Brian Dickinson is a mountaineer, motivational speaker, author, mountain guide, and adventurer.
His adventures include Everest, Island Peak, Aconcagua, Patagonia, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Kosciusko, Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Cascades, Waddington Range, Alaska Range, Canadian Rockies, Smokies, Sierra, White Mountains, Appalachian, Andes, Himalaya, Caucasus Mountains, Sentinel Range, Marathons, Swam Alcatraz, Adventure Races, Ultras, OCR, Surfing, Rock/Ice Climbing, Rappelling, Backcountry Touring (split board), Snowboarding, and Mountain Biking.
Brian has been involved in Military too–a Former US Navy Air Rescue Swimmer/Combat Search and Rescue.
Arun Budhathoki had an email interview with Brian about his blind descent from Mt. Everest in 2011.
1. Can you tell us about your journey to Mt. Everest, Nepal in 2011?
Climbing Mount Everest is the ultimate goal for most mountaineers. I was blessed to attempt it in 2011, independent of a big team. I had Sherpa support down lower and partnered with Pasang Sherpa above basecamp. We climbed together for the first month through the Khumbu Valley, including Island Peak and up to Camp 3 on Everest, ensuring we were properly acclimated for the higher altitudes. On May 14, 2011, we were at the South Col (high camp) and attempting the summit later that night. We were the only 2 climbers from either side attempting the summit due to recent high winds the day prior. The forecast showed good weather, so we felt confident in making the attempt.
2. How did your Sherpa become ill and what made you decide to climb Mt. Everest alone?
I got ahead of Pasang as we climbed through the night and ended up waiting at the halfway point (the balcony). When he arrived he wasn’t feeling good but decided to continue. Eventually, he decided to turn back and wait back on the balcony. We had a discussion and we both agreed that it was safe to continue and for him to wait nearby. He ended up going all the way back to the South Col and I continued up. In the mountains, you live and die by the decisions you make, but you can only use the information you have at the time. Everything checked out positive, so we both felt good about the decision, not realizing what was about to happen.
3. You went snow-blind while descending from Mt. Everest. How did you manage the feat? What ran through your mind?
After reaching the summit, taking pictures and making a radio call, I packed up my gear and started making my way down. About 20 feet into my descent, everything went completely white. I went snow-blind. That’s where the cornea of the eye gets sunburned. It usually takes 24 hours to recover. I wouldn’t fully regain my eyesight for over a month. In that moment I realized I was at the highest point on earth, blind and completely alone.
Without panicking or overthinking the situation, I started slowly moving down the mountain. Hand over hand I felt the ropes (fixed lines) and cautiously felt my crampons pierce the ice below.
4. What was the feeling of being stranded? What motivated you to reach the base camp?
Being in that situation was something you can never imagine. I had to keep myself calm and force any feelings of panic away. I kept focused on the next step, getting down Hillary Step and surviving a couple major falls. The entire time I felt a presence around me as if I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t over think it, I just kept moving. Just below the balcony, after realizing Pasang wasn’t there, I ran out of supplemental oxygen. At that point, I had been climbing for over 33 hours and I dropped to my knees and prayed. I asked God for help because I couldn’t do it on my own. Immediately I felt a surge of energy take over my body. I was lifted to my feet and felt for a spare oxygen bottle that had previously failed. It worked! I put my mask back on and felt life reenter my body. I quickly started moving down the mountain, feeling my way around the rope anchor points. What should have taken 3 hours to get down from the summit to the South Col, took me 7 hours. I was determined to live and wouldn’t give up, no matter what. I had to get down to see my wife and kids again.
5. Did that experience change you and your life?
I had a very tangible experience of faith up there in the death zone. I am truly blessed to be alive and I now have a baseline of perspective greater than I could ever imagine. I have suffered from PTSD from the experience, but most days are ok. I’m very humbled to be able to share my experience in motivational talks to companies, groups, and children to help them overcome the obstacles in their lives.
6. Can you tell us about your book “Blind Descent”? Why did you decide to write it?
My book, Blind Descent, recounts my experience on Everest. When I returned to the US, I had a lot of media interviewing me about my survival experience. I was then introduced to my literary agent, Working Title Agency, who connected me with Tyndale House Publishers. Within a couple years of returning, I had a published book.
7. Do you think there are safety concerns regarding climbing Mt. Everest? Will you climb the highest mountain again?
Mt. Everest is a popular destination for many, not just climbers. There need to be limits on the number of climbers each season since there’s only 1 way up and 1 way down (North and South routes), which causes traffic jams. Anyone can get into trouble based on conditions outside of their control, but decreasing the numbers and vetting out the climber’s ability and experience should be a priority to increase safety.
One of the best parts of summiting a mountain is the view on the way down. Unfortunately, I missed out on that part, but I don’t intend to climb it again. There are too many mountains on this earth to limit me to just one. I’ve been lucky to have traveled and climbed on the 7 continents. And I’ve been able to bring my family on many of the adventures. I would like to bring both of my kids to Everest basecamp in the near future.
8. What inspired you to fight the odds? What did you learn from your fight?
I served 6 years in the US Navy as an AIR Rescue Swimmer. Our motto was: So Others May Live. Meaning we risked our lives to save others. We trained hard, learned to never panic and do what was required to survive and help others survive. On Everest a lot of that training came back, I didn’t panic and I kept my focus; one step at a time. I was not about to abandon my family and I never gave up my faith.
9. If you were taken back to that moment and knew that you would go snow-blind–would you still climb the Mt. Everest?
That’s a tough question since I’ve been able to impact so many lives with my survival experience. But if I would have known I was going to go blind, I would have turned around with Pasang. I feel very blessed to be alive and to have survived that horrific situation, but there’s no way I would go through that if I knew ahead of time.
10. Your motivation words for Nepalis and people of the world.
Through life, we all experience struggles and reach that point where we can’t do it on our own anymore.
Faith and focus got me down from an impossible situation on the summit of Mt. Everest.
I don’t take credit for my survival because when I reached that point where I couldn’t do it on my own I reached out to God for help and He delivered. I’m alive today because of it. Whatever situation you’re dealing with, it’s not too great for Him. Faith and focus can get you through impossible times in your life.