Mt. Everest is the ultimate grind for this Roseville climber
Rick Hitch doesn’t have a fear of heights, but he isn’t particularly fond of heights, either.
But when he was supposed to be focused on deer hunting, his attention was drawn to the top of a hill. When he and wife Loretta were camping with their family, Rick would take off and walk to the top of a hill.
He even offers that sometimes when he reaches a summit, “You’re just glad it’s over.”
Yes, the chase – or in this case, the grind – sometimes is better than the catch for this Roseville mountain climber.
Hitch’s Roseville Diamonds ball cap – the girls soccer team he coached for many years – has been atop his head of golden hair each time he has reached six of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks in each continent: in order, Kilimanjaro in Africa (August 2008, 19,340 feet), McKinley in Alaska (June 2009, 20,320), Aconcagua in Argentina (February 2010, 22,841), Elbrus in Russia (July 2010, 18,510), Kosciuszko in Australia (October 2010, 7,310) and Vinson in Antarctica (December 2010, 16,050).
The expedition for Hitch’s quest of the Seventh Summit begins Tuesday, when he looks 29,035 feet into the sky – 5½ miles – at the summit that divides the borders of Nepal and Tibet: Mt. Everest.
Hitch says he wasn’t an athlete in high school. He was slow and had no hand-eye coordination.
“I was one of those kids in junior high that couldn’t break 7.0 in the 50,” Hitch says. “Putting one foot in front of the other and walking seems to be something I can do. I’m good at grinding something out slowly, and that’s climbing – not losing your focus.”
A simple start, then a thirst for more
It started innocently enough, when a sister suggested they climb Mt. Shasta. They rented crampons, and an employee at a sporting-goods store taught them self-arrest (how to stop yourself if you slip on ice).
Hitch describes his picture on Shasta, wearing yellow rain pants, as “funny.” But it didn’t stop him from climbing Mt. Whitney. Later, the youngest of he and Loretta’s three daughters was leaving for college. They were becoming empty-nesters, and Hitch wanted to climb an even taller mountain. In the United States, that was Mt. Rainier.
“It’s a great mountain for anybody that wants to experience big-mountain climbing,” Hitch said of the 14,000-foot trek. “You do anything you’ll do on any mountain.”
Next came Mexico’s Ixtaccihautl and Orizaba – about 18,000 feet – early in 2008. Ixtaccihautl offered horrible weather, including 40-mph wind.
“That comes into play later,” Hitch says. “Because the more experience you get in bad weather, the more comfortable you feel in bad weather.
“Mountain climbing, it’s not a fun sport. It’s a rough sport. You’re always sick; you have headaches. It’s just a nasty sport. It’s just about grinding. And that’s what I am, a grinder.”
Hitch heard about Kilimanjaro: 19,340 feet. Porters build the camp for the group of climbers, who use silverware and eat off China plates. It stimulates the local economy.
The five-star treatment ends on the mountain. A teenage girl on Hitch’s team, who he described as a “great athlete,” had never been to altitude and fainted in his arms. She later collapsed, stopped breathing and required a shot of the steroid dexamethasone.
“19,000 is hard,” Hitch says. “You go through a lot of stuff at 19 – not processing food, not wanting to eat, headaches.”
Bring on McKinley
“Everest and McKinley are two different beasts,” Hitch says. “Some say McKinley is tougher, but I will know the answer to that in a couple of months. McKinley, we were on the ice for 17 days.”
McKinley is an Alpine-style climb, and every item is on the climber’s back. The kitchen is an eight-foot-diameter hole dug about six feet into the ice. Everest has Sherpas, an ethnic group that lives in the high mountain region of the eastern Himalayas, to haul gear.
“The only thing we really carry on our backs, so I’m told, is everything you’ll need that day. You’ll have a big jacket, clothes for rain gear, food and water, medical stuff; that will kind of be it,” Hitch says. “Everything else will be at the camps.”
The summit on McKinley – at 20,320 feet – was different than the others, Hitch says.
“On McKinley, we fought through a lot of weather. But as we summated, it was like on ‘The Simpsons,’ where the sun goes, ‘Ahhhhh,’” Hitch sings. “McKinley has a great summit because about 10 feet below the real peak is a flat area where you can stand and take off your gear and you walk up and get your pictures taken. Others are a point where you’re like, ‘Everybody be careful here.’
“To stand on the top of McKinley just was amazing. But as I think back to some of my peaks, what I was really happy about is, it’s done and I get to go down and go home.”
Qualified for Everest
Hitch climbed Kilimanjaro 10 months before he took on McKinley, and heard along the way, “‘Oh, I’d never climb Everest or McKinley.’ But then you go to the next mountain. People there are, ‘I’d never do Everest. Maybe I’d do McKinley.’
“As you’re on these other mountains, people are getting more experienced, you all of a sudden find yourself in a place where, ‘Maybe I could do it,’” Hitch says. “If you were strong on McKinley, most people would say you’ve proved yourself in a tough element. You need to try Aconcagua, which is 23,000, and if you do good, you’re qualified for Everest.
“You keep going until you find out, you keep going higher and higher each trip, you keep doing OK, you eventually get to a spot where you go, ‘Maybe it is possible.’”
Hitch has reached that place. He knows altitude is the difference with Everest, that he’ll require oxygen at 23,000 feet, that the mortality rate is much higher. He knows crampons “barely catch” on Lhotse Face, which is almost like blue ice; that Hillary Step is 40 feet of rock and ice; that the altitude of Everest plays games with the mind and brings on cerebral edema, sleep apnea and paranoia.
Everest is technical, it’s mental, and it’s no one-day picnic. It’s considerable time at base camp – 17,500 feet. It’s preparation and becoming acclimated. It’s four separate climbs: to Camp 1 and down, to Camp 2 and down, and so on. It’s three trips up Lhotse Face.
It’s a grind.
Hitch recalls a team member at McKinley who got off the plane and pitched the tent. There was a heart attack on the mountain, and a couple of people had died. The team member watched another team come down looking haggard. He waited for the next plane to come in and left the team.
Hitch knows of another climber who three times has reached the first rest area – called the Balcony – above high camp on Everest, at 26,000 feet. The man has never made it past the Balcony. One time, it was physical; the other two were mental.
“One of the hard parts about Everest is you have weeks to think about it,” Hitch says. “And then, it’s always easier if you don’t know what a section is like and you get into it, and it’s really hard, and you’re going, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this,’ and you just push and you get past it. With Everest, like the Lhotse Face, we’re going to go up it one, two, we go up it three times. You’re going to be sitting in camp going, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can make it up the Lhotse Face again.’ So that wears on you.”
It’s more than Everest
The Hitches were in Australia in October for Rick’s climb up Kosciuszko when their lives changed “forever.” Their middle daughter, Cory, passed away. She was 25.
“It was horrible,” Rick says.
On the long flight home, Rick thought about Cory and climbing, the risks, how he learned on McKinley he really wasn’t invincible.
“My kids now have lost a sister; my wife lost a daughter,” he says. “I don’t have the right to risk that person.”
The Hitches landed in the United States, and Rick immediately canceled his future climbs. But Hitch is goal-oriented, and these were goals he had in place for a while; he’s a grinder. He called his guides again and asked for time to think.
Hitch talked to Loretta and his other two daughters – Toni, 28, and Ali, 21, whom he coached on the Diamonds.
“I came to the notion where I’m not afraid of putting my life at risk, but what I’m putting at risk is my kids’ father’s life, and my wife’s husband’s life, and do you really have a right to do that?” he says. “But after I canceled it, I just couldn’t get over it. This is a goal I’ve worked hard for.”
Hitch climbed Vinson in December, and here he is, looking up 29,035 feet at the highest point on Earth. He looks at mountains differently now.
“They have become mountains that, if I summit Everest, will I be happy? Sure, I’ll be,” Hitch says. “But what would be worse is if I didn’t try, and I don’t know if I could live with not trying because I’ve earned the right to try. I’m going to Everest because I’ve earned it. I’ve earned my chance at the tallest mountain in the world.”
That said, Hitch notes that getting to the top isn’t mandatory.
“Getting back down is mandatory,” he says.
Much will happen while Hitch is on Everest. He and Loretta will celebrate their wedding anniversary, Rick will celebrate his 55th birthday, and grandson Orion, holding down the fort at home with other family members, will celebrate his first birthday. Ali will graduate from UC San Diego five days after Rick gets home.
Physically, he’s ready. He did three hours – half weights, half cardio – at a gym three days a week. He went to Sugar Bowl one day a week to climb and, hauling an 80-pound pack, wore out the steps at the football stadium at Woodcreek, where all three daughters attended high school.
“What he’s good at is self-discipline and training,” Loretta says. “He’s been training for a year six days a week.”
Hitch, his team of eight and several other teams will take their shot at Everest, but he doesn’t want this to be about him. He wants it to be about his brother Ray Hitch, who died of cancer, and Cory. Rick is asking for donations to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in the name of Cory Hitch; and the American Cancer Society, in the name of Ray Hitch.
Says Rick, “Make my climb worth something more than just my own self-interest.”
Contact Bill Poindexter at email@example.com.
To honor his climb of Mt. Everest, Rick Hitch is asking people to make donations to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in the name of Cory Hitch, his daughter; or the American Cancer Society in the name of Ray Hitch, his brother.
Follow Hitch’s team, Classic Hybrid, at www.mountainguides.com/everest-south11.shtml.
Read Hitch’s blog at www.rickoneverest.blog.com.
To ask questions, e-mail Hitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To watch a video going through the icefall on Mt. Everest, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=moBJMGNSql4.