COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Even nearly a decade as a pediatric ICU nurse didn’t prepare Taylor Adams for the way death is just another aspect of summiting Mount Everest.
“Going into this, I knew that people died up there,” said the 30-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident, who reached the summit of the world’s tallest mountain on May 23, the day after another Utahn died on the mountain.
“I knew that there were still a lot of dead bodies up there. You google Everest, and pictures come up of bodies that have been there for 30 years, so I was expecting that. What I wasn't expecting is to be going by bodies (of people who’d) … been alive the day before," Adams said.
"I think that sort of made it seem a lot more intense.”
The 2019 season, which was just a couple of weeks long, was one of the deadliest with 11 fatalities, including Sandy resident Don Cash, who died while descending the 29,029-foot peak.
A photo taken the day Cash died, May 22, of dozens of climbers in a long line waiting to summit went viral. It also sparked contentious debate about whether the Nepal government’s decision to issue a record number of climbing permits — 381 — caused or contributed to the number of deaths.
“I think the mainstream media made it out to be a lot worse than it was,” said Adams, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child and is climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents to raise money for juvenile diabetes research through a GoFundMe campaign. “It’s a great storyline that people are waiting in line and dying because their egos are too big at the top of the world. I think those lines had very little to do with why people were dying.”
Adams reached the summit of Mount Everest the next day and said the crowds were thinner, but admitted he still stood in line “a fair amount of time.” Reducing permits, he asserted, won’t solve a problem that’s more complex than a numbers game.
“One of the issues is this wasn’t a good year in terms of weather,” he said, noting the already small window of two weeks was whittled to seven or eight days because of storms. “It was windy until much later than usual and there were about six good summit days.”
He said the first good day after Sherpas install the fixed lines that guide climbers to the summit, which is the same size as two ping-pong tables, is a popular day to climb.
“People are impatient,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for six weeks, so the first good day, people rush to get to the summit.”
Another issue is that there is no fitness requirement or qualification process. If a climber can pay, he or she can attempt the treacherous journey.
“It’s not always very difficult to tell where the issues are,” he said. “There are people up there who should not be up there. And it’s very clear. We were on our summit day, and one of the points where there was a bottleneck … you could see who was, you know, the one or two people at the front of the line who could hardly walk.”
He said whether they were unprepared or had become so sick from the high altitude and rigors of the climb, it was “very clear” that someone should have insisted they turn around for their safety and the safety of others.
“I remember I stood there and said to my friend, ‘This person is not doing well, and they are going to die unless they turn around right now,’” he said. “And they didn’t. And then they died that day.”
As a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at Primary Children’s Hospital, Adams said he’s very familiar with death. In fact, it was his patients who inspired him during the toughest parts of his two-month journey to the summit.
“Every day when I go to work, it’s a normal day,” he said. “But I try to remember that it’s one of the worst days of the patient’s and their families’ lives. I think just seeing that all the time, you realize how strong people are, and how much they overcome.”
Adams came to Utah for a job, but he said climbing 22 of the Wasatch Mountain peaks taller than 11,000 feet turned out to be perfect training for the grueling demands of Everest.
Until he reached that area known as the death zone, he said, Everest was a lot like the other mountains he’d climbed — a mixture of painful challenges and beautiful, transformative moments. But the reality that Everest kills people every year was an unavoidable part of achieving a lifelong goal.
“That's a really weird thing,” he said of seeing people who’d died chasing the same dream he was about to celebrate. “It's something you don't do in any other sport. … You know, if it's a NASCAR race, then a car crashes and someone dies. Everything stops, and they take care of that. And it's very weird, walking past dead bodies. … Toward the very top, there was a dead body about 100 yards from the summit, and you're walking by them. And then 10 minutes later, you're celebrating that you got to the top of the world when there's a dead person right there.”
He said those who climb Everest and mountains like it have to get comfortable with that reality, both for themselves and others.
“I won't say I feel bad about it,” he said of celebrating his summit. “I don't feel like I did anything wrong. Everest kills people. It's the way it is. It's always been that way. That's the way it will always be.”
Adams has dealt with harsh realities all his life.
He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in elementary school and very quickly learned to do things he didn’t want to do. He talks openly with patients about his own struggles, and how if they approach the diagnosis with resolve, it doesn’t change much, including being able to conquer some of the world’s toughest challenges.
“We see a lot of families whose kids have just been diagnosed with diabetes,” he said. “The main emotion I get (from many families) is that the kid’s life is over, you know, there are so many limitations now, like counting their carbohydrates and giving themselves shots all the time, testing their blood sugar. I’m very open with families saying, ‘I have diabetes too.’
"Climbing these mountains has allowed me to tell them that nothing has to change." Adams said. "You have to take care of your body, and it’s more work, it’s a pain, and it’s not always fun. But whatever your goal is, and it doesn’t have to be climbing Mount Everest … but if you can climb Mount Everest with diabetes, you can probably do almost anything.”