O’Neill has been chosen as one of six North Face athletes to be a part of National Geographic’s Everest Expedition 2012, an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first American summit of the world’s highest mountain. The trip is sponsored by National Geographic and The North Face, with collaboration from Montana State University and the Mayo Clinic, and will include mountaineers, writers, medical researchers, geology professors, and live feeds from base camp.
O’Neill has been a sponsored North Face athlete and professional mountaineer for 13 years and is currently a member of their global athlete’s team. Her mountaineering accomplishments span the globe and include some of the world’s highest and most challenging peaks.
Just in the last five years she has attempted Gasherbrum II, an 8,000-meter peak in Pakistan; climbed three peaks in the Brooks Range (in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) that involved a 70-miles ski trek; and summitted and skied Mount McKinley, a 6,000-meter peak in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
Even with all of O’Neill’s accomplishments and experience in the mountains, Everest is by far the largest scale expedition she has been a part of. The logistics alone are demanding, as is the time away from home – 70 days. But for O’Neill’s family, this is what mom does – they don’t know it to be different.
“It’s who I am, it’s what I’ve always done,” O’Neill said. “There is definitely a population out there that might not understand, but I’m fortunate to live in a place where people understand and accept what I’m doing – and, they understand what drives me to do it.”
O’Neill is drawn to this particular trip for the mountaineering aspect and her self-proclaimed obsession with pushing her body’s physical limitations. But she’s also intrigued by the expedition’s spectacular team, its historical significance and the scientific component.
To celebrate 50 years of American climbing on the world’s highest massif, two teams of North Face climbers, including Conrad Anker, Cory Richards, Kris Erikson and O’Neill, will replicate the two different routes that the first American climbers, Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein and their teams, successfully executed in 1963 – an expedition also sponsored by National Geographic.
Significant to that 1963 expedition was Hornbein’s and climbing partner Willi Unsoeld’s traverse of the 8,000-meter peak. The two made their ascent via the mountain’s technical, difficult and infrequently climbed (even today) West Ridge and then descended via the Southeast Ridge, now known as the standard route. They were the first to traverse the mountain in such a way and no one has repeated the route since.
In Jon Krakauer’s bestselling non-fiction book, Into Thin Air, he writes that, “Hornbein's and Unsoeld's ascent was – and continues to be – deservedly hailed as one of the great feats in the annals of mountaineering.”
In the 2012 Everest Expedition, Anker and mountaineer/photographer Cory Richards will attempt Hornbein’s and Unsoeld’s route up the West Ridge and down the South Couloir. They will climb alpine style, carrying all of their own food, shelter and equipment.
The second team of O’Neill, Kris Erikson, Sam Ellias and Emily Herrington, along with mountaineer and National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins, will attempt the Southeast Ridge – also known as the South Col or standard route. They will climb expedition style, meaning they will have help from porters and the benefit of fixed ropes on the mountain.
If possible, the two teams will try to summit the same day and descend the Southern Couloir together. By ascending up the Horbein Couloir and descending with O’Neill and team down the South Couloir, Anker and Richards will be only the second team, behind Horbein and Unsoeld, to traverse Everest. O’Neill, along with Erikson, hopes to ski off the summit.
O’Neill said she’s been addicted to high-altitude climbing since her first experience with extreme altitude in 2005, when she climbed Cho Oyu, an 8,0000-meter peak in Tibet.
“It’s almost like the experience you get from preganancy, where you are going into this unknown with your body,” she said. “Even with all the trips I’ve done, I never know where my limit is going to be. I’m constantly intrigued by going there.”
The science and educational aspect of the 2012 Everest Expedition involves Mayo Clinic medical researchers who will monitor how the athletes’ bodies act at high altitude. They hope to use the data they gather to treat their their everyday patients.
“Everest is a natural laboratory for studying heart disease, lung problems, muscle loss, sleeping disorders and new medical technologies,” writes Robert Nellis in his March 21 post to the Mayo Clinic Medicine Science Blog.
Always curious about why her body adapts so well at extreme altitudes and where her physical limitations lie, O’Neill considers the science element attached to the trip to be a huge draw.
“I want to learn about myself and if there is a genetic reason I do really well at altitude,” O’Neill said. “I’m curious to see how different individuals physiologically react and how that can be applied to day-to-day health protocol.”
The expedition’s science element extends beyond medicine to university geology research and all the way to fifth grade science. Professors from Montana State University will be studying the geologic evolution of the mountain as well as providing blogs and live feeds to a handful of fifth grade classrooms where young students will work through eight related science lessons. The elementary and secondary curriculum, supported by the National Science Foundation, will be introduced to classrooms across Montana, then the nation, in the fall of 2012. But any classroom can successfully follow the expedition, noted O’Neill. The resources will be available on MSU’s website, http://www.montana.edu/everest.
“The science part of this trip is really exciting to me,” O’Neill said. “We have scientists from the Mayo Clinic monitoring us, then fifth graders who will be watching us climb and may be getting a whole new world opened to them—that’s really cool.”
It would seem logical that with the weight of the climb and so much going on at base camp, O’Neill’s mind would be far from home. But home is always what weighs on her mind the most, she said. Although she is considered one of the most accomplished mountaineers in the world, O’Neill is humbled by her experiences both on the mountain and as a mother – and she always misses her family.
“I’ve never done a trip without crying at least once,” O’Neill said, laughing at herself. “Now that I have kids, it’s up to three times. But it never happens when I’m hiking or climbing or moving. Just during the down time.”
The time away is hard, she admitted, but O’Neill continues to embark on expeditions because it is what drives her and because she can. She has a strong support network between her husband, immediate and extended family, and close friends – all of whom are already anticipating her welcome-home-from-Everest-party.
“I definitely weigh the risk a lot,” she said. “I think about it as a mom and being away from home that long, but it’s also what I do, and on this trip in particular there are all the factors – a spectacular team, Everest, the science, the medical component, the 50th anniversary, and the adventure. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 expedition, National Geographic will publish a story about the exhibition in their May 2013 issue. Throughout the trip NatGeo will blog and broadcast live feeds, as well as provide access through an Ipad app available on the NatGeo Everest 2012 website.
You can follow the climb at National Geographic; The North Face; The Mayo Clinic; Montana State University; and O'Neill's personal blog.