Facing Down the Mountain
Cisco engineer Brian Dickinson scaled the summit of Mount Everest solo—and then descended snow-blind, braving icefalls, crevasses, avalanches, and oxygen deprivation.
August 16 , 2011
The true summit is a small point that can only fit a few people and is covered in prayer flags. As I took my final steps to the top, tears of joy streamed down my face as the entire journey flashed through my mind. At that very moment I was physically higher than any person on earth. I sat down and made the following radio call: "Calling all Mountain Guru camps, this is Brian checking in from the summit of Mount Everest!" A roar of excitement and congratulations came across from all camps.
This was Cisco engineer Brian Dickinson's description of his successful May 15 summit of Mount Everest—the fourth leg of his "Seven Summits" goal to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Fewer than 300 people in the world have done so.
Dickinson had pushed through 70 mph winds, climbed steep icefalls where he risked plunging 1,000 feet, and traversed more than 30 ladder bridges across lethal crevasses. Everest was 10,000 feet taller than any peak he had climbed before, and as he, his climbing partner, and even the Sherpas climbed to the higher part of the mountain, they moved in slow motion, gasping with each breath, even with the supplemental oxygen everyone uses.
Finishing Alone, then Descending Without Sight
Both his climbing partner and Sherpa were too overcome with altitude sickness to continue the final 3,000 feet, and Dickinson climbed alone through the night to the 29,035-foot summit. Certain he'd never return, he lingered in its magical and deadly beauty for an hour. After basking in the dramatic sunrise, something went very wrong.
He realized he was rapidly losing his sight.
Within a few minutes, Brian Dickinson went almost completely snow-blind, probably the result of his goggles cracking the day before.
A rescue on the summit was impossible. If Dickinson remained, he would join the 220 others who had died on the mountain. To survive, he would have to descend 3,000 feet, blind and alone, to the closest camp.
He began to feel his way along the fixed ropes that mark the route, ropes that he blogged about weeks earlier as "the kind you'd buy at ACE Hardware to tie a tarp down—not something you'd trust your life with." He rappelled rocky cliffs, suffered falls (his safety rope worked), and rode out a small avalanche. He forced his exhausted body to keep moving. His oxygen tank gave out and the one his Sherpa left him did not work immediately, which brought on overwhelming panic that he shook off.
Little Time to Rest
Hallucinating, he staggered into Camp IV, the highest camp in the world at 26,000 feet, seven hours after he summited and 30 hours after he began his final ascent. His Sherpa and climbing partner let him rest for 15 hours, but at 26,000 feet the body begins to wither away and die. All three had to descend to base camp to recover.
Still blind and with others who were still debilitated, Dickinson stumbled across some of the most dangerous terrain on earth, rappelling back down icefalls and traversing the 30-some ladder bridges, relying only on touch.
"Most people don't understand what goes into a major climbing expedition," he says. "They only care about the end result—did you summit? Summit or no summit, it doesn't matter. Just like any goal in life, you get more out of the knowledge and experience along the way. If someone asks me if I summited Mount Everest, my response will be, 'I survived.'"
And so he did.
Many people are lucky that Dickinson both triumphed and survived—his family, Cisco colleagues, and also all those he has given back to along the way.
A Life of Service and Giving Back
Dickinson sees helping people in need as a natural extension of his former career as a U.S. Navy air rescue swimmer, whose intensive training prepared him to also face Everest. He flew close to 800 hours of missions—rescuing pilots who'd ejected out of fighter jets and once plucking five Iraqi civilians from shark-infested water five days after their boat sank.
He was in charge of the antisubmarine and tracking gear in the helicopter he flew in and eventually earned a bachelors in Information Technology at National University; an MBA in Technology Management at University of Phoenix and Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certifications. He currently helps customer Amazon align its business objectives with Cisco technologies and solutions. The analytical thinking and planning skills he uses at Cisco, he says, helped him on Everest as well.
Wherever his Seven Summits attempts take him, (so far he's climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Denali in Alaska, and Mount Everest), Dickinson brings toys to orphanages—going to the worst ghetto areas, where, he says, "children don't know how to smile." Aiming to draw attention to AIDS as a world epidemic, he represented AIDS Alliance Research during his climb. He operates Extreme Adventures Group, which offers free climbing and mountain biking events to people of all ages.
He will continue his quest to conquer the Seven Summits. Antarctica's Mount Vinson, the coldest point on earth, might be next.
Right now, Dickinson, whose eyes have healed, is happily reunited with his family in Snoqualmie, Washington—and celebrating that he lives to tell this story.
Cisco at Altitude
Cisco technology accompanied Dickinson throughout his high-altitude journey.
As well as bringing toys, he also configured 3G connectivity for the Early Childhood Development Center, which provides food and shelter for children with imprisoned parents. Connecting with "Summit for Science," a science lesson via Cisco WebEx and TelePresence with children in Singapore; San Jose; Hong Kong; Bellevue, Washington; and Houston, Texas he answered questions from the children such as, "Where is Mount Everest?" "How tall is it?" "What do you eat?" and "Why are you doing this?"
At Everest Basecamp, Dickinson discovered that he could access NCELL 3G edge coverage from the 3G tower at nearby village if it was sunny and if he hiked to a ridge 30 minutes out of base camp, and climbed a large boulder—a great effort at altitude—but one he made to upload blog entries, add images to Facebook, Twitter, email and to conduct two WebEx events, including dial-in-only to an INX (Cisco partner) WebEx feed to answer questions and a Together at WebEx interview. During the latter, Dickinson described life at Everest Basecamp and revealed the challenges and preparations for his summit attempt. The session proved that if one could join a WebEx session from Mount Everest, one could join from anywhere in the world.
Why no Cisco banner on the summit? Dickinson took a self-portrait but couldn't take any sponsor banner pictures (Cisco, INX, VMware, and EMC) because he summited alone and his frozen equipment prevented him from building a modified tripod.
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