Stumbling to the top of the World

by Lori Wiens

Dave Rodney (BA '87, BEd. '88) has literally been on top the of the world. As the first person from Saskatchewan and only the 12th Canadian to successfully climb Mount Everest, he has stood 8,838 metres above sea level and looked down on the sunrise, the clouds and the peaks of the surrounding Himalayas.

But as he describes his climb, Rodney doesn't give the impression that he conquered the legendary mountain. Instead he talks of how the physical, spiritual, and mental journeys all intertwined to create an experience unlike any he could have imagined.

"I think the climb is about finding out what you're made of and why you do what you do," he said introspectively.

That doesn't mean he has taken his success lightly. "If you're lucky, you live, and if you're even luckier, you make it to the top and back down again," he added.

Rodney left Canada March 17 for Kathmandu and spent the next two weeks trekking to the base camp, 5,500 metres above sea level. "Everyone talks like base camp is no big deal, but it's equivalent of climbing Mount Everest two-and-a-half times," he pointed out.

From base camp he ascended the south side of the mountain along with 19 other climbers and 35 Sherpas, area natives who act as guides. For six weeks, they battled winds up to 100 miles per hour and temperatures hovering around -40 C. Despite the harsh conditions, he says the climb gave him a lot of time to think.

"Your mind goes from concentrating on absolutely nothing, or putting one foot in front of the other, to all the things from home. Of course at the higher altitudes you just go into survival mode. You have to take 20 to 30 breaths for each step and you're basically fighting your brain," he described.

On May 13 at 9:40 am he reached the summit. But his stop was brief. He spent only half an hour taking pictures, so he would have most of the day to begin his descent. But the day's success was bittersweet. Rodney's British tent mate, Mike Matthews, did not make it back. Rodney says his friend was separated from his guide in a storm. He speculates that Matthews could have fallen to his death or succumbed to the brutal conditions of the weather.

Rodney's sister, Dianne Boyko, says it was hard waiting to hear that her brother had made it back safely, especially knowing the number of lives claimed by the mountain.

"We watched and we prayed and we worried and we were hoping he'd come home safe - and he did," she said from her home in Saskatoon. She, along with her parents, her sister and all of their families, were on hand to meet Rodney at the Calgary airport. Boyko says she wasn't surprised he chose to climb Mount Everest. Even as a kid he was adventurous. "He did everything from scuba diving to downhill skiing to skydiving," she laughed.

Boyko says a trip he had made to Everest two years ago as communications coordinator for another climb probably triggered his interest in making it to the summit. Rodney agrees that the previous trip was great training for his own climb. He did the videography and still photography and provided a daily interactive update on a website that was accessed by 300,000 people around the world.

Despite the challenges he faced in conquering the mountain, Rodney says in some ways, readjusting to life back home has been more difficult. "I'm finding the everyday Everests personally and professionally even more daunting than the real Mount Everest," he said.

Rodney has taught school in Calgary for the past ten years, and is now teaching full-time at Bishop Carroll High School. He says most of his students seem to respect him for following his dreams.

"I always tell them to dream big and to dream often. It's an important thing to have dreams outside of the classroom."

But Rodney is not sure he will remain in the classroom. His climb gave him time to reevaluate his life and to think about carving a future that builds on his experience. He prefers to think of himself as an educator and talks with pride about his passion for photography and possibly public speaking.

"I think there is room for education outside the classroom," he says and later adds, "You feel like you almost have an obligation to spread good words and positive messages. But you have to be careful. Too much ego can spoil that."

He has already been asked to speak at corporate retreats and National Geographic magazine has offered him a job filming a woman's ascent of K-2 in the Himalayas.

He believes he has a message that is inspirational to others. "I talk a lot about sacred spaces, and stumbling blocks versus stepping stones. I'm a perfect example. I'm a prairie boy who once broke his back in four places and has had four knee operations. We have to ask ourselves, "Are they stumbling blocks or stepping stones? That is really my message."