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Matt Moniz on Makaku in 2014; Photograph by Willie Benegas

Teen Climber Returns to Himalaya to Attempt to Everest, Lhotse, First Ski Descent

Matt Moniz became our youngest Adventurer of the Year at 12 years old when he climbed to the high points in all 50 United States in just 43 days. He is now 17 years old.

In just a few hectic days, I’m off with climbing partners Willie Benegas and Jim Walkley for my second consecutive expedition to the Himalaya to climb Everest (via South Col Route) and Lhotse and possibly make the first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir. Feeling a little like I’m trapped in a scene out of the movie Ground Hog Day, I’m going through all the same motions of getting school classes completed, packing, and training for what will undoubtedly be a tough couple of months of climbing. The big difference is that this year I’ll be climbing without my dad—he’s planning to join us in May so that he can be home with the family.

Almost one year ago, on Saturday, April 5, 2014, I was finally finished with my last school assignment and ready to embark on an expedition I had been planning and dreaming about for more than a year. Ambitious but elegant, our team hoped to climb three consecutive 8,000-meter peaks beginning with Tibet’s Cho Oyu, then Everest, and then Lhotse. We started with Cho Oyu to test my mind and body above 8,000 meters. By pre-acclimating on Cho Oyu, the team would not need to make multiple passes through the notorious Khumbu Ice Falls, dramatically reducing risk on Everest. (Read our latest news story, “Surge in Everest Climbers Year After Mountain’s Worst Tragedy.”)

The following two weeks of chaotic travel, border crossings, and acclimatization flashed by as we journeyed north into Tibet. By then we had arrived at the Chinese base camp of Cho Oyu and were adjusting to tent life at 15,550 feet. On April 18, our team was on the move up valley to interim camp. Thirteen hundred feet of elevation gain provided new perspective and awe of Cho Oyu—the northwest face was alarmingly bare of snow. Expecting gentle snowfields leading to the summit, we instead saw a sustained technical climbing route through steep broken rock over a section known as the Yellow Band. Suddenly it was clear that Cho Oyu was going to be a technical climb and  anything but an “easy 8,000-meter” peak, as it’s sometimes called. Walking along the trail I could tell I was not the only one that was wondering how the heck we were going to climb this mountain. Around lunchtime we arrived at interim camp and waited for the yaks to stroll in with our expedition gear.

“Navaho is live,” I heard my dad, Mike, call out. Navaho was code for our satellite network uplink. Within moments the devastating news of the Everest avalanche came crushing down on us. Immediately, Himalayan veteran and team leader Willie Benegas called Georgie Davenport, our Everest base camp manager for a report. Willie’s expression conveyed the magnitude of the accident: That morning a massive avalanche roared off the mountain’s West Shoulder and swept down over the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Nepalese porters. Willie asked about his twin brother Damian, also a climbing guide, and learned he was safe, but immersed in rescue and recovery operations on the mountain. Everything was about to change.

The concerns over the challenges of Cho Oyu faded quickly as we consoled our Sherpa brothers who had lost family and friends in the collapse. I vividly recall Nima Kanchha Sherpa, our superhuman sirdar, quietly sitting with Willie to contemplate Willie’s offer to completely call off the expedition if he and the Sherpa team would like to return home to be with their families. That evening, the weight of the events muted out what were normally lively discussions around our dining tent. As we sat pensively, Nima came in with a smile and the news that the team wanted to continue the climb.

As the days at Cho Oyu advanced base camp passed by, two things became increasingly clear: Due to weather and route conditions, a summit of Cho Oyu was going be a major challenge; and my dream to climb Everest would need to wait.

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The team’s summit shot on Cho Oyu; Photograph by Willie Benegas

Finally, nearly 45 days into the expedition, our team reached the summit of Cho Oyu. A combination of determination, excellent leadership, our amazing Sherpa team, and fantastic weather forecasting by expedition meteorologist Joel Gratz, coalesced into success.

With the appropriate decision to close Nepal’s South Col route out of an abundance of caution and respect for the fallen Sherpas, we faced the question. Now what? For weeks we tried, unsuccessfully, to secure an alternative permit for the Northeast Ridge route of Everest—our Cho Oyu base camp was just a tantalizing few miles away from Tibet’s Everest Base Camp. Ultimately, our Tibet visas expired and we were politely escorted to the border.

Driving south from Zhangmu along the raging Sun Kosi River, still wondering whether this was really the end of the expedition, an idea, that at first, started as “that’s crazy” began to gain some support. How about climbing Makalu? While Makalu is not the tallest of the 8,000-meter-peaks, 5th overall, it certainly is amongst the most technical and challenging. There were other peaks, but conditions on Makalu were less bad than other mountains. Plus, we had friends with established camps on Makalu—Chris Warner, an old friend of my dad’s was leading a team, and my pal and guide from Denali, Jacob Schmitz, was guiding another family friend, accomplished German alpinist, Heidi Sands, who had summited Everest two years earlier with my father. Small world.

By the time we arrived back in Kathmandu, as our van pulled up to the Hotel Yak and Yeti we had cleared some of the big obstacles. Weather wizard Joel Gratz confirmed that we had a short 48-hour window of good weather beginning on May 23 to outrun the looming monsoon. That would give us just a few days to establish a position on the mountain. Another major challenge was how we would get to the remote peak in time. After many phone calls and hours of negotiation, Willie secured two elusive B3e helicopters to move the team to Makalu Base Camp.

That night as I repacked my gear for Makalu, wondering what I was going to leave behind to stay below the strict 22kg weight limit imposed by the pilots. At sunrise, standing on the hot tarmac at Kathmandu airport, breathing in the scent of jet fuel, as the rotors of the helicopters began to gyrate so did my excitement and sense of adventure. That was the moment it hit me, this is what it’s about, climbing! It’s supposed to be organic, challenging, frustrating, and not always exactly what you expected, an adventure for the mind and body, not a trophy for your shelf. These experiences, the good and bad, will once again transform me into a better version of myself, as have every one of my previous expeditions.

Miraculously, just three days later, in the raw, minus 45-degree cold, as my headlamp illuminated the mist of snow formed by my breath, I made the final steps to the top of Makalu. Willie and I became the 13th and 14th Americans to stand on top, together with our brothers Nima and Pemba, who celebrated their first summit of Makalu. We had willed our way to the top of two 8000-meter mountains in just seven days. Standing on the summit I received a hug from a woman who said, “Hi Matt, we haven’t met, I’m Heidi, two years ago I summited Everest with your father.” She was the first German woman to summit Makalu.

That day, we descended thousands of feet back to base camp, exhausted but beaming with pride. We prepared for a quick helicopter flight back to Kathmandu. As we readied for the pickup, dreaming of a big fat steak dinner, we noticed that what initially started as some snow flurries was now developing into a major Himalayan blizzard! Apparently, my adventure was not over yet, for three days the snow steadily piled up around our tent. “Looks like we’re caught in the mousetrap,” Willie calmly said as he drifted off to sleep.

From the moment I arrived back from the Himalayas last June, I’ve been in a state of preparation to return to Nepal this spring. It has been a struggle for me—a good challenge, but nonetheless a tough several months. Keeping up with school has required that I attend summer classes and take an intensive concurrent class schedule between Boulder High School and the University of Colorado. Of course there’s my training, too. Like all high school juniors, this is my crucial academic year. I need to be especially attentive to my grades and of course there’s the tortuous SAT/ACT exams. This fall I’ll begin courting colleges. Being challenged academically at a school with a community and tradition of mountaineering is important to me. As for schools, like the mountains I love to climb, I’m aiming high with an excellent chance of failure. With some luck, I hope by this time next year to be accepted to one of them and planning a summer adventure with my senior classmates—hopefully to somewhere warm.