Everest veteran explores Mustang; findings to air on PBS
WASHINGTON, Nov 8: Pete Athans made history in 2002, when he reached the summit of Mount Everest for the seventh time, the first climber of non-Sherpa ethnicity to do so, earning him the title of Mr Everest.
If that weren´t monumental enough, he was awarded the David A Sowles Award from the American Alpine Club for helping rescue two climbers in the Everest disaster of 1996, documented in the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer.
During his travels as a climbing guide, he has worked on numerous high-altitude films, including the 1997 feature film “Seven Years in Tibet.”
These days, Athans, who will speak at the Everett Mountaineers´ annual awards banquet on November 14, is still climbing high.
But the 52-year-old Bainbridge Island father of two isn´t tromping around 29,000-foot-tall Everest.
Instead, he´s scaling remote dusty cliffs, 14,000 feet up in Mustang, discovering ancient Tibetan manuscripts, sacred works of art and human remains.
During his talk for the Mountaineers, an event that is open to the public, Athans will show slides and video of his extensive alpine climbing career as well as clips from his latest documentary project in the caves of Mustang, “Secrets of Shangri-la,” set to air on November 18 on PBS.
Helping researchers explore the ancient, previously off-limits caves has been the perfect adventure for Athans.
He, along with climber Broughton Coburn, helped PBS, National Geographic and a team of researchers, most of them inexperienced and uneasy at climbing, gain access to the crumbly caves.
“It´s really, in many ways, where art, sport and life sort of interface,” Athans said. “It involved not only using climbing skills to get into the cave entrances. There was a technical challenge in developing our own equipment to make it possible to do that.”
Athans had to use power tools and other tricks to create safe anchor points for climbing ropes.
“I call it rock climbing. It´s not what people do recreationally,” he said. “It´s pretty industrial.”
Artifacts that Athans and researchers found in the caves could shed light on the spread of Buddhism through the Himalayan region.
That includes a 55-panel mural from the 13th century depicting important Buddhist sages as well as numerous 11th century Tibetan manuscripts.
Researchers suspect the caves, perhaps originally accessed with ladders, were a sacred gathering place for a large religious, meditative, self-sufficient community that could have inspired the myth of Shangri-la.
“The object is to create a comprehensive inventory of what is in the caves,” said Athans, whose wife, longtime filmmaker Liesl Clark, is also involved with the project.
Athans, who works as a full-time employee in product development for North Face outdoor gear company, is also deeply involved in philanthropic projects in Nepal.
He is a board member of the Himalayan Cataract Project, which brings eye care to those suffering from cataract blindness. He is also a teacher in the Khumbu Climbing School Program, designed to increase safety among Nepali climbers and other high-altitude workers.
His family just returned from Nepal, where they were setting up libraries as part of the Khumjung School Magic Yeti Library, a program his wife founded to provide libraries and books for kids in the Everest region.
Research and philanthropic work are exactly what Athans wants to be doing.
“That´s where I´m trying to focus the last two decades of my life,” said Athans, who has no plans to climb Everest again.
Other American climbers have since surpassed his seven-summit record.
“It was a chapter in my life,” he said. “Mostly those pages have been written and those chapters have been closed.”
After the 1996 disaster on Everest, in which eight climbers died, Athans stopped climbing with less experienced climbers.
“I knew I didn´t want to be making those decisions anymore, those life-and-death calls. I wanted to climb with experienced climbers and friends,” Athans said.
“I think it puts both guides and people who sign up for those trips in a, sometimes, very high-stakes gamble.”
There´s only one way Athans might be willing to go back.
His daughter, Cleo, 4, or son, Finn, 6, would have to want to go someday, he said, adding: “I think seven is a good number for me.”
There is such a great finding related to Nepal and people are unaware of. Why does Nepalese prioritize politics only?
This is really a good news to Nepal on findings.
Saw that documentary today in PBS. It is disheartening to see that the producers have deliberately avoided mentioning that the paintings in the cave clearly has Hindu influence, and even known legends like Shiva, Krishna with Murali and apsaras. One would have hoped a fairer analysis for such a production.