Dispatches from the roof of the world
Dispatch #34 May 14, 2012
What Nobody Talks
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@BookofSamuel
The North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill looks down the Western Cwm from Camp 3.

The South Col Five just returned from spending the night at Camp 3, 23,000 feet, midway up the Lhotse Face. We arrived yesterday at 10 a.m. and spent the next two hours shoveling out a rectangular platform large enough to accommodate two tents. But before the evening light (“money light,” as Kris calls it), Kris, Hilaree, and I gathered in a tent to talk about what nobody talks about.

Everybody always talks about the glory of expeditions. But there is a dark side to the expedition life: everything you miss back home. Because of this expedition, Hilaree missed her uncle’s funeral, whom she was quite close to. Had she made the funeral, she would have seen her grandmother, who fell ill while we were here and died. Next week Hilaree’s youngest son, Grayden, will turn three years old. And Hil will be here, on a freezing mountain, halfway around the world.

“I feel guilty a lot,” says Hilaree, “but honestly, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t think I could not do expeditions. They keep me sane.”

Hilaree, 39, started expeditioning right after college. Pre-kids, of course, she was doing three or four a year. Now she’s down to one long expedition a year and several one- to two-week trips. “Right now it’s so hard,” admits Hilaree. “My boys are two and four and they don’t understand. They’re too young to know why Mommy goes away. Re-entry just kills me. I’ve missed so much: preschool graduation, soccer matches. And both boys are mad at me when I get home.”

Kris, 38, also started doing expeditions right after college. “It’s the only life I’ve ever known,” Kris says, “I’ve always gone to the mountains to make a living.” Kris and his wife Cloe have one daughter, Noor Amina. She’s three. “The last few times I’ve called home, Noor hasn’t wanted to talk to me. She’s been busy with something else. It’s really hurt,” says Kris.

Kris and Hilaree have extremely independent spouses. Hilaree’s husband, Brian, is a real estate agent in Telluride. Kris’s wife Cloe runs her own NGO in the central High Atlas of Morocco. “Now she must make big family decisions without me,” says Kris. “Right now we’re building a house in Morocco and Cloe is calling all the shots.”

“We sold our house while I was here,” pitches in Hilaree, “and are buying another one. I’ll come home to a completely different home.”

Both Hil and Kris are living global lives. Kris spends one-third of the year in Montana, in Christian culture, one-third in Morocco, in Islamic culture, and one-third in Asia, a Buddhist culture. “It’s made me a more tolerant person,” says Kris. “Less arrogant, more reflective, a better human—and, I hope, a better parent.”

Hilaree is less certain about this last point. “It’s just a tough time. At home I’m a 24/7 mom. Having kids makes expeditions seem like a vacation.” There’s no doubt that being away can be emotionally devastating. “I was in the Brooks Range of Alaska when Grayden learned how to walk. And I had a full-on meltdown.”

Hilaree and Kris both feel they couldn’t live their lives without modern communications. You know, not too long ago—or at least the last time I was on Everest in 1986—letters came in and out by yak.

“I called my wife and daughter every two or three days and sometimes the conversation lasts 20 minutes,” says Kris, who has already spent over $600 on phone calls from Everest.

“Same here,” concurs Hilaree. “I love this life too much to do anything else.” The phone is an expedition mom’s best friend.

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