they just want to stand on top of the world, and I think that’s pretty cool — none of them want to get caught in a big crowd, and they won’t in a good weather year when they have more windows than the few we had this year,” he said.
“It’s still a powerful thing to want to climb Everest, and the mountain is still a beautiful thing. I was fortunate in that I got to see the mountain without all the chaos.”
For Pollard, who produced the New England Everest Expedition’s “Thin Air” video for Wilcox in 1992 and who has made four trips to Everest as a climber and journalist, his Everest quests all have been about a journey that has not only changed his life but which continues to evolve.
“Everest has become sort of a lifetime career for me, and summiting was just one of so many experiences and lessons, and I have not seen the last of it,” said Pollard.
He said summiting in 2016 “for me physically was one of the easiest days I have ever had as a climber, as it was 10 hours from high camp to the summit and back to high camp.
“So, I didn’t experience those struggles that others have, but I have had great challenges on other parts of the mountain, having witnessed countless deaths there, starting in 1999 when I first went there (on the PBS “Nova” expedition to find Mallory’s body),” Pollard said.
“Those experiences have become part of who I am and part of my journey. I have grown with it and it has grown with me.”
Regular admission seating for what promises to be a sold-out event on Nov. 8 will be $20, but VIP tickets at $100 will entitle people to enjoy a dinner with the three Everest climbers at Ragged Mountain, catered by Veno’s Specialty Foods.
VIP ticketholders also will receive a signed custom poster created for the event as well as premier seating at Theater in the Wood. For more information, go to eventbrite.com/everest91to19.