Pete Athans has summited Mount Everest seven times since 1985, part of 16 expeditions on the world’s highest mountain. He’s also managed to summit every continent’s tallest peak. He is in Aspen this weekend representing his most recent Everest trip in the X Games village at Buttermilk Mountain. Last spring, he served as the lead climbing guide for National Geographic and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Extreme Expedition to Mount Everest.
The expedition included a 50-person team made up of scientists and mountaineers working to gather geological samples and install weather stations in order to gain valuable historical data about the climate on top of the world.
“I have a passion about Everest. It’s not only creating a tally of the number of times to the rooftop of the world,” Athans said. “It’s really more understanding Everest: what it means to the people that live in that region, and to what it means for the world. Having that type of intellectual curiosity to go beyond the physical mountain of rock and snow and ice is a big part of what I've done over the last 40 years.”
Athans spoke at a press conference at the Limelight Hotel in Aspen on Friday morning. He was introduced by Nicole Alexiev, vice president of the Perpetual Planet program, a partnership between National Geographic and Rolex to study what she called the Earth’s “life support” systems.
“As we all know, the Earth is in a period of rapid environmental change and is affecting these critical life support systems,” Alexiev said.
The mission of the Mount Everest expedition was to focus on the water cycle, from the top of the mountain, through glacial lakes, into lower Nepalese communities and eventually running on to provide water for nearly 1 billion people.
“Immediately, some of the concerns are flooding and landslides ... and in the long term, then, drought and water scarcity,” Alexiev said.
Athans said that of all the trips on which he’s served as a guide, the team of researchers, mountaineers, media and guides was the most unique he has been on.
“The scope of this team is something I had never seen before,” Athans said.
The team carried up the equipment and power tools needed to install what is now the highest weather station in the world, at what is known as The Balcony, at 27,700 feet. He said the cross training that went into climbing, for the scientists, and the science of it all, for the guides, helped allow for a multifaceted team who were operating equipment in up to 200 mph winds.
“These were critical to bringing back a variety of different types of data. Certainly, the meteorological station was incredible information in a place we really don't have a lot of information,” Athans said.
The team did not summit Mount Everest as part of their journey. They made the call right around the time that an iconic Associated Press photo showed a mile-long wait of people on commercial trips, waiting their turn to summit.
Though he has had seven victories at the top of the world, Athans said he supports the Nepalese government's initiatives to curb the Mount Everest visitor numbers.
“My efforts in life now are more talking about the people and the science, and try to understand that Everest is fragile in its own way,” Athans said.
Athans, who has ties to the Roaring Fork Valley, said it is often the very adventurers who are taking advantage of the natural environment that end up being its champions.
“I think people who live in this valley and people who live in the the mountains generally find their mountains as a source of solitude and the ability to rejuvenate one’s soul by going to these places,” Athans said. “Naturally, we would want to protect these places and understand how they are changing.”
For his part, Athans said he always tries to leave what has become his home mountain — Mount Everest — better than he found it and will continue to advocate for stewardship and understanding of the Earth’s resources.
“Obviously, everyone in the Aspen area is interested in their incredible recreational assets and the resources that make this place unique,” Athans said. “And as long as we move forward in trying to leave it better than we found it, I think we will be in better shape all around.”