If you’re afraid of dying, you probably shouldn’t try to climb Mount Everest in the first place, says Andrew Towne.
Towne, 35, of Minneapolis, faced that fear head-on in 2015. He was at base camp on Everest on April 25, 2015, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal. The resulting avalanche killed 36 people at base camp, Towne said. He survived physically unharmed, as did the rest of his group of about 30 people traveling with International Mountain Guides. In all of Nepal, nearly 9,000 people were killed and nearly 22,000 injured.
This week, he begins his second attempt to summit the world’s tallest peak.
“It’s like a homecoming,” Towne said in a phone interview March 26 from his apartment in the North Loop. “I will be climbing with four of my teammates from 2015, as well as a friend from grad school.”
Towne has made a habit of pushing his own mental and physical boundaries since his college years.
On that fateful April day in 2015, he was at Everest base camp, just days from attempting the summit of 29,029 feet.
It was about 12:30 in the afternoon. Towne was having lunch in the mess tent. The table started to tremble.
“I thought the guy next to me was jiggling his leg against the table,” he recalled. “But our expedition leader, a Californian, recognized it right away; his eyes lit up and he said, ‘Earthquake!’
“My first thought was the glacier under us would open up and a massive crevasse would swallow us,” Towne said.
“I ran behind a boulder, I figured the boulder might … ” Towne trailed off. He recalled putting his hands behind his head and taking one last deep breath.
Ice and snow rained down on him. For 10 seconds. Then it stopped, and Towne’s radio crackled. It was the expedition leader, checking in with each of the climbers in their group.
Just 100 yards away, there was devastation.
The earthquake had knocked down a massive ice shelf, pelting the middle third of camp “like a shotgun blast” with chunks of ice and rock, Towne said.
He and his team, on the edge of camp, were only showered by snow and ice. Their area became the hospital. Doctors and others trained in wilderness rescue responded quickly. Injured climbers began arriving within 45 minutes.
Towne said he did what he could — fetching sleeping bags and hot water to keep the injured warm, helping bandage the wounded. He has vivid memories of a man who lost the lower half of his leg, and of trying to save the leg so it could be reattached.
By midnight, all of the wounded had been treated, Towne said. Helicopters arrived the next morning to evacuate the injured.
“Within 48 hours, we were in cleanup mode,” he said. He and his team took five days to return to Kathmandu, stopping in a hard-hit Sherpa village to help a few families there. By May 6, Towne was back home. Two days later, another earthquake brought even more devastation to Nepal.
“Tragedies happen all over the world in any number of different ways,” Towne said. “It was awful for the country of Nepal. I was very lucky.”
Going back, he said, “It’s just an idea I haven’t been able to shake.”
Testing his limits
Towne moved to Minneapolis about 18 months ago after a short career in foreign policy in Washington, D.C., and Iraq. He works for Boston Consulting Group in the Twin Cities, a firm that provides strategic advice to businesses, governments and nonprofits around the world.
He grew up in Grand Forks, N.D. His mother was an Episcopal priest in Bemidji, Minn. When he was in high school, his German teacher suggested he take part in Youth For Understanding (YFU), an international student exchange program dedicated to promoting unity and understanding between different cultures.
His 2015 Everest expedition was a fundraiser for YFU and he blogged about his journey on the group’s website. This year’s journey is to raise money for the program, too.
“They have a very large presence in Minnesota and North Dakota,” Towne said. “The level of support already received from the Minneapolis community for this climb is a testament to how much Minnesotans value diverse ideas.” He has raised more than $10,000 toward his goal of $20,000. The group will provide periodic updates on Towne’s ascent.
Towne left the Midwest to attend Yale University, then earned his MBA and law degree at Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania.
Mountaineering was a natural outgrowth of his desire to always push himself harder and higher.
“I’m terrified of heights,” he said. “Pushing my mental limits and overcoming my fear of heights gave me one more task for myself.
“The more mountains I climbed, the more I loved it, and eventually I had the idea I could conquer the highest mountain on every continent,” he said.
He has climbed Denali in North America; Aconcagua in South America; Elbrus in Russia; Vinson Massif in Antarctica; Kilimanjaro in Africa, and Carstensz Pyramid in Oceana. Kilimanjaro was in 2003, the rest since 2011.
Towne’s avocations serve him well on the mountains. He is a competitive runner and does ruck marches by strapping on a backpack filled with 70 pounds of sand and walking on a treadmill at maximum incline.
Towne’s flight left Minneapolis on Wednesday and arrived Thursday in Nepal. A small plane will take him to the base of the Khumbu Valley, where he will begin the 30-mile hike to Everest base camp, elevation 18,500 feet. The climbers will do that hike over 15 to 20 days, staying in Sherpa tea houses along the way. Climbers must slowly introduce their bodies to the lower oxygen levels at higher elevations or risk altitude sickness or even death.
“It should feel easy every day so we’re not feeling tasked or sick,” he said.
Once in base camp, the group will do daily rotations, each taking them higher — first to 20,000 feet, then 23,000, then 24,500 — and returning to base camp at day’s end. The climb to the summit depends on weather and other variables. The target date: May 23.
Towne described being at base camp:
“Sleeping in the shadow of the highest mountain in the world,” he said. “Every time you walk outside, you’re like, ‘Wow, we’re here and we’re going to try to do that.’ It’s this excitement and energy and anticipation. It feels like being at the starting line of a really important race for two full weeks.”