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San Rafael Man Leads Team in Everest Ascent


Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, August 6, 2004

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Tom McMillan shows few signs of being addicted to danger.

The mild-mannered computer whiz lives with his wife in a San Rafael suburb and commutes by ferryboat to an office on the San Francisco waterfront. He talks about his passion for rock climbing with an air of humility.

After scaling the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest this spring, McMillan had hoped to enjoy a panoramic view of the Himalayas, with their vast river valleys and towering peaks. Instead, his five-member Friendship Beyond Borders Expedition team stood above a dense layer of rain clouds.

No matter. Posing for photographs beside McMillan at dawn on May 16 was his mountaineering friend Nawang Sherpa, who had just become the first person to climb the world's highest peak with a prosthetic leg.

"We took some risks," McMillan said in an interview. "Nawang made a great achievement. No one with a disability as severe as his has ever done anything like this. For five years we had tried to help Nawang get to Everest."

McMillan, 48, is a software developer for AMB Property Corp. of San Francisco, a real estate investment trust. He lives in Lucas Valley with his wife, Linda, who is a rock climber, business consultant and conservationist.

"I pretty much spend all my free time climbing," McMillan said. "For me, it's been a lifelong obsession."

McMillan grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and began rock climbing as a teenager. At 16, he visited Yosemite National Park and climbed the west face of Leaning Tower, which took 2 1/2 days.

"That was the first big climb I made and it scared the crap out of me," he said. "It was audacious."

A year later, he scaled the North American wall of Yosemite's El Capitan -- the first of his many ascents of El Capitan, including its most difficult routes, Reticent and Tempest. In 1981, he climbed Mount Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies.

He studied chemical engineering at the University of Utah, then worked in Arizona before moving to the Bay Area in 1986 to take a job with SRI International. He lived in Menlo Park, met Linda at Yosemite, and they began climbing together. They were married in the Yosemite chapel three years later.

McMillan was an early investor in San Francisco's Mission Cliffs Climbing and Fitness Club, where he perfected his climbing technique in the mid-1990s.

He has climbed twice in the Peruvian Andes and seven times in the Swiss Alps. In 1991, he scaled the Central Pillar of Freney on Mount Blanc in France. On the Cassin Ridge of Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley) in 1992, he climbed past the grisly sight of an Italian climber whose corpse was left dangling by a rope after a sudden storm hit.

In 1998, his attempt to climb Annapurna -- also in Nepal -- was aborted because of avalanches and heavy snowstorms. Last year, McMillan ascended the 7,536-meter Mustagh Ata in western China -- which he considered a test for his ability to withstand high altitude.

He's also had some close calls.

In September 1991, he scaled the north face of the Matterhorn with his longtime climbing buddy Mark Melvin of Larkspur.

"We really underestimated how hard it would be," McMillan said. "It was much more technical than we expected, we weren't acclimatized, and we were out of shape."

A snowstorm left both of them hanging from pitons on a sheer wall. They had no warm clothes or tents. Their expected 7 1/2-hour climb took 51 1/2 hours. A rescue helicopter could not find them.

"They thought we were dead," he said. "It was really dumb. It was just hubris. We should have done some warm-up climbs."

McMillan also had a close call in 2000 on the Reticent wall of El Capitan when a huge block of granite gave way. He fell almost 40 feet, before reaching the end of his climbing rope. "I was absolutely certain I was about to die," he said.

The catalyst for the Everest expedition occurred over lunch in spring 2003 when Hamid Moghadam, AMB Property's chairman and chief executive officer, asked McMillan whether he dreamed of climbing the world's tallest peak.

McMillan replied that he never considered it because of the expense. Moghadam offered $25,000 of his own money for his employee to lead an expedition. McMillan decided it was a perfect opportunity to help Nawang Sherpa, who lost his left leg when his motorcycle collided with a bus in 2000 in Kathmandu.

The Everest expedition's budget of $60,000 included airplane tickets, permits from Nepal's government, Sherpa guides, food and supplies. McMillan raised the additional $35,000 from private and corporate sources. Several of AMB Property's top execs and other employees made contributions. Early backers also included Jim Wickwire, one of the first Americans to climb K2 in Pakistan, the world's second-highest peak.

Tom Halvorson, of Duluth, Minn., provided the new prosthetic device for Nawang Sherpa's left leg, and the nonprofit High Exposure Foundation paid for his treatment. Walter Racette of UC San Francisco's Department of Orthopedic Surgery had provided Sherpa with his first prosthetic leg after his motorcycle accident.

McMillan endured months of heavy-duty training -- hitting the gym up to three times a day for weightlifting and aerobic workouts, methodically tracking his pulse rate. He climbed at the Class 5 Climbing-Health Club in San Rafael. He took 15-mile runs and mountain-biking expeditions through the Marin hills. He skied at Lake Tahoe to train his body to adjust to higher elevations.

Some mountaineers view Everest with disdain because its climbers rely on fixed ropes, supplemental oxygen and Sherpas, an ethnic group of strong, genial mountaineers. But the ascent takes days of rugged climbing.

"It's definitely a lot safer than it used to be," McMillan said. "Historically, there was a 1 in 20 chance that you'd die from climbing Everest, the equivalent of being on the front lines of combat."

More than 1,300 people are believed to have made it to the summit, and nearly 200 have died in the attempt since Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand first scaled Everest in 1953 with a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay. Five-day weather forecasts and accumulated knowledge of the mountain's weather patterns have significantly raised the odds of survival.

In April, McMillan and Nawang Sherpa trekked to the Everest base camp.

"The Khumbu region of Everest was particularly spectacular," McMillan said. "The peaks are so steep and magnificent."

The two spent several days acclimating themselves to the high altitudes, climbing between the mountain's base camp and upper camps when the snow and wind permitted. The altitude gave McMillan severe headaches.

"I'm fortunate because I've got a God-given ability to acclimatize," McMillan said. "It really boils down to genetics."

At Everest's higher altitudes, there is not enough oxygen to sustain the body's metabolic processes and to turn food into energy.

McMillan brought along beef jerky and energy bars.

The two climbers rested for four days in a village at 12,000 feet, which improved their strength. Then, they waited at base camp with other climbers from around the world for a lull in the weather.

They knew that storms and hurricane-strength winds arise in the afternoon, and that avalanches, exhaustion, dehydration, frostbite and pneumonia had forced legions of others off the mountain. They recalled the 1996 disaster -- depicted by the bestseller "Into Thin Air" -- when eight climbers died after getting lost in a storm.

McMillan and Nawang Sherpa were assisted by three Sherpas, who acted as guides and high-altitude porters who carried the expedition's tents, sleeping bags, food and supplemental oxygen tanks for the higher altitudes. One of them, Nima Gombu Sherpa, had climbed Everest 10 times.

"Some people treat the sherpas with disrespect. I wanted everyone to be part of the team, not just be the sahib," McMillan said. "I don't think the Sherpas get enough credit. They do most all of the work. Without them, I most certainly would not have made it."

Before his climb, McMillan was offered puja prayer beads and lotus petals. He asked for the blessing of Chomolungma -- "Goddess Mother of the Earth."

On May 15, the wind faded.

McMillan's down suit and climbing boots performed well, but his eyeglasses often froze.

In this spring's climbing season, 168 people successfully climbed Everest from Nepal. Retired physician Nils Antezana, 69, of Washington, died after apparently losing his way due to snow blindness on the South Col route that McMillan took.

After reaching the summit, McMillan posed with several flags, including one from AMB Property. He shot videos of his team and the stark landscape, with its gray rock, glacier-blue ice and sky. He called his wife and his boss in California via a satellite phone.

McMillan is editing video footage for a documentary on the expedition, which aims to inspire people to overcome their physical disabilities and other special challenges.

In the last 15 years or so, McMillan has seen significant improvements in cold-weather clothing, boots and tents, the advent of high-tech telecommunications and the availability of accurate weather forecasts that enhance safety in mountaineering.

Climbing has become increasingly popular, as evidenced by a huge rise in the number of climbing gyms around the world. Mountaineering has also become more commercialized. A new industry has emerged offering guided climbs of Everest and other high peaks. But the availability of climbing opportunities has also given inexperienced climbers a false sense of safety, resulting in mishaps and fatalities.

He disputes the notion that climbers are macho guys who trash the landscape. His heroes include explorer John Muir and conservationist David Brower.

"Climbers are often zealous environmentalists," McMillan said, "because 90 percent of the reason we're there is because of the mountain's beauty. Basically, climbers find themselves in the most beautiful places on Earth."

He also enjoys the sport's camaraderie, or what climbers call "the fellowship of the rope." Climbers trust each other with their lives. Mountain climbing is often compared to going into combat. Bad weather, sickness and interpersonal conflicts can be deadly.

He and other climbers blame the media, especially Hollywood movies, for presenting a distorted image of climbers as stunt men.

"It can be an extreme mental challenge like chess with a time limit," McMillan said. "A climber would not look at it as a Sylvester Stallone kind of situation. You need to figure out hand and foot positions as the clock is ticking and your strength is giving out."

Linda McMillan, 54, began rock climbing some 20 years ago. She has tried ice climbing and mountaineering, but prefers scaling rocks in the sun. She did not consider herself physically able to climb Everest, and did not want to put others at risk.

"In all of our lives, we each have an Everest -- meaning that it's the most difficult thing you've ever done or wanted to do," she said. "Something that seems impossible, whether it's an accomplishment in sports or just losing weight. If a Sherpa with a prosthetic leg can climb Everest, then anything's possible."

E-mail Jim Doyle at jdoyle@sfchronicle.com

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2004 San Francisco Chronicle