Find Your Everest
Posted October 18, 2012
How do you keep a room full of 540 young men completely enthralled? Just ask Dr. Richard Birrer '68. On October 18, 2012 he held the entire Delbarton student body in the palm of his hands. Click here for photos.
The spell was cast when Headmaster Br. Paul Diveny introduced our alumni guest speaker, "Dr. Birrer has climbed the tallest peaks on all seven continents." Nearly every boy turned his head in unison to look at what surely must be a superhuman in our midst. What they saw was a reasonable looking 62 year old man with a modest smile on his face.
Dr. Birrer claims that he not a super athlete, not a famous mountaineer, not a god among men. He has a full time job as a CEO, the Executive Director of Saudi Aramco Medical Services Organization in Saudi Arabia, responsible for the health care of half a million people working in the petroleum industry. He has also written many books and texts on sports medicine and other medical topics. He even co-authored with his wife, Chris, and their three children, Climbing Across America, a book about climbing the highest mountains in all fifty states. No, Dr. Birrer is not superman. He is someone who believes that to live life to the fullest we must stare our greatest fears in the face.
After climbing the highest mountains on six out of seven continents, in 2005 Birrer, as expedition physician, attempted to scale Mt Everest but was forced to turn back when his tentmate died of a massive heart attack. In 2010 Birrer returned for a second try, this time with his son Richard. "I had to stare that devil down."
At Delbarton he skillfully mixed spectacular photos and well-timed videos to take his audience on a mesmerizing journey 26,000 feet up to the top of Everest. He described the rope (the climber's umbilical cord), the gear (120 pounds of it), the sherpas (Nepalese who lug upwards of 220 pounds), the time constraints (May 15-30 is ideal), the physical and mental challenges. Danger lurks at every turn. A half-inch pebble tumbling down the mountain can cause life-threatening damage. Maybe you can live with that deep gash in your leg -- which takes a month to heal due to low oxygen levels -- but the real risk is the nasty tear in the outer layer of your Gortex pants. To date 300 men and women have died trying to scale Everest. To punctuate this point Birrer showed bodies of several climbers you might see along the way.
In 2010 Birrer and his son arrived in Katmandu, flew into Lukla (its sheer drop makes it among the most dangerous airfields in the world) then hiked 60 miles to an Everest base camp. They spent the next six weeks adapting to the 17,300 foot elevation. Food was cooked in pressure cookers, climbers slept, read, played Monopoly and cardgames to kill time in tents perched on glaciers that constantly cracked and shifted. 'Like sleeping on a subway,' he reports.
The two Birrers were part of an expedition that included a dozen more climbers that made several attempts to reach the summit. Bad weather got in the way, and time was running out. Finally, on May 25, 2010, they struggled to the summit of Mt. Everest, the top of the world with a vantage point so extreme they could see the curvature of the earth. They took a moment for a few pictures -- "I didn't know Delbarton had a flag. Otherwise I would have carried that" -- then began was the long, treacherous hike home.
His message to the young men of Delbarton was clear: you don't need to climb mountains, but you do need to find your own personal Everest. Identify it, then don't afraid to scale it with planning, intelligence and a delicate balance of physical, mental and spiritual endurance. 'I'm a calculated risk taker," he says, and we believe him. With his wife Chris watching from the audience, he spoke of how his family and career factored into his decision in 2005 to turn back from Everest. He had come so far, prepared for so long but he knew this wasn't the time. Climbers have an expression: "There are old climbers, and there are bold climbers, but there are not old bold climbers."
Perhaps Dr. Birrer's greatest unspoken message is that you don't need to sacrifice family and career to follow your passion. He manages to balance family, career and climbing in a life well lived. As one of 300 people in the world who have climbed the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents, is he finished? Is he ready to hang up his crampons? Not quite. He currently is looking for an unnamed peak (Mount Birrer?) possibly in the Pamir Mountains between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. His wife smiles understandingly, clearly knowing that nothing will stand in his way.