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"Back in 2004 I turned back after two nights at 26,000 feet due to a forecast of high winds - actually I felt good at that moment so it was disappointing," Ken told ExWeb. This spring he'll be climbing as a member of Summit Climb team on the North side. Image of Ken in IBC during his 2004 attempt, courtesy of Dr. Ken Stalter (click to enlarge).
Longevity camp. Or not. NY surgeon Ken Stalter working on team-mate Chris Drummond's frostbitten toes in Everest's ABC in 2004.
Image by Andre Bredenkemp

ExWeb interview with Ken Stalter: Everest for charity

Posted: Mar 13, 2006 06:42 pm EST
(MountEverest.net) It's a fairly new phenomenon and it's dividing the world in two camps: "Hypocrisy," cry the critics. "It helps the misfortunate," argue supporters.

Is it possible to tie a selfish act such as climbing Mount Everest to terminal diseases affecting children? And is it OK if some of the raised money go to pay for your own expedition? ExplorersWeb decided to check with one of the new "charity climbers."

American Dr. Ken Stalter is coming back to Everest this spring for a second shot at the summit. He'll be climbing with SummitClimb and raise money for the prevention of Childhood Leukemia, a disease that took his daughter Leah's life in 1991. ExplorersWeb checked in with Ken, offering some hard questions about his climbing plans and motivations.

ExWeb: When did you take up climbing - was it before or after the death of your daughter? And did climbing help you to get over the tragedy?

Ken: I had been a distance runner in high school and college. I did resume endurance running after Leah's death which I think helped. The endurance events sort of escalated and culminated in expedition climbing. Is this related, I don't know, maybe a certain element of attempting to reassert control.

ExWeb: Your daughter Leah died 15 years ago. But she is present in every page of your website, almost in every paragraph. Do you find focusing on this tragedy makes it harder to focus on the climb which is going to be tough enough?

Ken: I don't think focus will be a problem, that's one of my strong points. It's not like we have forgotten and are suddenly reminded. The photo's on the site are perhaps a bit strong but they were selected to show some of the effects of a struggle with leukemia. The ones we have up at home with our other children show a happy little girl.

ExWeb: You attempted Everest already in 2004. What happened that time? At what point did you decide to return to the mountain? Have you climbed any other high peaks since then?

Ken: I turned back after two nights at 26,000 feet due to a forecast of high winds. Actually felt good at that moment so it was disappointing. At the time I did not plan to return but of course started thinking about it after a few months. In Feb 2004 Brian Bonser and I climbed Aconcagua. We had good luck and an easy summit but it was good experience to go self-sufficient.

ExWeb: Last year Mike O'Brien, a member of Dan Mazur's team, fell to his death in a crevasse. Mike and his brother were also supporting a charity through their climb (Hereditary Disease Foundation). The expedition's website raised large amounts of money after the accident - but the family was hit hard by yet another tragedy. How are your feelings towards a situation like that?

Ken: It has crossed my mind. My wife has certainly had more than her share of tragedy. Her father died (of leukemia) when she was a young teen and her mother a year later. Climbing is a selfish endeavor in that respect. I think we have denial and rationalizations that help us to accept some risk.

ExWeb: Mike O'Brien slipped as he and his brother Chris were climbing down from a camp at 20,341 feet to their base camp. He was not clipped to the fixed ropes. You state that you don't take unnecessary risks. What do you think of the incident? Could have it been avoided/prevented?

Ken: Short answer: Of course it could have been prevented just clip onto the rope. It was still a tragedy. Realisticaly everyone has made mistakes like that, it did not appear to be a dangerous area. It's like a car sliding on an icy road, preventable? Sure: Go slower. Have we all driven too fast for conditions on occasion? I think so. I certainly will be thinking of that tragedy when I come to a rope at an "easy" place and clip in.

ExWeb: Are you a member SummitClimb guided team, or have you just hired logistic support from the company?

Ken: I am a member of SummitClimbs supported team, though it is not really a guided expedition.

ExWeb: Will you be using supplementary O2? If so, which brand and mask system? Will you be hiring a Sherpa to climb with you on summit day?

Ken: I will be using Poisk O2. (I do read your site!). For this trip I will hire a Sherpa. (My primary climbing partners from Ama Dablam and Everest 2004 will not be going.) I think both O2 and Sherpa support increase my margin of safety. I do plan to experiment with a mask system prototype by Neil Greenwood of Summit Oxygen. Although the summit system still had problems in 2005 I think the basic concept has merit and will eventually become reliable.

ExWeb: On your website you state: "At least 75% of all donations will go to Leukemia Foundation, the remainder will be used for fundraising efforts and to help defray expenses of trip, anything above these expenses will be donated entirely to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society." Does this mean that people donating money will contribute to the Leukemia Foundation, but also to pay for your trip? If people prefer to donate solely to the charity, what should they do?

Ken: My decision to climb was made before my plan to raise funds. The 75/25 number is a guideline for fundraising efforts from the foundation. I do not anticipate using very much of the money to support expenses. I think that might put unsafe "performance pressure" on me. I do feel justified in using a bit for air time to call dispatches to the site etc.

Certainly anyone can donate directly to the Leukemia Foundation or send a check to me made out to the Foundation. Some people have wanted to donate some money to the trip itself to feel that they are part of the expedition.

ExWeb: Dan Mazur is also the creator of the donation website Mountainfund". Is your expedition related to the website?

Ken: There are a lot of worthy causes. Dan and I have talked about ideas for his clinic in Nepal and reviewed clinic logs etc. There is no particular link between the two. On two prior trips to the Himalaya I have spent a month in the Patan Hospital working with the surgeons there.

ExWeb: Finally, if you succeed in climbing Mount Everest - will you continue to climb?

Ken: I am sure I will. There are a lot of things I want to do. Probably more likely 7000m peaks than 8000m though, as a month away from home is easier to handle than a two month-long expedition.

American Dr. Ken Stalter is a member of Dan Mazurs Summit Climb team, attempting Everests North side this spring. This will be Dr. Stalters second attempt previous was in 2004.

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