On May 15, 1991, Tacoma’s Eric Simonson stood atop Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world.
This moment wasn’t just a career highlight. It’s listed in Ashford-based International Mountain Guides’ records as the first person the company put on top of the 29,035-foot peak.
Simonson is co-founder of the company that has grown into the largest western guide service on Everest. This past week, the company’s teams were making summit pushes that would likely put its 400th person atop Everest.
“We have done well,” said Simonson, 61. “I think it’s good organization and a good staff, guides and Sherpas. And we try to take good climbers. We certainly turn people away every year who aren’t ready to go.”
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Simonson started in 1973 at Ashford’s Rainier Mountaineering Inc., where he went on to carve out a prestigious career. He’s climbed Mount Rainier 290 times and Denali 16 times. He led 24 Everest expeditions (either on the mountain or remotely) including the 2001 Mallory and Irvine research expedition.
He has climbed the highest peak on each continent. And starting in 2017, IMG will guide trips on each of the Seven Summits thanks to a 10-year contract for Denali (North America’s highest mountain) the company won in April.
Last week, Simonson, working from Ashford, was busy with his responsibilities as one of the Everest expedition leaders. But as his climbers slept high on the mountain, he took time to field a few questions.
Q: What is your role when you help lead a trip from half way around the world?
A: I talk to Greg (Vernovage at base camp) every single day, sometimes more than once. It’s always good when you are making decisions to bounce them off of other people. So between myself here at home and Ang Jangbu, our head Sherpa, we discuss things. There is always something going on, and we try to work through the decisions.
Q: What are some of the big changes on Everest after 2014 (an avalanche killed 16 people) and 2015 (19 climbers and 61 others injured during earthquake)?
A: After the 2014 avalanche, the teams made a huge effort to relocate the route up through the Ice Fall. It is more difficult and more complicated, but it stays farther from the avalanche paths that come from the west shoulder.
That effort kind of got lost in the shuffle last year after the big earthquake. … This year we tried to do the same thing.
The other big thing, this year, that the government of Nepal finally relented on after we’ve lobbied for several years, is to use helicopters to fly all the rope and rope-fixing equipment up to Camp 1. The climbers still have to climb through the Ice Fall, but it saved a lot of trips through the Ice Fall.
Obviously it’s controversial. People say it’s cheating. It’s easy to sit here in a warm house and call people cheaters. Go over there and hike through the Ice Fall yourself and you might have a different opinion about it.
Q: How much did the last two years impact your business?
A: We were fortunate because we encourage our climbers to purchase insurance. We require rescue insurance, and we encourage them to purchase cancellation insurance, and most of our clients purchased that type of insurance and were able to get money back.
Q: So did you have a longer line of people this year wanting to go?
A: No, overall the numbers are down on Everest a little bit. I think people want to wait a year and see how it goes. I think next year is going to be a big year. The Nepal government decided people who had permits ($11,000) in 2015 would be allowed to reuse them this year or next year.
Q: So you get to guide on Denali starting in 2017, how exciting is that for you guys?
A: This is something we’ve dreamed about for a long time. We felt like it was the one missing piece of the puzzle from the IMG standpoint. We do all the others (Seven Summits), but this one has been missing. We worked with another guide service up there, but when you are running under somebody else’s permit you obviously don’t have much control.
Q: So you’re closing in on 300 Rainier summits, is that a goal?
A: I did it twice last summer. I’m still going to get to 300. The last few years I’ve been climbing with my daughter, Audrey. We’re going to do it again this summer. We’ve done the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) twice and the Emmons (Glacier) once. This summer we are going to do the Kautz (Glacier).
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