Lake Tahoe resident achieves childhood dream in scaling Mount Everest
ZEPHYR COVE — Robin DeSota grew up with a poster of Mount Everest hanging on a wall in his parent’s home.
He would pass by it several times everyday and remembers staring at it when he was about 10 years old.
“It always looked really cool, so gnarly and extreme,” DeSota said. “I dreamed about doing it one day.”
At 5:30 a.m., Friday, May 24, more than 40 years after he first dreamed about it, the 52-year-old Zephyr Cove resident hit the narrow window and summited Earth’s tallest peak.
He stood on top for about 15 minutes taking photos and enjoying the 360-degree view of the Himalayas.
“Summit day was really spectacular,” he said. “It was really special.”
All peaks lead to Everest
DeSota has spent the past four decades preparing for Everest.
He grew up with parents who loved venturing into the High Sierra.
Their love for the mountains rubbed off on DeSota and his two older brothers.
He checked off his first California Fourteener when he was 13 and finished all 12 Sierra Nevada peaks over 14,000 feet at age 49.
He has also topped out on five of the Seven Summits, the highest point on each of the seven continents including, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America and Elbrus in Europe.
“I’ve been at it awhile,” DeSota said. “I have been slowly building the climbing resume. I didn’t want to do Everest until I was ready and had built up enough experience and confidence that I had a good chance at it. You get to a point where you better get on this or it may slip away.”
Training and managing the risk
Eleven people died during the 2019 season while trying to ascend Everest, making it one of the deadliest climbing seasons on record.
As of 2017, nearly 300 people have died on Everest and many of those bodies are still on the mountain.
There were a record number of climbers who attempted to summit this year and that resulted in a high casualty rate with hundreds trying to reach the top during a three-day window in the weather.
DeSota knew going in “some bad things” were going to happen.
He wanted to reduce the risk as much as possible, which is what he does in everyday life as an investment adviser in the Round Hill area.
His job is to maximize opportunities while minimizing risk for his clients.
He used that exact strategy in all aspects when planning, and then climbing, Everest.
“There is some risk you can’t get rid of,” DeSota said. “You’re going to high altitude where humans aren’t designed to live, but how can we remove as much risk to still get to the goal. One of those things is fitness.”
DeSota made plans about two years out to climb Everest. He trained with Uphill Athlete — an online platform where coaches share training information for all mountain-related activities — for a year and a half and loved it.
He climbed all over the Sierra to get exposure on knife-edge ridges like the East Ridge of Mount Russell in the eastern Sierra and Matthes Crest in Tuolumne Meadows, among others.
During Lake Tahoe’s epic winter, DeSota would skin with skis up Heavenly Mountain Resort before it opened or after it closed in adverse conditions. The worse the conditions, the better the training.
“Normally, if there’s a blizzard you don’t go,” DeSota said. “But that was when I’d go. I couldn’t just go in fair weather. It’s adversity, putting up with it and gaining experience while also being cautious to avoid injury.”
Another way to mitigate risk involved selecting the route he would climb.
He chose the north ridge with basecamp in Tibet, China rather than the more dangerous southeast route from Nepal.
By choosing the China approach DeSota took the Khumbu Icefall out of the equation. The icefall has claimed many lives and is regarded as the mountain’s most treacherous part of the ascent. (There were 44 total deaths in the Icefall or 25% of the 176 total deaths on the Nepal side from 1953 to 2016.)
“I owed it to my family to maximize my opportunity and minimize the risk, and that icefall to me was just subject to luck and I don’t like that,” he said. “You must have a climbing resume just to go there. The Chinese weed out people.”
DeSota also said that through his research he learned the Chinese side was much more organized, although more expensive.
“I don’t mind if the climb is done with my skill set and abilities and if I can’t make it that’s how it goes,” he said, adding that it cost him tens of thousands of dollars. “But if it’s due to some other person, and luck with the icefall, that was unacceptable variable I didn’t want in the trip.”
The journey to China
DeSota and his wife of 15 years, Lauren, flew into Kathmandu and spent a couple of days getting oriented from jet lag. The time difference is 12 hours and 15 minutes.
He bought permits to enter China and flew into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet at 11,000 feet elevation, and that checked off another goal for DeSota. He visited the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, and other monasteries.
Also by approaching Everest from the Tibet side, DeSota was able to drive on a paved road from Lhasa to Base Camp. The Chinese opened the route in 2016.
He drove to Base Camp at about 17,000 feet and, “Bam,” Everest dominates the view.
“All of a sudden, there it is — it’s 12,000 feet taller than you are,” DeSota said. “It looks huge, the first thing you think is we can’t climb that. It’s spectacular. Things I’ve heard about my whole life and you’re finally there … it is a bit surreal.”
DeSota got settled before his guides, Furtenbach out of Australia, took him twice up the mountain to get acclimatized, without oxygen.
He went up to advanced base camp at 21,000 feet and then back down to rest and recover.
The next trip traveled to North Col, a ridge pass carved by glaciers, at 23,000 feet where DeSota spent the night before returning to base camp to wait for a summit window.
Climbing the world’s tallest mountain
Waiting was one of DeSota’s biggest challenges.
After getting used to the elevation, DeSota sat around for two weeks waiting for the weather window to begin his ascent.
“You’re sitting around getting anxious,” he said. “Here I spent a year and a half training really hard and you’re sitting around doing nothing. Waiting was hard.”
While waiting DeSota took part in a ceremony where a monk from a local monastery blesses the expedition and anything else, including equipment.
“Risk mitigation, if this ceremony works, I’m all about it,” DeSota said. “Whatever you want blessed you put there, so I put everything there, everything that was going up the mountain.”
Once his group of about 14 people got the go ahead, they started their ascent to 29,029 feet. DeSota grabbed his 25 to 30-pound backpack and headed out.
He and his wife kissed, hugged and shared an emotional moment.
“It was pretty emotional for both of us,” he said. “Not to be dramatic, but sometimes you don’t know if it’s going to be the last time you see each other.”
DeSota had a much different experience than the climbers on the Nepal side where it was crowded.
His six-day round trip ascent went smooth, without any adversity, and he felt strong.
His group was also keeping tabs on the traffic jam and deaths that were occurring on the other side of the mountain.
“There is incredible cell service and we were actually able to stay in somewhat contact,” DeSota said. “We kind of knew what was happening on the south side. There were sherpas posting that ‘there’s 500 people at camp 2 waiting to summit.’ But we didn’t want to get negatively affected by it, we had a great experience.”
DeSota said he was in the zone, just executing, step after step until he reached the top.
“I dreamt this my whole life,” he said. “I knew I was prepared. I felt great going up and that was actually quite spectacular. Got to the summit ridge, which is incredible, and once you get there you’ve got 10 minutes, you know you’re going to make it.”
Everybody in DeSota’s group reached the summit under sunny skies — and they were alone on top with nobody from the south side in sight.
He said the summit was small, about four people could fit side-by-side. They congratulated each other, took photos and panoramic videos. Everybody used oxygen from 25,000 feet on up.
But the journey was far from over for DeSota.
“I’m the top is halfway type of person, I was nervous of all the work to get down,” he said. “I wasn’t high-fiving and celebrating too early.”
It took five days to reach the summit and one day to get down.
On his way down, he ran into his second biggest challenge when his mask failed and breathing became difficult.
He moved slow, but with every step down breathing became easier.
He focused on getting past three technical challenges.
“They’re cleverly labeled, steps 1, 2 and 3 and if you don’t get past those and lose all your energy, you’re in trouble,” he said. “I got through the third step and it was, ‘Great, I’m done, I’m in the clear.’ And then I start looking down at Camp 3, I’m at 28,000 feet I’m not in the clear at all.”
Because of his mask issue, he said it was more stressful going down than up.
He timed his descent where his wife could meet him at advanced base camp to finish his descent.
“It was a very welcome site,” he said. “That was an awesome reunion.”
DeSota still has some unfinished business with the Seven Summits, but after climbing Everest, he couldn’t compare it to anything else, any other summit, just that it was a culmination of everything he’s done.
Reflecting on his feat about a month later, with a Mount Kilimanjaro certificate hanging on his office wall, DeSota said, “It’s kind of surreal for me at this point. I’ve dreamt about it my whole life and now that it’s behind me, it’s like what, did I do that?”