Vahe Gregorian

Amid controversy, death on Everest, Kansas Citian offers another view from summit

Thomas Becker represented Kansas City when he recently reached the summit of Mt. Everest.
Thomas Becker represented Kansas City when he recently reached the summit of Mt. Everest. Photo courtesy Thomas Becker

Before his social conscience and dedication to human rights work led him to Lebanon to document war crimes, and Rwanda to witness the horrors of genocide, and Mexico as what he calls a “nonviolent bodyguard” for the Zapatista guerillas …

Before he went to India to investigate the torture and disappearances of Adavasis, and to Bolivia as a driving force in a lawsuit against the former president and defense minister for their role in the massacre of indigenous peasants …

Before he was a Harvard-educated lawyer …

Before he was known for his musicianship and animated performances with various alternative rock bands, including touring the United States and Europe with Beautiful Bodies …

Thomas Becker was growing up in Central Hyde Park, where his favorite phrase as a young child was “that’s not fair” — a notion his parents figure now testifies to his desire to create fairness for everybody.

It’s also where the Rockhurst High graduate quietly began what he calls “a lifetime of nerding out” over books, articles and films about Mt. Everest.

While that particular fascination didn’t necessarily register with his parents, Tom and Linda, they remember that he always loved to climb things — whether the backyard gym set, trees, hills or even cliffs.

“I may or may not have climbed one or two speakers or rafters — or walls at the Midland,” he said, laughing as he spoke from Kathmandu, Nepal, adding, “That was part of my training. I think you’re on to something.”

But it was his time spent in a rock climbing gym owned by Elsa Bleeker that more directly led to what he considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity realized last month.

The simple version is that his friend Bleeker developed a relationship with a Sherpa, which in turn led to Becker and his friend Dan Wehrly (a native of Emmett, Kansas, who now lives in Kansas City) being invited to take on the Everest quest at a fraction of what normally costs tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s a bit of a human traffic jam as climbers cross ladders in the Khumbu Icefall. Photo courtesy Thomas Becker

All of this coalesced on May 23, when the 40-year-old Becker and Wehrly reached the summit at 29,029 feet and Becker proudly held up a banner touting Kansas City — a gesture he joked was cheesy but nonetheless a way to trumpet an “awesome city” that he’s found overlooked on the West and East coasts and as he spans the globe.

It was no life-changing moment, he’ll tell you. But everything looked vast and small from the top of the world, even for someone who had such a remarkable perspective on what’s below.

That included appreciation of the support he got from his anxious parents (my friends and former neighbors) as he set about on another “quixotic adventure” amid worries amplified by 11 deaths on Everest this year alone.

In this case, it culminated in minus-40 degree conditions after a two-month trip fraught with perils, including stolen oxygen tanks, frostbite, snow blindness, overcrowding and the implications of seeing death around him.

All for one, one for all

If Becker had his way, he’d have kept his story to a select few since it was an intensely personal challenge for a man compelled by the notion of ordinary people striving to do extraordinary things.

But once it trickled out on Facebook, he figured he’d share his thoughts on this — much of which are aligned with his approach to his other passions.

As much as with human rights causes and being part of a band, he said, this feat was about trust and all for one, one for all — an attitude to consider even for those of us who could never contemplate that altitude.

Becker’s partners Daniel Wehrly and Elsa Bleeker in the Western Cwm (not a misspelling; it’s pronounced “koom” and refers to a steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley, or on a mountainside). Photo courtesy Thomas Becker

“People talk about Everest as this great individual achievement, but to me it’s the pinnacle of collective struggle. I simply would not have made it to the top if it weren’t for the amazing people I was with,” he wrote on Facebook. “Since the first summit when (Edmund) Hillary was given knighthood and (Sherpa) Tenzig Norgay was basically given a pat on the back, people have romanticized the white dudes who climb the mountain and ignore the Sherpas. The Sherpas on my team were stronger, braver and kinder than me, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Nor, he added, without his “gringo friends:” Wehrly and Bleeker. She wisely turned back between camps three and four amid signs of severe frostbite, but not before making everyone around her stronger. Becker considers her more responsible than anyone for his reaching the summit.

As for his own health, Becker still is in Nepal recovering and has required treatment for frostbite and snow blindness and is working through what is known as the Khumbu cough.

The snow blindness is a result of an apparent equipment malfunction: When a regulator in his dwindling oxygen supply froze, the humidity from his breath liquefied and dripped into his goggles, rendering them like icicles in the reflection of the sun. It inflamed his corneas and left him needing help on the way down.

While Becker reports no ongoing issues with his vision, alas, the frostbite is another matter, a consequence of the stolen oxygen that left them with only two of their original six canisters apiece.

Diminished oxygen in the so-called “death zone,” above 26,000 feet, meant less blood to the extremities. That was particularly problematic for someone who says he’s built like Pee-wee Herman and lost 20-25 pounds along the way up.

“If I didn’t take care of it, I could lose the tip of one of my fingers, but I’m on my best behavior,” he said, somehow laughing. “In the grand scheme of things I’m doing great.”

A haunting experience

Becker is as modest as he is self-deprecating, the sort of thing that you notice when he refers to his work as a clinical instructor for “a law school in Boston.” It’s also known as Harvard.

Becker’s climbing partner, Daniel Wehrly, looks out over the nearby peak of Pumari. Photo courtesy of Thomas Becker

So while he says “I don’t know if I’m a strong climber or not,” he entered this venture with extensive experience.

He’s certified in a high-altitude glacier course in Bolivia, where he’s climbed several 20,000 foot mountains … as he also has in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. He’s scaled Mr. Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) in Africa and has been up to 24,000 feet in the Pamirs in Central Asia. He’s working on climbing the tallest mountains on every continent, with Asia, Africa and Europe checked off.

He wishes that all who went to Everest had similar foundations. But they didn’t.

“To me,” he said, “people who should have turned around continued.”

He recalled a woman whom they “basically had to teach how to climb.” They ended up literally catching her during a couple of falls before they felt comfortable moving forward from her just below the south summit where it evens off.

Elsa Bleeker, one of Becker’s climbing partners, ascends a ladder in the Khumbu Icefall. Photo courtesy Thomas Becker

She was safe then, but Becker was jarred the other day to see a news report of the death of a woman wearing similarly unique gear who had fallen ill while descending.

He also had passed at least five or six dead people and was left wondering about others being carried down.

It’s a haunting part of much he has yet to process about the experience.

“These were people who only a few days or even hours before were elatedly headed to the summit to fulfill a dream, and now they are gone,” he said. “I kept thinking of their families as I climbed and, frankly, I have continued to think about them since I got off the mountain.”

The matter of safety and preparedness is part of a recent surge of controversy about Everest that includes issues of overcrowding and commercialism.

In an article last month headlined “‘It Was Like A Zoo:’ Death on an Unruly, Overcrowded Everest,” The New York Times wrote that “fly-by-night adventure companies are taking up untrained climbers who pose a risk to everyone on the mountain. And the Nepalese government, hungry for every climbing dollar it can get, has issued more permits than Everest can safely handle, some experienced mountaineers say.”

Last week, The Atlantic magazine wrote that “Everest Is Over … With crowds, trash, and selfies at its summit, the once untamable mountain has lost its cultural power.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Becker sees it less cynically.

Becker and climbing partner Daniel Wehrly enjoy the view from the top of Everest. Photo courtesy Thomas Becker

“On the one hand, I knew before I arrived that Everest would have its fair share of issues,” he said. “The mountain attracts all sorts of people, including the overly ambitious and underprepared who are eager to stand on top of the world.

“Each year it seems to get worse as more people without an understanding of and respect for the mountain flock to Everest.”

On the other hand …

“Everest has such a rich history of exploration and adventurism that is totally infectious when you are on the mountain. People from across the world have come to challenge themselves and follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest explorers and mountaineers of the past century.

“It’s a pretty special experience to witness people’s excitement and share in the history of the mountain.”

Especially for someone who figured it was utterly impossible as a kid. Then he came to realize that things that seemed “way out there or foreign or crazy to me weren’t so crazy or foreign. These are things I can do.”

From wanting to see what’s out there in the world to going to the top of it, things that connect all this in his spirited life.

“Being foolish enough to hitchhike across Africa,” he said, “is probably the same foolishness that drove me to the top of Everest.”

Lhakpa Sherpa of Hartford, Conn., recently climbed Mt. Everest for the ninth time, a new women's record. "It's looking so beautiful every way! And it feels good," Sherpa said.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.