Mar 31, 2023

Alum Who Climbed Everest Says She Grappled with “Grief, Loss, Friendship

Rebecca Long (CAS’16) had previously summited Mount Rainier, Aconcagua (the tallest mountain in the Americas), and the active Cotopaxi volcano. But she says these don't come close to what she would find in Nepal. Photos courtesy of Rebecca Long

Early in the morning of May 17, 2023, Rebecca Long approached the summit of Mount Everest, with taped blisters, a sunburnt face, and frozen eyelashes. She and her team made the two-month expedition during one of the deadliest seasons ever on the mountain. And yet, standing on the earth's highest peak that morning, she felt ecstatic.

"At one point I got briefly emotional," says Long (CAS’16), who has since made it safely off the mountain and who spoke to Bostonia by Zoom from her Kathmandu hotel. "This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done…I grappled with grief, loss, friendship, teamwork, a lot of struggle. It has made me rethink a lot of things, and I feel so much more confident now. It was life-changing."

For Long, 29, climbing Everest was a longtime goal. She’d already summited Mount Rainier in Washington State (14,410 above sea level), the active Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador (19,347 feet), and Aconcagua in Argentina (at 22,831 feet, it's the tallest mountain in the Americas). But those peaks didn't come close to what she would find in Nepal. "There's just something about the Himalayas that is just so majestic, dangerous, terrifying," she says.

Once she got serious about the 29,032-foot climb, around two years ago, she prepared by lifting weights, biking with friends, and increasing the amount of cardio during her regular workouts. "I did things that brought me joy, versus going on the 25-mile death runs that so many people suggested," she says with a laugh. "I feel like that contributed to my success more than anything, because I continued to see climbing, and Everest in particular, as something fun." And she quit her job in finance when her employer wouldn't allow her to take a leave of absence.

Initially hesitant, her family eventually came around and threw her a goodbye party complete with Everest-themed cocktails and a to-scale cake in the shape of the mountain. Friends tried on her crampons. On March 25, Long flew to Nepal by way of Qatar, and her body started adjusting to the nearly 10-hour time difference.

Every spring, hundreds of Everest hopefuls strategically begin their ascent in order to take advantage of the small break between monsoons. This year, Nepal issued permits to 478 foreign climbers, an all-time high. Much of their time was spent camping out and acclimatizing to the thin mountain air. Above 26,000 feet is called the "death zone" because of its thin air and brutal weather; almost all climbers don masks and use supplemental oxygen.

Long climbed with the International Mountain Guides, which included a team of sherpas and staff assisting her and four other climbers. She says the trip would have been impossible without the sherpas’ tireless and talented efforts. The two assigned to her would cook dinner, carry equipment, even warm up her hands.

Throughout the expedition, Long blogged on Medium, often describing her nonclimbing days as somber and monotonous, spent nursing physical ailments. The team woke at 6 or 7 because of the glaring sun, and bedtime came a mere 12 hours later, mainly because "there was nothing else to do," she says. Climbing days, in comparison, had a much different pace. The team set out by 3 am to avoid avalanches (they are more likely to happen when the sun warms the snow, Long says).

According to the Himalayan Database, women accounted for only 17 percent of climbers on Everest this year. Long, the sole female on her team, was sometimes bullied and ostracized. By the end of the trip, she learned to stand up for herself when warranted.

The climbers surmounted near-constant hurdles, both physical and emotional: homesickness, storms, the possibility of encountering the bodies of deceased climbers, and the dangers of the low-oxygen, high-altitude terrain. In one of her Medium posts, Long detailed what it took to scramble in the pitch dark over the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most technical and dangerous parts of the mountain. Crossing the massive crevasse required a bridge consisting of four ladders roped together, which climbers must navigate wearing cumbersome crampons.

"As we climbed through, I occasionally heard the ice melting and crackling below and next to me, which almost sounds like being on a boat that's scraping against a rock," she wrote on her blog. There were "many vertical parts to ascend and belay down, and occasionally, falling seracs [a large chunk of ice that can detach] and avalanches to avoid."

Initially, the group hiked on average 5 to 10 miles a day. But once the grade got steeper, they were lucky to finish a mile and a half or even a quarter of a mile a day, Long says. The slowing pace was due in part to all the human traffic.

"The crowds were horrendous," Long says. "Luckily, my sherpas were pretty fast, so we were constantly unclipping [from the tether] and just passing as many people as we could. So you would take a deep breath and sprint in front of 10 people, which was exhausting."

Those hardships paled compared to the loss of her close friend and teammate Jonathan Sugarman, a retired Seattle physician and an experienced mountaineer who died of altitude-related sickness, according to his daughter. Long says his death was the lowest point of her trip and left her questioning her own safety on Everest.

"This guy was super strong, in great shape, and just a really good guy, too," she says. "And he did everything right. It reminded me how it could really end at any second." Sugarman was one of 12 climbers who died this season, and 5 are still missing, according to The Guardian.

One of Long's teammates was too distressed by Sugarman's death to continue; another dropped out because of illness. That left Long and one other teammate making their way to the top.

While many days she "couldn't wait to get out of there," she felt strangely upbeat and excited for the summit. When she reached it in the early hours of May 17, she thought it was the least hospitable place she’d ever been. —"And they said it was great weather that day," she recalls, with temperatures reaching negative 20 degrees. The views, on the other hand, were breathtakingly beautiful.

"I remember thinking that this was finally happening, after years of dreaming this dream," she says. "And then that was quickly replaced by, ‘Oh, my God!’ I’m scared shitless, there are too many people up here. I feel like I’m going to get jostled and fall down and never be seen again. There are all kinds of thoughts."

After her descent, Long stayed in Kathmandu, where her family visited her. She’ll fly back to Boston on June 6.

When asked about her long-term plans, Long says she's up for anything. She would love to continue writing and traveling, encouraged by her blog's many positive comments. She knows she could also fall back on her finance and banking experience.

"Summiting Everest looks pretty good on a résumé," she says with a laugh.

Alum Who Climbed Everest Says She Grappled with "Grief, Loss, Friendship