“It’s almost like the military though. Cause you got all the cool gear, you have to prepare, and you have to take calculated risks, and you live and die by the decisions.” – Brian Dickinson
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Brian Dickinson (@BrianCDickinson) has always been an adventurer, and was Air Rescue Swimmer in the Navy. He is now a very accomplished mountaineer. He’s written a book about his climb of Everest called “Blind Descent: Surviving Alone and Blind on Mount Everest.” Today he tells Mark about how he got into mountaineering after the Navy, and his harrowing adventures climbing Everest.
- He lost his Sherpa to illness with about 1000 feet left to go to the summit
- The day after summiting, he lost his ability to see, and had to make his way down without eyesight.
- An oxygen tank that had malfunctioned earlier miraculously started working just in time for him to be able to breath
Understand how faith and determination allowed Brian to overcome one of the most difficult situations imaginable.
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Mark: Hey folks. Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is Mark Divine. Super stoked to have you with me today. Thanks so much for your time and your attention.
My guest today is Brian Dickinson and Brian has a really interesting story, and he’s a fellow teammate. Served with me in the navy as an air rescue swimmer… Is that what they call it air rescue swimmer?
And has done some really interesting things. So, air rescue swimmer back in the 90s. So, we overlapped… When’d you get in the navy?
Mark: ’93. Did you get in it eighteen-year-old kid kind of thing? Like most kids go through bootcamp?
’93… So, I was at SEAL team 3 in ’93.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing and what inspired you to join the Navy? To be a rescue swimmer?
Brian: Came from a family of Navy. I think when it’s instilled in you that kind of helps. Gonna get some impressions growing up. But I grew up in the 80s. So not a lot of Technology. No social media. No distractions. It was just a different world back then.
I grew up in Southern Oregon – it’s very adventurous. Nothing was ever given to me. So, everything that I’ve ever achieved I really had to go after.
So, college was less appealing right out of high school. I wanted to go see the world and just be bigger than…
Mark: And Navy’s a great way to that.
Brian: Sure is. And pays for college. Pays for Bachelor’s and a master’s which is amazing. But yeah and I didn’t want to go in and clean toilets either. I mean, every job is important, but we’re all wired differently, and that wasn’t my thing so I wanted to – actually want to be a SEAL – but I wanted to not go to BUD/S and fail out from injury or something out of my control. I wanted to have a back-up plan. I’m a planner.
So, I went to air rescue swimmer school.
Mark: So, you went there before buds and thinking that maybe after that you could cross over. There has been a lot of air rescue swimmers have crossed over to buds.
Brian: Yeah so, I guess the unfortunate thing – maybe fortunate – you never know how things would have turned out… I was in ’93 so the first Gulf War had just ended so there was the downsizing.
So, my whole class of at rescue swimmer school went through the in-tests. Majority of us passed, and they put us all on pause.
Mark: Are you serious?
Brian: So, we had to do at least I think four years of our commitment.
Mark: Before becoming a rescue swimmer?
Brian: No, no, no. Before going to buds…
Mark: Oh, before you could ever do any transfer.
Brian: Yeah. So, we were all… Did our swimmer time. Had friends that did their time, went to buds, became SEALs. And by that time, I was ready to move on.
Mark: Right tell us a little bit about the job of the air rescue swimmer. So, it’s a lot like the Coast Guards, right? You jump out of planes or helicopters to find people who are stranded at sea, or to provide assistance… Like, medical assistance right and stuff like that.
Brian: Yeah. So, our motto is “so others may live.” so it’s… The whole point is to save others. So, on a carrier we’re the first and last aircraft to take off and land when there’s flight ops…
Mark: Are you up in the air while there’s flight ops going on?
Brian: Yeah, always.
Brian: Yep. So, doing lots of circles on the right side of the carrier. Just waiting for someone to be eject, someone to fall over… You never know what the mission may be. And like the Coast Guard, we do the training together. Very similar. Because it’s same training.
But what we do additionally, is we have secondary, tertiary skills… Like anti-submarine warfare, combat search and rescue, and working with SEALs and fast roping and…
Mark: And what was your specialty.
Brian: Well everything.
Mark: Just like a SEAL. You specialize in everything.
Brian: Yeah, it’s like Jack of all. And hopefully master of some.
Mark: Yeah right. What was the most interesting thing that you got to do or the most meaningful event while you were an air rescue swimmer?
Brian: I mean, it’s so many… Six years, two tours, operation southern watch over in the Gulf.
Mark: Any particular rescue that comes to mind or event?
Brian: Yeah, I mean anytime you’re involved in something, it’s just a selfless act. And I think in the moment, you’re so focused on what you’re doing. It’s after the fact when you actually can reflect on it and realize, like, “that was pretty cool.” maybe you have those experiences.
Mark: Yeah, it’s not often very cool in the moment. Afterwards yes.
Brian: Yeah, it’s kind of to reflect. But it’s total chaos and all that training comes into play. I mean, we were in the Gulf and they blew the whistle. People in the water and I’m on alert 30. We’re spinning up. We don’t know what we’re doing.
Mark: What’s alert 30 mean?
Brian: Means we have to be in the helicopter, dressed, ready to rescue within 30 minutes so like when we’re going through the Straits would be alert 5. It’ll actually be spinning, ready to launch.
Mark: And you’re already jocked up probably…
Brian: Yeah exactly. And there was actually some Iraqis that were fishermen over there. So good people. And their boat had sank and they’d been in the water for like five days half the crew was eaten by sharks.
Mark: Oh, good lord.
Brian: So, we launched and we don’t really know what we’re in for. But we had to actually launch a Zodiac with Marines. Shotguns on a them. I’m backed off. Got the m240
Mark: Because you didn’t know what you’re gonna find.
Brian: We don’t know good or bad. We just know that they are in a bad condition. And if we would have tried to hoist them, their skin could have degloved from their body, cause they’d been in the water for so long.
Brian: So, they kind of rolled them into the zodiac. And those guys were barely alive. And just so appreciative.
But it’s things like that if I’d have went just to college, I would never had experienced that. It’s very unique.
Mark: So, what made you get out of the Navy after your first tour?
Brian: Oh, I think I was just ready. I was… Some people are lifers it’s their career. I think I was ready to slow down…
Mark: You’d had the adventures that you needed…
Brian: I did in that space. I met my wife to be at the time and being away for six months at a time was really difficult. I wanted to continue college. And just continue down a different path. Find new adventures.
Mark: Good for you. I got off active duty because of my marriage. So, it sounds similar. And I tried… I gave the old college try.
It’s like the Navy would say “mark we know you’re married…” my SEAL teammates were basically my bosses. And they’re my friends. They’re like “yeah, yeah. You don’t have to worry. You get some down time.”
A week later I’m gone for six weeks or… I can’t even tell her when I’m gonna be back. And I don’t even have an idea.
So, the second time that happened, my wife gave me that come-to-Jesus talk. She’s like “this isn’t gonna work.”
So, you made a good choice, I think.
Brian: Sounds like you did too.
Mark: Yeah, I did.
So, what came after that? Like what did you…? You went back to college. What did you study?
Brian: Yes. I had finished my bachelor’s in information technology. Then my wife and I got our masters. We moved up to the Pacific Northwest – just out of Seattle. Got my MBA, she got her master’s in Social Work.
Mark: So, you went to school together? At the same place, same time?
Brian: Yeah, separate schools up there. And then I just started working in the high-tech industry. Right time, right place. Got into sales. Pre-sales engineer and account manager…
Mark: And you still do that today.
Brian: Yeah, yeah. I work out of my home, so adds a lot of flexibility for my other adventure in life.
Mark: Yeah. Well let’s just get into that now. So clearly you kept that thirst for adventure that you found in the Navy as an air rescue swimmer. And you carried into extracurricular activities.
You became a mountaineer.
Mark: And I want to get into your book here. Because you’ve written this book about an experience you had on Mount Everest called “blind descent.”
But tell us about how you got into mountaineering. And like what that progression was like before getting to this particular incident that we could spend some time on.
Brian: Yeah. So, the Pacific Northwest has the Cascades – a beautiful range up there Mount Rainier – most highly glaciated peak in the lower 48. And growing up in Southern Oregon I grew up in the mountains. I used to build like obstacle courses like through the mountains. Back when I was in high school.
It’s funny. I just went back to my parent’s place a couple years ago and brought my kids around. And like all the ropes are still there. And they’re like wanting to climb I’m like “no, no, no. It’s gonna snap.”
Mark: Yeah, it’s been a while.
Brian: It’s cool. Yeah, just always wired differently. Just adventure’s just in some of us. And its where other people just don’t get it. There’s 7 billion people on this earth and small amount will get it so, it is what it is. But living up there in the Cascades…
Mark: On that point though, hang on, what is it about being outside in the mountains that lures you so much? Or keeps pulling you back?
Brian: Yeah, I think it’s nature and just the creation that’s out there. And just being away…
Mark: When you go out, do you go out alone or with a team?
Brian: It depends. Yeah, I’m comfortable alone. Soloed Everest…
Mark: I have remarkable memories of being in the mountains of the Adirondacks and Alaska and different places alone. There’s something about that that’s extraordinary.
There is a difference. There’s obviously a higher risk factor, but it’s just so beautiful to be silent in nature, like that isn’t it?
Brian: It is. But it’s also great to bring out teammates. And just a core group that you bring out. Maybe it’s just one other guy… One of my best friends, he’s living with a brain tumor for the last seven years and he’s one of the most fit guys and motivational guys. No excuses. He’s just out there, just killing it. And I love just going out. We try to get out and do some unique things each year.
And then having kids, bringing them out as well now. They’re kind of getting the bug.
But yeah, it’s just… It’s almost like the military though, because you got all the cool gear and you have to prepare.
Mark: You have to plan.
Brian: Got to plan. And you have to take calculated risks. And you live and die by the decisions. So maybe the military…
Mark: Does your wife participate? Or how about she think about…?
Brian: She and I could not be more opposite. She’s scared of heights, scared of speed, scared of water.
Mark: But she’s okay that you go out and do this?
Brian: Yeah, yeah. And I think it’s a testament of who she is. And she tries to instill that in others that she councils. I know that you have to allow your spouse to be who they are. If you try to suppress that they’re not gonna be…
I don’t do well with downtime. Broken foot… Your foot there…
Mark: Didn’t slow me down, trust me.
Brian: No, I know. And I’m the same. And it’s tough, and maybe that’s something that we need to work on.
Mark: For sure. Sandy would tell me that – my wife. She does, as a matter of fact, all the time.
So, the experiences in the Cascades gave you a lot of confidence and so you had this idea in your head that you could solo mount Everest.
Brian: No not really. No, I got an idea that I could climb the highest peaks on the seven continents.
Mark: Okay, the seven sisters?
Brian: Yeah, and that was a part of…
Mark: Okay so as part of that…
Brian: Yeah. So, this was my third or fourth of that. And my first one was a failure. So, it was Denali. Failure in that. I didn’t reach the top. Success that I came back alive…
Mark: Denali’s in Alaska.
Brian: Yeah. And I’ve been up there three times. Snowboarded it once. And that’s still the one that I’ve not stood on top. All the rest, been on top. So maybe that’s…
Mark: Either that’s the way it’s gonna be or you’re gonna finish it.
Brian: Yeah, and you never know.
So, but yeah, Everest was one of them. I did not intend to solo it. That was not part of the plan. I did go and…
Mark: So, you had a team all the way up and…
Brian: Well I was independent, but I had like Sherpa support. I started a climbing Sherpa with me.
Mark: So, did you hire that person once you got over there as part of your…?
Brian: Being in Seattle, a lot of the guides are there. So, I was able to coordinate everything prior to going. Worked with sponsors for funding. And took a less expensive route.
I had a good climbing Sherpa – Psong – we’re good friends still.
Mark: So, it was just the two of you except for other people you saw.
Brian: Yeah and like Porters… So, it’s 38 miles on foot, just to get to base camp. Which is at 17,500 feet. And then you start heading up and down the mountain, acclimating.
And from there it was really Psong and myself… And we’d have some cooks at base camp.
Mark: Okay, let’s back up a little bit so…
Brian: Backing up.
Mark: Take us… Like… I guess this is a little self-serving…
Brian: Go for it…
Mark: Because I’ve really been like toying with “do I ever want to climb Everest?” and I’ve seen…
Brian: Maybe read this, and maybe you won’t…
Mark: Yeah, I’m going to read your book and I’ve seen the movies. And I’m like “it looks effing painful.”
Brian: Yeah it is.
Mark: Like to be at those altitudes. One foot in front of the other. I’m like “I’m not sure I want to do that.” because I’ve had a lot of… I know what that’s like.
Brian: It’s a sufferfest.
Mark: It’s a total sufferfest.
Brian: You desire it though. Once you’re away from it. It’s that short-term memory.
Mark: I get it. I know.
So, where’d you fly into? Did you climb the Nepal or Tibetan side? Give us the details about all that.
Brian: Yes, so I flew into Kathmandu. And then from there you fly to the shortest, highest airport in the world there. And either Land or you don’t. It’s crazy. It’s this tiny little runway.
And then from there it’s 38 miles on foot.
Mark: And what’s the name of the town that runway is in?
Mark: And that’s in Nepal.
Mark: Okay. And then you got to walk 38 miles. What’s the altitude at that runway?
Brian: It’s about seven thousand feet.
Mark: Seven. So, you go 10,000 feet in 38 miles.
Brian: Yeah. Takes about a week and a half.
Mark: So, it’s a nice, gradual ascent. But you’re still not acclimated at 17,000 feet to what you need…
Brian: No, no, no.
Mark: Because what’s the height of Everest?
Brian: 29,000. Yeah, and at that altitude there’s only a third of the air, a third of the ozone so…
Mark: At 29,000?
Brian: Yeah. So, if you were to pluck your body from here. Put you on the top – you’d pass out and die.
Mark: Immediately. So, you have to acclimatize obviously.
Mark: So, you set up base camp… And I’ve seen pictures… Is it as crazy as it looks? Like how many teams were up there at base camp when you were there?
Brian: It’s always tough to tell. Because base camp you have base camp trekkers people that go just to base camp. You’ll have support groups that are there as well. You have the medical tenancy.
Not everyone is going higher. And then even some that are going higher, they might just be touching the Icefall – Khumbu Icefall – or going up to advanced base camp – which is camp 2 – and that’s as high as they’re going. Or they’re climbing another peak.
Mark: Interesting. So, you can go on into a different peak from the Everest base camp?
Brian: Yeah like Lotse, the fourth-highest mount in the world. You actually climb up Lotse to get to high camp on Everest, and then you go up…
Mark: Oh, I see.
Okay, so base camp you were there for how long?
Brian: A long time.
Brian: The whole expedition was two months. So, I’m always going up and down. Acclimatization takes about a month.
Mark: So, you’re at base camp for a month. So, you set up your tent. Every day you get up and you do some distance and then come back…
Brian: Or you have a couple days of rest. Or I even went down to Island peak, which is a 20,000-foot peak. Which is 15 miles away…
Mark: Just a minor little excursion.
Brian: Nothing but time.
Mark: Interesting. Okay, so you’re starting to set the stage for me. Were you bored? Like if you’re just sitting there in your tent for two days waiting for the next ascent, letting your body acclimatize…
Brian: Yeah, total boredom. So, I mean that is…
Mark: Cause you can’t possibly bring enough books with you. Because you don’t want to carry the weight…
Brian: No and you start borrowing books. And I even brought like a little mini laptop to watch Star Wars and whatever else I downloaded. And yeah, I mean mental toughness is way it’s super-important over physical. Like physically you can figure things out, you know your body’s gonna adjust.
Its when you have a family at home – I mean there’s a million reasons to just pack it up.
Mark: For sure. I can imagine that, huh.
Mark: Okay so you didn’t do that. And then you get the how do you know when you’re ready to go up?
Brian: To the summit?
Mark: To the summit.
Brian: So, the first month you’re acclimating. Once you get to camp 3 – which is anchored on the side of Lotse face – so that’s where the tents are like hanging off the side…
Mark: They’re bolted in.
Brian: Yeah. It’s all anchored off. That’s as high as you can go to acclimate. The Death Zone is at 26,000 feet – which is 3,000 feet higher than that.
Mark: So, once you start hitting that and then heading back down.
Brian: Yeah, you bring it all the way back down.
Mark: How many times did you could go up there?
Brian: I went to camp 3 just the once… Went up to camp 1, touched it, back. Camp 2, touch it, come back. Stay the night. Up 3. Stayed the night. Back. And that’s where you start using supplemental oxygen as well.
Mark: I see while. You’re up there.
Brian: At Camp 3, yeah.
Mark: Okay. So, then you come back down. Do you take a couple days after that?
Brian: Yeah. What your body’s doing when you force it into oxygen deprived areas, is its reacting and it will build red blood cells which carry oxygen. So, then each time feels a lot less sucky.
But it’s just miserable. You’ve probably been at altitude. You feel the effects of AMS.
Mark: That’s a good way to put it. A lot less sucky. But it still sucks.
Brian: (laughing) it still sucks.
Mark: That’s awesome. Okay so then you go back up to camp three. Do you spend the night there? Or do you just press through toward the summit?
Explain how you do the actual summit push.
Brian: Yeah, so once you’re fully acclimated, all the way back down to base camp and you wait for a five-day weather window, because it takes so long to get in a position to go for the summit.
Mark: How accurate is the weather forecasting out there?
Brian: A lot better than in 1953.
Mark: I bet.
Brian: They’re triangulating it back to like Sweden and Seattle and… It’s best effort. You never know what’s going to come in. And sometimes you have to push through high winds when I was heading up from Camp three to high camp, it was 70 mile an hour winds…
Mark: Wow. That could blow you off the mountain.
Brian: Yeah, well the good thing on Everest and some of these mountains is Sherpa and you’re anchored not to another person, but to the mountain itself. So, these anchors…
Mark: And you don’t have to set those anchors. They’re all there.
Brian: Unless they come loose. Which a few did.
Mark: Right. It does happen.
Brian: Yeah, cause they’re all metal and it’s a conductor of heat. So, the sun comes out…
Mark: Right. And it’s in the ice, not in the rock.
Mark: Okay, so five-day window comes. You’ve found your five-day window. Then you got to make your way back up to camp three.
Mark: And then do you push on from there? Or do you stop and wait overnight or something like that?
Brian: No. So, the first major obstacle is the Khumbu ice fall. So that’s a couple miles of just building size blocks of ice that are falling…
Mark: Is this after camp three?
Brian: This is right out of Basecamp. So, you have to traverse this multiple times. This is where major deaths have occurred in the last five years… Where 16 Sherpa died, big block of ice calved off. When I was going, it was looming over. It was a matter of time.
And then avalanche like the year later took out a ton of people.
Mark: So, it’s on that ice fall it’s really risky.
Mark: Is that where you see pictures of people like taking ladders over really sketchy…
Brian: Yeah, they’re in the western coombe. Coombe is Valley, but that’s between camp one and camp two.
Mark: You could have a crevasse that’s like 300 feet you just scaling a ladder over top?
Brian: Yeah, like five ladders tied together.
Mark: Holy shit. I said that out loud.
Mark: That would be a pucker factor 10 for me. You don’t look down, obviously. You just look ahead. Go.
Brian: Like you get pretty comfortable after the first few times. Like, I don’t know, there’s nothing too beautiful about the project there. But you have to get down and hug the ladder.
Mark: For sure. No one cares, right? You just get over.
Brian: Exactly. But you get good. I mean Sherpa… Some of them don’t even like rope up and they just run across the thing.
Mark: Are you serious?
Brian: Yeah. And it does happen where avalanches kick off because they’re always kicking off and a couple years ago one got launched right off and they still haven’t found him.
So, it’s good to clip in.
Mark: Yeah, I would say so. What do you clip into?
Brian: The fixed lines…
Mark: That go across. So that’s like waist level or…?
Brian: Yeah well, it’s hanging down, you lift it up …
Mark: So, you can kind of think it’s like a little rope bridge kind of thing?
Brian: (laughing) You could.
Mark: (laughing) You can think whatever you want, Mark.
Brian: (laughing) If it makes you feel good about yourself.
Mark: (laughing) Whatever you want, Mark.
Okay, so you get through that obstacle…
Brian: Yep, bypassed camp one went up to camp two. Stayed the night there. And then the next morning went up to camp three. And waited for Psong…
Mark: And what is that like? That Traverse from say Camp two to camp three…
Brian: So that’s very difficult. Cause it’s straight up. It’s a straight up ice and snow and rock climb for a couple miles.
Mark: Straight up? Not like 100% vertical, obviously.
Brian: It’s pretty close.
Brian: Yeah, if you look at pictures, I mean it’s this is where people will use the restroom in the middle of the night. If they slip, they fall and game over. So, you always want to be protected. Clip-in no matter what.
Mark: Are there any ledges to pause on?
Brian: We cut out shelves and put the tents. But the tents are just all roped up and just getting from the rope to the actual climbing ropes, the fix lines like you’re just always I always have to always two… Always clipped-in. Because you’re coming in and out of anchors. You don’t want to be completely out.
And with all that gear and down suit, oxygen… You can’t see anything. It’s tough.
Mark: Yeah, you’re wearing a mask, right? Cause you have o2 on. 25:03and does that get all clouded up or just narrow’s your range of vision obviously.
Brian: It’s the goggles and any contrast of cold and hot, it’s going to fog up.
Mark: So, you’re not sitting up there going “oh this is such a beautiful view.”
Mark: Once in while you pause…
Brian: I mean, you got to. You got to stop and just take it in like “oh my gosh. I’m on Everest.”
Mark: Right. Okay. I think I’m talking myself out of it.
Brian: So yeah, I have an ice axe but up there, it’s more of a device called an ascender or a jumar.
Mark: Via Jumar, you hook on the line. That’s to keep you from sliding down.
Brian: Exactly. Except when it ices up itself.
Mark: But the ice axe is gonna be on your person. You’re not gonna be having it in your hand.
Brian: Yeah, but up there I mean you honestly don’t use it. There’re certain sections – like in the Icefall and stuff – I did. Where it’s a little more technical. Up higher I mean it’s jumar. And on the way down it’s just repelling
Mark: Right. Maybe the first guys who went up and set the lines had to use ice axes, right? I left mine at Camp three. Because it is just extra weight.
Mark: How far is it from Camp three to the summit?
Brian: Well, you still got to get to high camp, which is south col. So, you continue climbing up. Figure everything is a couple miles.
Get up to high camp – highest camp in the world…
Mark: And how long would that take you from camp three to high camp?
Brian: I don’t know. Anywhere from 4 to 6 hours.
Mark: Okay. A long slog.
Brian: Everything is just slow motion, right? So, at altitude, your body’s just – even if you’re acclimated, I mean
Mark: You’re not going fast at all.
Brian: It’s like five seconds between every step.
Mark: Is that right?
Brian: And that’s if you’re moving. Like, there was people I thought were dead on the rope. This Indian team. And I’m like… We’re all pretty much vertical, and they’re just kind of slowly looking at me. I just kind of clip around them and then keep moving.
Mark: They just couldn’t move any faster.
Brian: Yeah. So, I don’t know if they made it to the top eventually or not. But maybe they just weren’t super acclimated. I don’t know.
Mark: And there’s no like referee saying “you got to go down now. You’re not gonna make it to the top.”
Brian: No. You can encourage people to do the right thing. But in the end, they have to make those decisions…
Mark: This is a random question – how many people die on Everest every year?
Brian: It’s a random number too. There’s a couple hundred bodies up there.
Mark: Couple hundred bodies up there? And it’s getting more and more people who shouldn’t be on the mountain are up there right? I’ve heard.
Mark: That’s maybe the group you passed, right?
Brian: Yeah, maybe. I mean, it’s a couple bad apples, right? Because the press will get a hold of it right? The people I’ve stopped and talked to I mean these are people this is their life dream. They’ve been working towards it.
You certainly see some people just like “yeah, you might want to reconsider what you’re doing here.” Because they’re putting themselves and others at risk.
Mark: Right. And I remember- I think the name was Krakauer…
Brian: “Into Thin Air.”
Mark: Right. The book “Into Thin Air,” which was such a powerful story. Of course, that’s a… It’s probably dating it a little bit now, but that was I think my first exposure to just how risky it is.
Mark: He talks about the Japanese I think husband-and-wife team. And they both just froze to death. Literally just wandered – I don’t know if it was two – maybe I’m getting it wrong… One of them at least got lost in the snowstorm.
Brian: Yeah when a whiteout comes in can’t see a thing.
Mark: Well that’s getting us closer to kind of what happened to you. Because there is a there’s a story… You don’t just go up and down and high five and have a six-pack of beer to celebrate….
Brian: That would have been beautiful.
Mark: (laughing) I bet it would have.
Okay, so the final ascent to the summit. Tell us that.
Brian: Yep. So, I get to high camp – later that night I’m going for the summit. So, myself and Psong.
Mark: And you do it at night, because you want to be there for sunrise?
Brian: Yeah, so when the Sun comes out, things warm up. That’s when the avalanches kick off.
Mark: That’s when it starts to get risky.
Brian: Yeah, so all your gear it’s made for like bulletproof ice. So, you go all through the night. Headlamp.
And then as the Sun is rising is when you want to be on the summit. So, then you can descend before things get slushy and dangerous. So, we headed up about eight, nine o’clock and just start cruising. And I was moving pretty efficiently and Psong was just kind of inching back.
And we had planned it out. I’d get to the halfway point. And a lot of these are like references in Krakauer’s book – where a lot of things happen.
We got to the balcony area. 27,500 feet. Waited an hour for Psong…
Mark: What happened to him?
Brian: He’s just succumbing to altitude. He was not feeling well.
Mark: And this is a guy had been up there many times. Just this time it wasn’t working for him.
Brian: Yeah. Wasn’t his day. I mean, one day you’d be feeling good the next, not so much. And he told me “I’m not feeling good.” I gave him some water. He threw up. I’m like, “dude, you need to turn back.”
He’s like “no, no, no. Let’s continue.” and important note is we’re the only two people climbing to the summit from either side from Tibet or Nepal…
Mark: On that day.
Brian: Which is very rare. And we both continue to about 28,000 feet. And then he just tapped out. He’s like “I can’t do it.”
Mark: And what was going through your mind at that time? Did you consider turning around?
Brian: Absolutely. Yeah, at that point – and I’ve soloed a lot of mountains, so I’m comfortable…
Mark: But that’s a big deal…
Brian: That’s a big deal, yeah. We’re on Everest.
Mark: And you got a thousand feet to go. Treacherous terrain.
Brian: Yeah. And some of the toughest sections on the mountain.
And I weighed all that out. You get in those situations and all you have is what’s within reach…
Mark: Of course. The best decision at the time.
Brian: And that’s what we went through. And he assured me the most important…
Mark: He helped you with this process.
Brian: Could he get down was weighing in my head and he assured me “yes.” in fact, he said he was gonna wait at the balcony. Which was really close.
So, he dropped an extra oxygen bottle. And a spare bottle. And I continued up, and he went down.
And after that did some rock climbing at 28,000 feet which is insane. Got to the South Summit. Got to the…
Mark: So, you’re still following a route that had some ropes, right?
Brian: Mm-hmm. Still following the fixed lines.
Mark: Still following a fixed line, but it’s going over… Like, you’re bouldering on top of…
Brian: Yeah, like down here or just we would just run up it. Up there it’s like you find a small crack to stick a point in and try to lower your heart-rate. Because it’s just every move. Jumar up. Just super tough.
And then over the South Summit, Hillary step, there’s a section that’s this wide and it’s a two-mile drop on each side of you.
Mark: You know, I did a podcast with a guy named Jimmy Choo…
Brian: Yeah Jimmy Chin?
Mark: Yeah, Jimmy Chin. What was… Not Jimmy Choo.
Brian: Yep Jimmy Choo makes your shoes.
Mark: (laughing) Yeah, I did not do a podcast with him. But Jimmy Chin skied off that damn thing.
Brian: I know it’s insane. North Face was up there when I was there and it is just insane. Because it’s not like good snow conditions to do it. I snowboarded Denali and that was ridiculous too. You’re just carrying too much weight to snowboard.
But so yeah, I don’t recommend that.
But yeah, I made it to the summit over Hillary step. It’s a 40-foot rock climb and just those last steps to reach the summit is just…
Mark: Amazing, hunh?
Brian: It’s something… You try so much to process in the moment but it’s impossible…
Mark: And you can’t stay there very long to like revel in your victory, can you?
Brian: No, not at all.
Mark: How long did you stay on the summit?
Brian: Maybe an hour.
Mark: Okay. Like that’s longer than I would have thought.
Brian: The time doesn’t even matter. I got up there and actually the first thing I did right before I got to the top was, I took a dump right on the side.
Mark: (laughing) thanks for that information. Maybe I’ll go find it up there someday. You’re probably not the first person to do that.
Brian: There was a lot of pressure up there. It was happening. It was like, “seriously?” now my down suits like freezing open…
Mark: Oh my god. That’s awesome.
Brian: I actually wrote like two and a half pages describing it in my book.
Mark: Just the experience of trying to get to where you can even…
Brian: Yeah, cause I extended my exposure like literally…
Mark: For sure.
Brian: But my publisher, Newhouse…
Mark: “maybe we got this down to a few sentences?”
Brian: “keep it in there. You can cut it down a little.” so I’m kinda proud.
Mark: Heck, yeah. Like leave them a little memento up there.
Brian: So, I was up there, took some pictures, highest selfie in the world. Made a radio call down. And…
Mark: Could you speak to your family from at the top?
Brian: If I had a Sat phone. I always do, and this trip I didn’t get mine in time. So, I could not. But my wife was able… When I radioed down, she actually found out through the Sherpa grapevine that I made it.
So less than an hour up there, got some water and I had to head down. I’m just trying to like take it in.
Mark: Is the sun up by this time?
Brian: Yeah sun was up. Yeah, in fact the Sun started rising like pretty much after Psong… Mark: Does that mean you were a little bit behind schedule?
Brian: Not necessarily. That’s about the right time. About 6:00, 7:00 a.m.
And I start heading down and within 10-15 feet everything went white.
Mark: So, tell us why that happened.
Brian: So snow-blind.
Mark: Right. It didn’t go white because of snow… Was it snow or because you were blind?
Brian: I went blind.
Mark: From the sun. The sun glancing off the snow blinded you. Is that a common thing? Don’t you have like shades on?
Brian: Yeah, yeah. So, I’d cracked my goggles a day prior. And it was freezing between layers. And I had ripped the internal lens out, not realizing that it probably cut their effectiveness in half.
Between that, having blue eyes more susceptible.
Mark: Yeah, I’m pretty sensitive…
Brian: And then just taking my goggles off often. I think a combination of everything. It all goes together. It’s all damage to the eyes.
And then once it happens, it’s like snap of the fingers it happens.
Mark: So, describe what that is like.
Brian: So, snow blindness is the sun burning of the cornea. And usually takes 24 hours to return.
Brian: Super-painful. It’s like if you break potato chips and put it in your eye lids.
Mark: Oh, Jesus.
Brian: Yeah, I don’t recommend it.
Mark: Yeah let’s not do that.
Brian: And it’s bright white. It’s not like blind black.
Mark: But you can’t see any features of anything?
Brian: You can’t see anything. If you put a light bulb like an inch from your face… You can put your finger there, you’ll know something just moved. You’ll see like the shadow.
But that’s it. You can’t operate.
Mark: This is not good. Not when you’re standing on top of 29000-foot mountain.
Brian: No. Highest person in the world. Alone. Blind. And without over-thinking it, I just got up and started moving. So just…
Mark: Did you have a… Were you holding onto a rope at least?
Brian: I was holding on very tight to the rope.
Mark: I can imagine.
Brian: And 50 mile an hour wind gusts were starting. Which we knew was going to happen and I could hear them, so my other senses I think were heightened. But I’m not normally blind, I mean, I was trying so hard to use my eyes. They just wouldn’t work.
And usually takes…
Mark: Did you close your eyes at that point and just kind of go dark? Or did you keep your eyes open?
Brian: No, kept them open. I don’t know if it kept my balance.
Mark: Yeah maybe.
Brian: I don’t know. I just I knew I had to focus without being able to focus. And just kept moving. And I just… It was strange because this whole time I felt this presence around me just like a friendly presence. I didn’t think about it. But it was just like peaceful.
Mark: Like a spirit guide or just like…?
Brian: And I just kept moving… Should have taken me three hours to get to high camp. Took me seven.
So, wait a minute. So, you have to… The Rope is your guide, so to speak, right? If you just keep your hand on the rope… Like I’m trying to think of what my mind would be like… Just never lose contact with the Rope. Now are you faced to the mountain? Or are you facing outward?
Brian: No, I’m like rope to my side walking…
Mark: Walking down the Mountain with your chest… And you’re staying really close to the rock and the snow, right?
Brian: The problem is they don’t clean the ropes up that high. So, if you clip into the wrong rope, you’re going for a fall.
Mark: Now what do you mean by that? Explain that to me.
Brian: Because ropes get brittle over time so they’ll put new ropes each season. So, making sure that I was clipping in and out of…
Mark: How many ropes could be there? Like next to each other?
Brian: It’s like dreadlocks up there.
Brian: Yeah, this has been going on for decades.
Mark: How do you know which one’s the right rope?
Brian: The most tight one. And then making sure locking carabiner coming in and out using sound “clip.” coming out.
Mark: And this is with hands that are in gloves that are probably frozen or cold at least.
Brian: I don’t remember that as a problem. Probably was. I definitely have some dexterity issues now, but I was just so focused. And just never given up my faith. I was not gonna die. Would have been easy to die.
Mark: Did you have I – yeah of course. I’m sure.
Brian: Everything was slow.
Mark: Right. What was actually going through… Like what was the mantra? What was the internal dialogue?
Brian: It was “one more step. Keep moving. Do not give up.” and at one point I took a fall off the South Summit and I was just out of control falling.
Brian: And, you know, go climb to the roof, close your eyes and jump. It’s that feeling.
Mark: That’s how it felt. You were roped in though still.
Brian: I was. And the Rope shock loaded. I remember just upside down and at that altitude, my heart was just racing.
Mark: So, the Rope saved you. So, shock loaded meaning you came to some sort of natural stopping point and the rope held you. If it didn’t hold you, you would have died.
Brian: Yeah. Kept going.
And I’m upside down. Oxygen bottle ripped from my face and righted myself and just had to calm myself down. The moments like that, just had to calm.
Mark: Terror, right?
Mark: I bet your air rescue training came in handy at that point in time.
Brian: We did do a lot of oxygen-deprived work and never panic. I mean, probably the same for you.
Mark: Like, underwater or any type of those extreme environments. Just breath deeply, stay calm. And the mantra.
Mark: One more step.
Did you have a sense that you knew you were gonna make it through this? Or were you…?
Brian: I was forcing out the fact that… Looking back there was a pretty darn good chance I was gonna die. Everything was not…
Mark: You knew that rationally, but you wouldn’t let yourself right think about it.
Brian: Right. Compartmentalized. Kept moving.
Mark: As long as you could take another step, everything was gonna be fine.
Mark: Just one step at a time.
Brian: It just took so much effort, so much time. I got to the point where Psong was supposed to be, and he wasn’t.
Mark: He wasn’t there.
Brian: Yeah, calling out for him. And I remember feeling good being at that point. Because I was halfway down.
Mark: That was like a micro victory there.
Brian: Yeah. And then at that point about 20 feet into it my mask just sucks into my face.
Mark: What does that mean?
Brian: Ran out of oxygen.
Brian: And I remember ripping my mask from my face. And just… Like at that point I’d been 32 hours of continual climbing from the point the day before to this point.
And I just prayed at that point. Just “god, I can’t do this alone.”
And just immediately just felt this energy come over me. And I know the first thing I did was I reached into my pack and grabbed the bottle that had previously failed. The one that was long and given I had tried it up earlier. And I put my regulator on it by touch, and felt a positive flow. I remember just taking like five deep breaths.
It burned. It was like fire or re-entering my…
Mark: So, you can’t breathe without the oxygen.
Brian: You can. But there’s only a third of the air.
Mark: And had you not gotten that oxygen, you would have died, do you think?
Brian: I don’t know. Like, you ask anyone else there’s a much higher risk of death in that situation…
Mark: Haven’t people soloed without oxygen though?
Brian: Mm-hmm. The difference is the whole time they’re off oxygen. When you’ve been on it, you’ve now just jumped up like 2,000 feet. So, if you’re already off, then you’re used to it.
When you’re breathing on it, you come off…
Mark: So, because you were on it, then all sudden to go from all that oxygen to one-third the oxygen. And that’s extreme change.
Brian: Yeah. But it’s not a hundred percent compressed because then you would die if you came off. But it just mixes like pressurization…
Mark: So that second bottle miraculously started working again?
Brian: It starts working. Didn’t overthink it. Got everything packed. Started just bombing down, as fast as I could without tripping over myself.
Mark: Because you didn’t want the bottle to fail.
Brian: I just had life.
Mark: Yeah cause now you’re alive. You had enough. You cheated death one more time, right?
Brian: Yeah. I got to about the last quarter mile and just kind of stumbling through, grabbing my line can’t see a thing. So bright now, it’s like midday.
And out of nowhere Psong just hugs me. It’s like “Brian, you alive.”
I’m like “woah.”
He’s like “I’m so sorry I leave you.
And “don’t worry about it dude.”
Mark: Did he know you were snow blinded at the time.
Mark: He could tell by the way you were stumbling.
Brian: Yeah, in the book, it’s cute. It’s like “I reached him and his eyes no work.”
So, he helped me back. I’m stumbling over rocks and I passed out in the tent for about 15 hours. I lost 20 pounds – I don’t have 20 pounds to lose…
Mark: No, I was gonna say…
Brian: I didn’t fully regain my eyesight for about a month and a half.
Mark: So, you had to go down the rest of the mountain still…
Brian: Had to get down, yeah. So, the next day down Lotse face
Mark: But you had your team with you now…
Brian: Yeah. So, I had more help. Had people around. Got down to camp 2. First time I got to talk to my wife on SAT phone. Called her I’m like, “I soloed the summit. I’m blind…”
And then the phone cut out.
Mark: Oh, so she didn’t know…
Brian: I own the worst phone call to spouse ever.
Mark: Well, no, the worst would have been that she get a phone call from somebody else.
Brian: Yes, yeah. Second worst.
Mark: Ha, what year was this?
Mark: 2011. Okay, have you climbed anymore of the seven sisters since then?
Mark: Okay. So that didn’t deter you. You weren’t like “that’s it. I’m done. No more.”
Brian: No, but I mean I definitely thought about that. Because I had a lot of PTSD from this. You know just be crying in the shower for whatever reason.
Or I do motivational talks and even now it comes back. It gets emotional just going through that.
I’ve filmed re-enactments. They’re looking to make a full movie on it – the agent is. It’s tough, but the most therapeutic thing I can do is getting back in the mountains.
Mark: What was the book? “Into the Void” was it?
Brian: “Touching the Void.”
Mark: “Touching the Void” another crazy powerful experience. Where the guy had a fall, broke his leg right?
Brian: Yeah. He was in the crevasse.
Mark: Was hanging upside down in the crevasse. Nobody came to get him. Cause they couldn’t. So finally, he cut himself free.
Have you ever met him?
Brian: I have not.
Mark: It’d be neat for you guys to meet up and…
Brian: Share stories of misery?
Mark: Share stories. Maybe do a joint podcast or something like that.
So, I could see how you had post-traumatic stress from that. So probably getting back on the mountain was your therapy. Or one way that you dealt with it.
Brian: Yeah, in fact I was down in Antarctica that same year… November of that year and summited up there. Highest peak. Negative 70 on the summit.
It’s just amazing. It’s like being on the moon. Being in Antarctica.
Mark: That is something I would love to do. Now is that as hard or as technical as like climbing one of the seven?
Brian: It is. It’s the highest in Antarctica.
Mark: Oh, so that’s one of the seven. It’s the highest summit on each continent. Antarctica’s considered one of them.
Yeah, I mean it’s very doable. It’s like Denali, you carry a sled…
Mark: Something I could do. Maybe.
Brian: I’m sure you could do everything. Once your foot heals.
Mark: I’m gonna think about that. I need a new challenge.
Brian: Have you done Rainier?
Mark: I have not.
Brian: Come on up. Take you up.
Mark: Alright. I said that out loud.
I’ve done Whitney. I ran up Whitney.
Brian: That’s a walker, yeah.
Mark: I ran up Whitney after drinking a six-pack of beer and staying up all night. That’s what we used to do back in SEAL team 3.
Brian: Just brought my 12-year-old son up there.
Mark: Rainier or Whitney?
Brian: Whitney. Well, Rainier too. Not to the summit yet.
Mark: I want to take you up on that.
Mark: I have to figure out when. So, we’ll make sure we connect our emails after this. That would be really cool. Just to… I would love to do… I want to do something with someone who really knows what they’re doing. And I have a connection with you…
Brian: Okay. I’ll find someone.
Mark: (laughing) You know anyone? The fact that you almost died and you still do it, tells me you know what you’re doing.
So, you have an agent – you’re speaking now. You got an inspirational story. Like, what do you considered to be your purpose now? Like what keeps you motivated? Besides climbing. To get up every day?
Brian: Yeah, it’s a lot, right? It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. But to be able to impact others, I think, this was a pivotal point in my life. Like, I had a purpose, I was being a dad, being a husband, everything else – which is all good. And I still balance all that out. And I instill that adventure in my family. And we’re not big on devices and everything else. That’ll set my kids apart in a good way.
But, to be able to speak in front of like major companies and be on TV and everything else… And then how people can talk to me afterward.
And no one’s gonna have a blind descent on Everest I hope right? But I survived for some reason. And maybe it’s to help someone who’s dealing with cancer, PTSD, or some other financial…
Mark: Their own version of the blind descent.
Mark: Good for you. Yeah.
Good job. Thanks for doing that.
It’s really cools to meet you. And thanks for sharing your story. I know everyone probably was as enthralled as I was. It’s wild.
I’m a very visual guy, so I was right there, you know what I mean? Like I can see it. I can’t feel what you felt, quiet. But I’ve been in a lot of near-death situations in my day too, so I can appreciate what you went through. To some degree.
Pretty cool. I guess that’s it. Hooyah.
Where can we find out more about your work? And the book “Blind Descent?” Obviously, we can find it on Amazon and whatnot. Is there a particular website you like people to go to?
Brian: Yeah, I mean you can go to briandickinson.net.
Brian: I’m on social media. Handle’s briancdickinson. Otherwise Amazon.
Mark: Okay. Awesome. Thanks Brian. You rock, man. I will look forward to climbing Rainier with you.
Brian: Let’s do it.
Mark: I gotta stop saying this stuff live. “Why did I say that?”
It will be a lot of fun. And it’s such a beautiful area up there.
Mark: I love Oregon and Washington. That area is amazing.
All right folks. That’s it. Brian Dickinson. Check out his book “blind descent.” what a cool guy and stand by.
Hopefully we’ll meet up with Brian again in the future. In the meantime, stay focused yourself and get through your own blind descents through meticulous planning. Pay attention your breath, having a lot of faith right… Something that’s grown more and more in my life right just – you have faith that there’s more to this world than just us. And then you might be surprised who’s there to support you.
We’ll see you next time.