Hugh Morton pens book based on climbing Mt Everest

Published 12:00 pm Friday, January 14, 2022

VALLEY — Valley native Hugh Morton has written a book about his experiences in climbing the world’s highest mountains. He will be talking about “Reflections in High Places” at an upcoming program at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library, and he will be bringing a special guest with him.

The guest will be Lakpa Rita, an internationally famous Sherpa guide who has climbed Mount Everest 18 times. One of Morton’s most treasured photos shows him and Lakpa standing on the summit of the world’s tallest mountain on May 15, 1992. On that day, Morton became the first person from the Southeastern U.S. to climb Mount Everest. He later became the 69th person in the world to complete the Seven Summits challenge. This involves reaching the summit of the tallest mountain on seven continents.

This includes Everest, Mount Elbrus (tallest in Europe), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Denali (formerly Mount McKinley, tallest in North America), Mount Aconcagua (South America), Mount Kosciusko (Australia) and Vinson Massif (Antarctica). Morton made it to the top of Kilimanjaro in 1988, Denali in 1989, Aconcagua in 1995-96, Elbrus in 1997, and Kosciusko and Vinson Massif in 1999.

“Lapka Rita is a celebrity mountaineer, and I am glad we are having him come to the Valley on March 9 to help promote my new book,” Morton said. “Having summited Everest some 18 times, his climbing strength is legendary. In the Everest off-season, he guides on mountains around the world.”

In 2014, an avalanche buried 15 Sherpa on an Everest expedition; five of them died. “Being fluent in English and a veteran of many Everest climbs, Lapka became a spokesman for the Sherpa people,” Morton said. “Outside Magazine did a lengthy article on the tragedy with a full-page facial photo of Lakpa Rita. He was later the focus of an hour-long international documentary on the avalanche and the role of the Sherpa people in support of mountaineering expeditions. He consequently became in demand internationally to speak on the plight of the Sherpa people.”

“Reflections on High Places” tells of some of Morton’s best adventures in 30 years of mountaineering. There will be a book signing following Morton’s presentation in the library’s Lanier Room. Proceeds from the book will go to support the Sherpa Education Fund of the Alpine Ascents International Foundation, sponsor of two boarding schools in Katmandu. This helps orphans and other Sherpa children who would otherwise have no opportunity for education because they live so high in the Himalaya Mountains.

In Reflections on High Places, Morton writes of making it to the top of Mount Everest in 1992. Three fellow climbers were on the summit when he arrived. They were Lapka and two other veterans of previous Everest climbs, Pete Athans and Keith Kerr.

“As we stepped up the last three feet of the summit plateau, the others cheered, and a rush of emotion engulfed me,” Morton writes. “I had actually done it! I was really on the summit!”

The climbing party took photos and lingered at the summit for approximately 20 minutes before making their descent. That would be the hardest part for Morton, who battled a condition known as snow blindness on the way down. This was caused in large measure to the moisture from his breath freezing up the inside of his ski-style goggles. Despite frequent stops to clean them, the goggles were hard to see through. He was very careful with his footing, but once fell down and almost slid down the 7,000-foot south face. An ice axe and safety rope saved him from that.

Knowing that most fatal falls happen on the descent from Mount Everest, Morton remained careful with his movements.

“I refused to let myself relax,” he writes. “I concentrated on each step and each ice axe placement, I had felt unexpectedly strong on the ascent, but I found my energy level diminishing quite rapidly on the descent. The stress of the past two days had taken a toll on all of us. My energy was totally depleted. I had no adrenaline to draw on.”

They made it back to the South Col camp before darkness fell. It was some 26,000 feet above sea level, only a little more than 300 feet from the top.

“We made a relatively quick round trip in 12 hours,” Morton writes. “We were all so physically exhausted that we could hardly move. We were too tired to even eat.”

The next day it would take more than eight hours for the group to make it down to the second camp from the top.

“It was unquestionably one of the longest ordeals of my life,” the book reads. “The pain from the sunlight was, at times nearly intolerable. I strained hour after hour to force my eyelids open for brief seconds to orient my direction.”

Morton’s vision was better on the third day down. Morton and his fellow climbers made it past the treacherous icefall back to base camp and a hero’s welcome.

“Banners were up, and flags were flying,” he writes. “Strangely, I had almost forgotten our summit success. The difficulty I had experienced getting off the mountain had totally precluded any thoughts on the significance of success. Now, I could bask in the sunlight!”

He had spent a total of 32 days at an altitude of over 22,000 feet. He had lost over 25 pounds. His lips were severely chapped, and he hadn’t had a real shower in six weeks.

“Moreover, I hadn’t seen my family in nine weeks,” he writes, “and had received only one letter during that time. It nevertheless all seemed worth it. But I was ready to return to my family and the comforts of the modern world.”