BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
One only has to watch the movie "Everest," released in 2015, to understand why in August of 1999, Larry Nielson was picked as having Western Washington University's Top Accomplishment of the Century (1900 thru 1999) by a former Viking athlete.
On May 7, 1983, Nielson became the first American to reach the top of 29,028-foot Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, without the use of bottled oxygen. He was one of four Americans and a Nepalese Sherpa to get to the summit from the southeast ridge of the peak located on the Nepal-China border.
The climb, which began in March, culminated at 4 p.m. on May 7, when four of the party got to the top. Nielson arrived at 4:20 p.m.
On the summit, a video camera and transmitter were assembled. The events, including Nielson's arrival, were recorded on video tape and aired on the ABC show, "American Sportsman," on May 15, 1983.
Nielson also had attempted to climb Mount Everest in 1982. He lost the tip of a thumb and part of two toes after four days at 25,500 feet before being evacuated.
"You climb it three times, five times, a hundred times," said Nielson in an interview in 1995. "You don't conquer it, you survive it."
Most devastating of all is losing a comrade during a climb, which Nielson did in 1982.
A human being can adapt up to an elevation of around 26,000 feet, but above that, he/she is in what is called the "death zone."
On Everest, a person can decline rapidly both physically and mentally. The altitude, wind and cold can lead to hypothermia, acute mountain sickness, frostbite and snow blindness.
Some get sick from eating a different diet, others have broken ribs from coughing because the atmospheric pressure is so low, still others become irrational because of the breathlessness and a nagging headache, and pulmonary edema fills some people's lungs with fluid at high altitudes.
When extremities don't get enough oxygen, toes and fingers are the first things affected. When the increased pain or discomfort in your fingers and toes stops, it's a serious danger signal.
Nielson described a long list of disabling problems during the 1983 climb in a 1995 interview with the Deseret News.
"I had an ulcerated toe with the bone showing, and an intestinal parasite; I lost 35 pounds in five days going to the summit. I had a clogging in my throat and so to breathe I broke two ribs; and then a pulmonary embolism -- just below the summit, when I was throwing up some blood."
With all that happening, what was it like to reach the summit, to be at the highest point on earth?
"There's definitely euphoria upon reaching the summit," said Nielson in a recent interview, "but I'm always reminded of (sherpa) Nawang Gombu who climbed Everest with Jim Whittaker (in 1963). They were flown to the White House to meet with the President, and Whittaker made this half hour speech about Everest and the climb ... When he was finished, they handed the mic to Gombu, and asked him what he was thinking on the summit. And his whole speech was `How to get down," and he hands the microphone back.
"And that's my point. You're only halfway there ... The majority of accidents happen on the way down because you put so much energy in getting to the summit that sometimes you overthink what your body can do."
It should be noted at that time, the resting heart rate for the 5-foot-8 Nielson was an incredible 36 to 38 beats per minute.
Times have changed
Climbing Mount Everest has changed over the years. The clothing and equipment are much better and lighter, but the experience also has become more commercial. In 2014, 658 climbers and guides reached the summit. It took 41 years from 1953 to 1994 for the first 658.
"For a long time I wanted to go back to Everest, if nothing else to go to base camp," Nielson said. "And then you see pictures of how it is now, compared to what it was like when I was there. So that desire has left me.
"It was still pristine when I was there, and we, our group, were the only people there. And now there are hundreds of people there.
"It seems to take away from the beauty of the mountain in a way. I mean the mountain is always going to be pretty, but the vast numbers of people. I mean if I want to be around people, I can go to Seattle, New York or Los Angeles. So, it's lost some of its ... Let's put it this way, I'd prefer to remember it the way it was when I was there."
Nielson at Western and beyond
The 68-year-old Nielson was inducted into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000, presented the WWU Alumni Association's Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1984 and received an Alumni Achievement Award from Washington State University in 2010.
Nielson, who was a standout cross country and track and field runner at Western, completed his teaching degree at then Western Washington State College in 1970 and earned a Master's degree in psychology at WSU in 1976.
After teaching at Washington Middle School in Olympia for 26 years, Nielson accepted a position as teacher, coach and athletic director at North River High School in Cosmopolis, Wash., in 2000. In all, he taught and coached for 44 years.
At North River, Nielson helped rebuild the physical education program and played a key role in constructing a new track and a baseball diamond. He retired from teaching there in 2010 and from coaching in 2013.
Nielson coached seven state champion track athletes at North River along with a number of other top ranked finishers. He was named Athletic Director of the Year for Southwest Washington B schools in 2007.
More Nielson treks
Besides Everest, Nielson has climbed Peak Lenin (24,590 feet), one of the tallest peaks in the former Soviet Union. He was the first person to scale Mount La Perouse (10,098 feet) in Alaska, which has a 7000-foot ice wall; Nepal's Mount Lobouche, and the northeast face of Mount Kangchenjunga (28,169 feet), the third highest peak in the world, a feat accomplished without supplementary oxygen. He has climbed North America's tallest peak Mount McKinley (20,320 feet) in Alaska seven times and Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) in Washington State on 180 occasions.
"I don't know if I can compare myself to anyone else," said Nielson of his climbing career in 1999. "I do know this: When I set my mind to something, I am successful - and I am alive.
"I've been with people who have died, and I've been in situations where I've had to dig down deep to survive it."
Where it started
Nielson's interest in mountain climbing began when he was 12 years old and his older brothers came back telling of adventure on the peaks. At 13, he climbed Mount Olympus (7,965 feet) on the Olympic Peninsula and he was hooked.
Nielson, a graduate of Tumwater High School, attended Western in the late 1960s. As a Viking, he set a school record in the six mile run and placed ninth in that event at the NAIA National Track and Field Championships in 1970 after finishing 41st at cross country nationals the previous fall.
During his days at Western, Nielson said he had no idea what his future in climbing held.
"I'd read stories of guys who had been to Everest, but from a financial standpoint I never thought I'd be able to," Nielson said of the time. "It was a progressive thing, sort of something that happened. I was really fortunate to be at the right place at the right time."
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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