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#RealTravel: Climbing the Himalayas at 16? A Father and His Teenage Son Eye Mount Everest

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#RealTravel: Climbing the Himalayas at 16? A Father and His Teenage Son Eye Mount Everest

Mike and Matt Moniz overlooking Camp One on Cho Oyu. (Photo: Mike Moniz)

Who:  Mike Moniz, 52, and Matt Moniz, 16 —a father/son climbing duo from Boulder, Colorado

Where:  The Himalayas, Nepal

Why: 

(Mike) For the love of climbing — we’re both passionate about the mountains, and we’ve traveled around the world climbing some of its highest peaks.  Also to raise awareness…

(Matt) My best friend, Iain Hess, has Primary Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH), a rare lung disease that makes breathing really tough. At extremely high altitudes, climbers have many of the same breathing difficulties due to a lack of oxygen. I climb to relate to Iain and to raise awareness for his disease

(Mike) Back in 2010, Matt climbed the highest peak in every U.S. state in 43 days, becoming a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. We’ve both climbed Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), and Elbrus (Europe).

(Matt) I love the challenge, the travel and adventure of big mountain expeditions.

Matt climbs the serac barrier on Cho Oyu below Camp Two. (Photo: Mike Moniz)

The Original Plan: To do what had never been done: climb three 8,000-meter peaks back to back. We planned to start on Cho Oyu, the 6th-highest mountain in the world, to acclimatize our bodies to the lack of oxygen. After summiting, we would head to the south side of Everest, summit, and go straight to Lhotse, the adjacent mountain. We called our expedition “Triple 8” in recognition of our goal.

The Heartbreak: On April 18, sixteen people died on the first day of climbing season in what would be the deadliest and saddest day in Everest’s history. Our sherpa guides were related to some of those who died. We were incredibly sad, shaken, and worried. While we mourned the dead, we also struggled with what would become of our expedition on Everest. In fact, after several days, the south side of Everest was effectively closed — and continued that way for the season — and we realized we’d have to give up on that dream. 

What Happened Next? Even though people tend to think of Everest as the be-all-and-end-all, they usually don’t realize how beautiful and challenging the surrounding 8,000-meter (26,000-foot) peaks can be — and we still had to prepare to climb the massive and difficult Cho Oyu. Our bodies and minds had to be in optimal condition. We had to work together to fix ropes, to climb from camp to camp, and even to rest for several days in two-person tents while our bodies acclimated to the altitude.

“High” School:  (Matt) Because most Himalayan climbing expeditions start in April and run about two months, I had to finish up my sophomore year at 18,000 feet. [Ed: Talk about Boulder High!] At Base Camp the team would read or listen to the audio of some of the books I was assigned for Language Arts; then we’d sit around in our group tent and discuss them. 

Matt’s 26,864-foot education: below the summit of Cho Oyu overlooking the Yellow Band. (Photo: Mike Moniz) 

How We Bonded: When you’re essentially alone in a foreign country with only each other and a few teammates for company — in the freezing cold (it often got well below zero degrees Fahrenheit) — you can either get testy with each other or get much, much closer. We were struck by how well we got along when we together for so long, under such emotionally challenging circumstances, living through the anxiety and stress of trying to figure out what the trip would look like after the Everest tragedy. 

One Summit Down: On May 17, we summited Cho Oyu — together. We stood as a team and as a father and son on the top of the sixth highest mountain in the world. We’ll always have that accomplishment to remember. It’s a pretty amazing experience.

The “Triple 8” expedition on the summit of Cho Oyu. (Photo: Wille Benegas)

The Next Step: After Cho Oyu, we kept hoping that we’d be able to get a permit to climb Everest from the north side in Tibet. Understandably, due to special circumstances, the Chinese Mountaineering Association was unable to issue an Everest climbing permit. [Back in Kathmandu] we tried everything we could think of, but we couldn’t get permission, and time was running out — we’d lose our acclimation soon, and our visa to be in Tibet would run out in just a couple of weeks.

The Decision: 

(Matt)) With Everest looking less and less likely, decided that I would set out with our guide, world-famous Willie Benegas, and attempt to climb Makalu, the 5th-highest mountain in the world — and much more difficult mountain to climb, even with a lower summit than Everest. Our problem was that, logistically, we just couldn’t get the whole team over to Makalu: it would have required more helicopters and sherpas, and we might have missed the tiny weather window during which we could climb safely. 

(Mike) As hard as it was, I would stay behind in Kathmandu, and Matt and Willie would attempt Makalu. As much as I wanted to climb one of the world’s most challenging mountains, as a father, having Matt reach the summit was like me being there, too — and being a father means giving that chance to your kid.

The Waiting:  (Mike) I made the decision that I trusted Willie and sherpas Nima and Pemba to take Matt to Makalu without me. Still, I didn’t really ever think I’d be so nervous and so anxious as the night Matt and the team went up Makalu on that summit push. The team called me at 8:45p.m., saying that they were heading up; a nighttime start is the safest time to climb due to weather and conditions. I knew I’d have to wait through the night — probably nine to 12 hours — to hear more. Worse, I was hearing that the weather was turning and the wind was bordering on dangerous. I couldn’t sleep. I ran through scenarios in my head, very worried. But at 4:30a.m., I got the call: The team had summited Makalu in an amazingly fast time. Matt had become the 14th American and the youngest climber ever to make it to the top of Makalu. 

Matt, Willie, and a sherpa descending from the summit of Makalu. (Photo: Willie Benegas) 

The Future: 

(Matt) Everest is still out there, and I’m definitely going to climb it someday, taking bracelets up to the summit to support pulmonary hypertension in honor of Iain.

(Mike) We’ll finish the Seven Summits — the seven tallest peaks on all seven continents — at some point together, too. For now, we’re happy to be relaxing back home in Boulder after an expedition with a lot of twists and turns.

(Matt) Plus I’m going into my junior year. School comes first.


As told to Lisa McElroy

Father and Son Moniz, Cho Oyu, Nepal (Photo: Mike Moniz)

 

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