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Andrew Towne: We don't know when we will be thrust into a position, into an emergency situation, like that. America didn't know that we'd be thrown into a coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Similarly in 2015, when I was eating my lunch at Mount Everest base camp and I felt a rumble, I had no idea what was going on… But our expedition leader was a Californian and I immediately looked in his eyes and his eyebrows lit up and he said, "Earthquake."
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest, Andrew Towne has lived an extraordinary life. He's a graduate of Yale University, speaks five languages, has broken several world records as a modern day adventurer. Among his exploits, he has rode from South America to Antarctica, served with the CIA in Iraq, and of course he summited Mount Everest, because everyone's doing that now.
Andrew, I watched Everest, the movie, with my 10 year old daughter last night, my seven year old was with us as well. And aside from my wife being very angry with me because she's worried they'll never hike with the family again, my 10 year old, when she heard I was interviewing someone who's actually done it, who's actually been to the top, desperately wanted to ask you a couple of questions about it.
First for Burn the Boats, we've got a guest host, Elizabeth Harbaugh. Do you mind if she fires a couple of questions your way?
AT: My pleasure. Elizabeth, nice to meet you.
Elizabeth Harbaugh: Yeah. You too, it sounds like you've had a lot of fun over the years. I just have a few questions. Number one, you probably get asked this a bunch, but what made you decide to climb Mount Everest and get to the top?
AT: Because it's there.
EH: Great answer.
AT: Also because I'm afraid of heights, and for the last 20 years, I've been fascinated with testing my fears and seeing if I had the mental and physical ability to overcome my fears. For a person whose legs wobble the moment he starts going up a medium incline, summiting Mount Everest was particularly thrilling.
EH: Wow. That sounds great. Facing your fears. Great. My next question is, when you were not using oxygen, how did it feel? How did the air feel at the top or anywhere on it?
AT: You just feel sleepy. You feel bone dead tired. Maybe like you just hiked for 16 hours or you just run a marathon really fast and you finally sit down and the adrenaline in your body starts to flush out, and all you want to do is close your eyes and go to sleep. That's what it felt like for me at higher elevations without oxygen. And then also even with oxygen at the South Summit, just a few hundred feet below the true summit. I have a new appreciation for how easy it would be to die inside the death zone above 8,000 meters on the world's tallest peaks, because just the sensation... You almost feel warm. You just feel comfy, cozy, not a care in the world, and that overwhelming sleepy feeling is the danger of your body not having enough oxygen. It's comfortable but alarming at the same time.
EH: That sounds horrible, but also very interesting. My last question is how cold were you? I know you were probably in bundles, but what did your fingers feel like? What did your whole body feel like on the mountain?
AT: Cold is another interesting sensation because my body, and I think probably many people's bodies, begin with sharp pain, but almost by definition going numb means soon you can't feel the pain anymore. That's actually what you have to be careful of on these huge mountains like Everest and Denali in America. Because it's easy to be so focused on the goal and so focused on your surroundings that you tolerate the pain which is your body's warning sign and then once you go numb, many people forget about it. That's how people get frostbitten to the point that they have to lose fingers or toes or entire hands or feet. On Mount Everest, on summit day, you start climbing before midnight to make sure that you have enough time to summit before the afternoon the following day. And I think it was about 2:00 in the morning that I felt the sharp pain in my feet, which had been sensitive ever since climbing Denali in 2012. I tolerated the pain for about half an hour, and then sure enough, they went numb and I began to forget about it. It was after, I guess I don't really know, five or 10 minutes, it dawned on me. I had this epiphany of, “oh man, you can't feel your toes and you can't remember exactly how long ago you stopped being able to feel your toes.” I think a lot of people unfortunately proceed and they just ignore it, which just makes everything worse. But I ended up stopping with my Sherpa climbing partner and literally planted myself on the side of Mount Everest on a 40 degree slope and starte d wildly swinging my leg for almost 10 minutes. I probably swung my leg 100 times to force the blood down into my lower extremities, into my toes. And as the feeling in them came back, I could feel an even sharper pain, but I kept swinging.
I knew after about 10 minutes of that, that I could really feel my feet again, that I was good to go. I made sure from there to stop and swing my feet more frequently so that I could keep blood circulating and keep my toes warm throughout summit day.
EH: That is amazing. I do not think I will go do that ever sometime. Maybe if I get to the point where I have lived my life and done whatever I want to do, maybe I will consider it, but otherwise that sounds just unbelievable.
AT: Elizabeth, there are rewards to be found in life for anything that you pursue with ardor, so whatever it is that ignites you, if you work hard at it, you'll find that much greater fulfillment.
KH: Thanks, Elizabeth. Really appreciate you guest hosting for us. I think you probably have some summer reading to go do.
EH: No, I finished it. I actually wrote the essay a week ago.
KH: Good for you. Well, hey, Andrew, thank you so much for answering those questions. The movie that Lizzie and I watched together, of course, chronicled that infamous season on Everest in ‘96, during which seven people died in a single afternoon, but you were on the mountain during a season in which 30 people were killed in a single avalanche that tore through base camp. What was the experience of that like? Obviously, you survived and your expedition wasn't struck, but having been in a few disaster zones, I imagine at first it was utter panic and pandemonium. What was your role in the rescue and recovery?
AT: These are the times that try men's souls. We don't know when we will be thrust into a position, into an emergency situation, like that. America didn't know that we'd be thrown into, the world didn't know, that we'd be thrown into a coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Similarly in 2015, when I was eating my lunch at Mount Everest base camp on April 26th, and I felt a rumble, I had no idea what was going on. I thought that my climbing partner next to me was jiggling his leg against one of the legs of the table and that that was causing my fork to bounce a little bit. But our expedition leader was a Californian and I immediately looked in his eyes and his eyebrows lit up and he said, "Earthquake." And the moment he said earthquake, and I saw everybody else's expressions become alert, my first fear was that the earthquake might open up a massive crevasse underneath us in base camp, because base camp sits on a glacier thousands of feet deep. I was worried that the earthquake could tend into an opening. I started looking down and around, and that's when I heard ice above me starting to fall. I looked toward Mount Everest and then I looked South and then I looked West. And finally, as I turned almost a full 360 degrees to the North, toward the border of China, I saw this massive cloud descending from Everest's shoulder with primori on the Northern edge of base camp. The cloud was something - I actually had to look up and strain my neck to see the top of it. I had no idea what was in this massive cloud that was coming down toward us at base camp, but I knew it probably wasn't good. I looked around for the largest boulder that I could find within a hundred yards and I ran to get behind it and I cowered in the fetal position thinking that if I was overrun by snow, it might block some or protect me and give me some oxygen. Or if there were things, debris, flying in that cloud, it might prevent some of the debris from hurting me. I got into the fetal position and I started focusing on the sensation in my back. What I was trying to do is the moment I felt the first snow on me. I was planning to take one last deep gulp of air and bury my face in my jacket in the hopes that I could create an air pocket that would help me survive if I was buried and swept down the glacier. I felt the first snow, I took the first deep breath, and about five seconds later, after a dusting of snow, things became quiet. Slowly, I let my muscles release and I looked up and the air was starting to clear and I didn't hear anything. I realized that whatever was in that cloud must have passed.
Not long thereafter, I heard a crackle on our expedition leader's radio. And within a couple of minutes, we were able to confirm that everybody in our expedition was safe, but just a few moments later, we learned that many expeditions were not so lucky. Because our camp was on the southern tip of base camp and because the avalanche had basically blown through like a shotgun on the middle third of base camp, just few hundred yards north of us, this shotgun blast, that cloud had contained boulders and ice chunks the size of cars that had just blown through tents and had killed many individuals. We turned our expedition site into a field hospital and not long thereafter, doctors from other expeditions started coming to our camp and people started bringing casualties on ladders, in sleeping pads, being helped on other's shoulders. And then we commenced a triage situation where we treated and cared for the victims as best we could while we waited for the situation to get better so that they could be evacuated to proper medical care.
KH: I definitely want to glean from the wisdom you have built up over the years of testing yourself and finding yourself in emergencies like this, some insights about how we as a society need to be responding to COVID-19. But I want to dive a little deeper into some of those particular experiences. Everest, the summiting of it, the first row from South America to Antarctica - It's funny, I watched some of the videos on the Discovery Channel of that, in which you're talking about how calm the water is on good days, and the camera is still bobbing all over the place. Can you give us a sense of what a good day is like in the middle of the Drake Passage, and then dial it up to what the bad days must've felt like?
AT: Sure. A calm day on the Drake Passage. I grew up in North Dakota, which is not known as a hub of the rowing community. I first rowed during my exchange year with Youth for Understanding in Germany. And that motivated me to try and pick it up in college at Yale where I really got much better at the sport. At Yale, we rowed on the Housatonic River, which is a beautiful river nestled in the hills of South Central Connecticut. At 5:00 AM in the morning on the Housatonic River with a little bit of mist rising off of the water, they were some of the most serene and beautiful moments of my college experience. And a good day on the Drake Passage, the best day on the Drake Passage, felt a little bit like that. Because the eye of the storm, yes, we had swells which is what made the camera bob, but in a small rowboat with wide swells, we almost didn't feel them because it just felt like a gradual rising and falling of the ocean underneath us. It allowed us, the water was close enough to glass, that we could truly enter and exit the water with our blades at the same time, which meant that the three rowers in my shift, we could transcend the sum of the parts. Together, we could actually produce more force than each of us independently could. That's a phenomenon called swing in rowing. It feels really good. It actually creates energy so that everybody on the boat wants to row in sync more so that they can maintain this feeling.
If you add to that orcas breaching next to the boat, at one point two orcas swam directly underneath us, we watched their fins disappear as they went under the boat and then also these massive albatross, they're the largest wingspan bird in the world with wingspans between 11 and 13 feet, soaring above us and almost playing with us in the water sometimes, it just created an experience that I doubt I'll ever have again.
KH: And the bad days?
AT: And the bad days. Our worst storm - we encountered five storms, which is probably about what we expected since the Drake Passage is considered to be the worst stretch of ocean in the world. The fifth storm, we were about 60 miles off the coast of Antarctica and it lasted about 16 hours. The waves grew up to 25 feet tall and were crashing down on us constantly.
KH: How big is your boat?
AT: Boat is 29 feet long and at any given point, I could sit in my rowing seat and I could almost touch the water. I would only have to lean a little bit for my hand to be outside the boat and touching the water, that's how close we were to the ocean. The cabins could not fit all six of us. They could only fit five at a time, and that meant that during any storm we had to rotate and out of every six hours, you would have to sit on deck in the storm for an hour and a half.
KH: And you would batten down during those storms. You're not trying to steer in those storms. You're just hunkering down. Is that right?
AT: Correct. We would drop sea anchor when the headwind grew so strong that we could no longer make forward progress, but if we had a tailwind with violent seas, we would row as long as possible. It had less to do with the size of the waves and more to do with the wind direction and whether our progress was halted or not.
KH: Got it.
AT: But in this bad storm, 33 degree water, almost freezing. You might remember the ice bucket challenge where people would take a five gallon bucket and dump it over somebody’s head. Imagine if you were sitting cross legged and four people had five gallon buckets filled with ice, and at the exact same time, 20 gallons of ice water just dumped on you and you felt it in your lap and it immediately penetrated all your clothes. That's one wave. Now give yourself a hundred waves over the course of an hour and a half. You're hanging onto the boat for dear life, so that none of these waves actually knock you overboard. And meanwhile, your hands are cold because you can't wear down gloves in the ocean, so you've just got these thin rowing gloves, which means that every once in a while, you have to tuck your hands into your armpits and now you can't hold on anymore, so now when the waves hit, you're violently knocking up against the side of the boat. It was one of the least pleasant experiences in my life, and the only way I could get through it was I actually relied on three techniques. The first was to focus on loved ones and supporters, and to think about not only my teammates, but also the communities that had helped me get to that place and the people that matter most to me in my life. That gave me a ton of strength. The second way was a method of removing myself from the situation. Ironically, for me, that meant singing German campfire songs in my head.
KH: Of course.
AT: And then finally, there's almost a direct confrontation and perseverance, which I did by literally counting the seconds and almost through willpower willing the time to pass.
KH: Are you tethered? I imagine waves, it's not just swells, they're breaking when they're that high, right?
AT: That's right. Waves were breaking and cresting and adding to the terror, in the middle of the night, in a storm, there's no moonlight, which means it's pitch black, which means you don't even know which wave is about to hit you because the Drake Passage, the currents are swirling and the winds are changing directions. It's actually a washing machine, where you're getting it from all angles. To your point about tethering, we wore life preservers with leashes fixed to guy-wires across the boat. That would keep us physically attached to the boat, but it was still possible to wash into the water if we weren't careful. Perhaps the most dangerous moments were when we were transitioning in and out of the cabin, because for at least a minute or two, you would have to unhook your leash, and if the wrong wave hits you at that moment, you could very quickly be separated by a great distance from the boat.
KH: What are the greatest things you learned about yourself? I don't mean what you learned about your physical abilities, but your mental acuity, your ability to concentrate. What did you learn about your psyche in those moments?
AT: There's a purity that comes with pursuing something with single focus. For me, that's a very happy place. I relished the simple life of eat, sleep, row, for almost two straight weeks. It was exhausting. It was scary. It was exhilarating. But through it all was... maybe it's what monks or people who do a lot of meditation feel from just a total focus. But I think I learned that and I've brought that back into my normal life quite a bit.
KH: But can you bring that back entirely? It begs the question, how does someone who has not only been through an experience like that, but sought it out and continued to seek it out, return to the kind of life that the rest of us consider normal?
AT: I guess I would say I don't think that I've returned to a "normal" life. There was a movie, a war movie, about an American sniper in Iraq. I can't remember the name of the movie, but a scene that's always stuck with me, this military sniper returns to -
KH: I think it might've been American Sniper.
AT: That sounds right. There's a scene where the soldier is walking around a Costco after his fifth consecutive tour of duty or something like that, and he's just blinking as he looks at these hundred foot tall racks of consumer packaged goods. And that's always resonated with me because I think when I came back from this expedition and after I came back from the avalanche on Mount Everest, it just put a lot of my life into perspective. The life that I choose for myself now is fairly minimalistic. I don't like to own things. I choose the things that I invest my time in very carefully. They're all things that fulfill me in one way or another. I choose the people in my life and I try and do everything I can to avoid distractions, be it from email or social media or TV or anything else. And what I find is that the less that I choose, the more that I feel I have, if that makes any sense.
KH: Is there, even with all that, still a restlessness though? I feel like whenever I get the chance to talk to people like you, who have lived these incredibly adventurous lives, adventurous lives that they've chosen, not ones that they have inadvertently been thrust into, but lives that are a reflection of their decisions and their character, there is a restlessness. To quote Hamilton, there's a quality of never being satisfied. And I'm wondering if that describes you as well.
AT: Sure. I think for me, I think Hamilton is a fascinating and wonderful musical about a very ambitious individual. And while I don't want to say that I don't feel like I have ambitions, I think I would say what's driven me in the mountains and in the ocean is much more this fascination with pushing my limits. That comes from the fact that I was actually quite overweight as a child and as a teen. I was teased a lot for it in North Dakota. And don't get me wrong, I love North Dakota and I still have many of my friends from middle school and high school. But rowing in college gave me the opportunity to... It was difficult. It wasn't natural for me. I was always afraid that if I quit, I would be quitting because I couldn't handle the pain of a division one varsity sport. After four years, not only did I make the varsity, but I also joined a very talented varsity crew with seven other incredible rowers and we won the Division One National Championship my senior year. And that, I think, was a point of major affirmation that I had not only overcome my fear that I would quit in the face of pain, but also that I had managed to stick with something to that level. Mountaineering grew from that, because my next fear was not that I would quit on the rowing machine, but rather that I was afraid of heights. And to your question about restlessness, it's that what I really love is, I love the sense of satisfaction that I get from putting myself on the brink of quitting for whatever reason and then choosing to not quit. I wouldn't say it's ambition so much as I just really like setting a professional goal, or a physical goal, or an outside adventure goal and then seeing if I can pull it off. It's the test that I love.
KH: What's next? What's the next challenge you fear you might quit?
AT: I had started getting seriously into salsa dancing in January, but COVID-19 has made social dancing a non-starter. At the moment I'm doing work that I very much enjoy that makes the world a better place. I'm very invested in my work with Boston Consulting Group. In the meantime, I still love mountains. I would love it to be competing with the Minneapolis Rowing Club this summer. But obviously sports leagues are canceled. So, I think for the moment, I'm grateful to be in a position of relative stability during this year of tumult and uncertainty all over the world. I guess if anything, I'm investing more in the things that I try and do for my communities, be it intercultural exchange or working to heal racial injustice in America.
KH: What do you think we can learn from someone like you, who has confronted their own mortality, been in situations where if teams didn't come together, you all would have died? What can we learn about the current moment we find ourselves in, especially as cases continue to spike, there is no political consensus around how to confront the challenge? Give us some inspiration and hope here.
AT: I think three things. First is, we are one humanity. Second is, think about what you actually have to lose, because when you think about what you actually have to lose and what actually matters in life, there's not actually that much that we have to lose. And third is probably, keep peace with your loved ones. What I mean by that is don't let small grievances or arguments fester. Make sure that we know where we stand with the people that matter to us in our life. I don't know, be at peace with one another. Don't let arguments fester in a pandemic where for all you know, you might get COVID. Things are changing fast these days, so make sure you tell your family you love them.
KH: You've done more than pay lip service to this idea of fostering understanding. You are an ambassador for Youth for Understanding. Can you tell me about that organization and what you are endeavoring to do?
AT: Sure. I would be still in North Dakota today, except my high school German teacher suggested I go on exchange and when I was 16, I thought that sounded cool. For a year, I lived with a host family, two really, one in East Germany, one in West Germany. By the end of it, I felt like I was German. I had adopted many German cultural attributes. I was dreaming and thinking in German. I didn't want to return to America. For about a year after that, I idolized German culture and I thought maybe I wanted to be an expatriate. But over time I realized that deep down I had been born and raised in America and as much as I might appreciate Germany, I personally was an American at my core. That created for me, this fascination with, well, are we really so different? These are just different shades of the same coin. I think that that has guided my professional life ever since. With Youth for Understanding, I'm honored to serve as the vice chair of YFU USA and help other American teenagers see the world through another culture's eyes and vice versa, help international citizens discover the magic of America as exchange students here. Ever since my exchange year, I've had difficulty understanding these concepts of us versus them, whether it's Republican versus Democrat, or colors of skin, or America, China, or whatever other division people might have us create. This is going to sound nerdy, but I think of John Rawls' veil of ignorance. John Rawls was a political philosopher who imagined a world where we don't actually know where we don't actually know where we're going to be born. We don't know if we're going to be born in America or if we're going to be born in Sub-Saharan Africa. And if we don't know where we're going to be born, how would we design a society that makes it okay to be born anywhere? I've always really liked that, because it's... Why can't we do more to help those less fortunate? America is really struggling with coronavirus, but gosh, when I read the headlines about India and how the shutdown and the pandemic have led people to attempt to walk hundreds of miles to their native homes, where they feel they'll be more likely to be fed... We've got it so good in America in so many ways. In my community, I work in professional services, I've got a stable job. I've got it so good. I guess intercultural understanding to me is the root of tolerating one another, feeling generous toward one another, and looking for true common solutions that benefit all of us.
KH: Absolutely. Well, Andrew, we always end Burn the Boats with the same question. What has been the bravest decision that you've been part of in your life, the kind of no turning back, burn the boats decision that we focus this entire show on?
AT: Oh man, I wish I had thought about that in advance. Gosh. I'm going to choose a micro decision because it changed the way that I approached life after that. This might sound weird, but when I was serving in Iraq, I was working very closely with a number of members of the military and people who were contractors who formerly worked for the military. And there was one person who was an alpha personality, huge, strong person, and it was a social environment and the person was using a derogatory term about another class of people. And it's easy in that war environment or locker room environment to just roll with it. But I guess I was in my early twenties and for one reason or another, I decided to simply take a stand and tell him that I thought he shouldn't use that derogatory word that brought down an entire class of people. And he immediately, his attention turned toward me and he said, "Andrew, you must be..." And then he used the derogatory term at me and I said, "No, I just think we don't need to..." Basically, I stood my ground and he was flabbergasted. And when I just politely stuck with my request, he actually stopped using the word. It was minor in the sense that all you did was ask somebody not to use a slur, but it was major because I realized how easy it is to be a force for good in any environment. And before I knew it, that turned into - I've got this dumb thing where if I see a small piece of trash, more often than not, I'll pick it up. Because why not? I can't control the fact that the trash is there, but it doesn't cost me anything to be a part of the solution instead of the problem. I think if everybody just took the small amount of courage to ask somebody not to use a slur about another group of people, or to pick up a piece of trash, or to do whatever is in their power to make the community a little bit better place, well, hot dog, once millions of people do that, we solve all the world's ills.
KH: Well, thanks again, Andrew. Out of curiosity, do you still speak German?
AT: [foreign language].
KH: Well then [foreign language] Burn the Boats [foreign language].
AT: [foreign language]. Thank you.
KH: Thanks again to Andrew for joining me. You can check out the TV series about his team crossing the Drake Passage - The Impossible Row - on the Discovery Channel.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Swati Mylavarapu, a major voice in Silicon Valley who since the 2016 election has focused her talents on driving social and political change - including as the chief investment officer for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Swati talks about her experience of diving into politics as a relative outsider. And we want to hear from you. When did you first get involved in politics or social change? Did you find it intimidating at first? Let us know by sending a comment on social media, leaving a message at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to [email protected].
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.