Adams State alumnus joins elite group of Everest mountaineers

Darren Rogers, Adams State Class of 1992, at the summit of Mt. Everest in May, 2016.

Who survives an earthquake and avalanche on Mt. Everest, then returns a year later to reach the summit? Darren Rogers ’92.

His mother, Dr. Karel Rogers, was an Adams State biology professor, so he grew up in Alamosa, with a dearth of trees to climb. He soon directed his love of climbing to the surrounding mountains. Colorado’s Fourteeners were just the beginning of what would become Rogers’ lifetime passion. This past May, he successfully summited Mt. Everest, the world’s highest point at just over 29,000 feet elevation. His first attempt, in 2015, was cut short when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake triggered avalanches. Anyone who knows Rogers is not surprised he became determined to try again. At 5:20 a.m., May 25, 2016, he became one of only 4,000 people to have reached the top of Mt. Everest. Each climbing season, between 900 and 1,200 people pass through Base Camp with high hopes.

Take a deep breath

Thanks to the acclimation he attained by sleeping for several weeks in a Hypoxico tent, which simulates low-oxygen environments, Rogers began his journey by flying directly via helicopter from Kathmandu, at 4,000 feet, to Pheriche in the Khumbu Valley, at an elevation of 14,340 feet. There he met his climbing Sherpa, Mingma Sona. Sherpa guides are instrumental to success — and survival — on the mountain. They put even experienced climbers like Rogers to shame. For example, he completed the route from Base Camp to Camp I in four hours — Sherpas do it in 1 hour, 37 minutes. “I’ve seen individual porters carry five sheets of plywood at altitude,” Rogers said.

Rogers’ actual ascent started 35 days prior. There were weather delays and acclimation climbs that took him up and down from Base Camp to Camps I, II, and III. The night before he summited, he dined on a facsimile of steak and potatoes: beef jerky and instant mashed potatoes.

Seven hours after leaving Camp IV, at 26,300 feet, he and Mingma Sona reached the summit. Rogers later emailed his friends and family: “The sun was just up without a cloud in the sky, with the waning moon setting in Nepal. Temperatures were warm and not a whisper of a breeze. Phenomenal! After many pictures, high-fives, and hugs, it was back down. . . What an incredible view, climb, experience!” He had run the last 50–75 yards to the top and remained for 20 minutes, reveling in the adrenalin and views from the top of the world.

It was no walk in the park. There were small annoyances, like losing a crampon (attachable spikes that give boots more grip), having the batteries in his boot heaters die, and dealing with basic needs in a harsh environment. “Using the ‘restroom’ is precarious,” Rogers said, adding that everyone carries their own bottle for that purpose. But as he approached the Hillary Step, on a shear ridge that marks the border between Nepal and China and is the final milestone before the summit, Rogers had the ride of his life.

“The fixed line along the ridge has large spans between pickets and/or bolts, and as the ridge snakes, the fixed line hangs over space at times. There I was at the Hillary Step with the fixed line tight to my side, my safety and ascender attached while I waited for the climber ahead to navigate up and over, when Mingma Sona comes around a rock 20 feet back and pushes on the fixed line from the other side. And just like that, I was off the ridge, hanging over a 5,000-plus-foot drop into Nepal by my safety and ascender … words do not describe that experience! I scrambled up with many expletives and got on the far side of the Hillary Step.” In his rush, he neglected the mountaineers’ tradition of raising the right leg high to stick a crampon in a crack and swinging the left leg up and over to straddle Nepal and China.

Not everyone is so lucky on Everest. The route to the summit bears reminders of the mountain’s dangers: bodies lay as they fell in their climbing suits and will rest there forever. Transporting them downhill is too risky and would jeopardize others. The Sherpas conduct puja ceremonies in the Bhuddist tradition to seek blessings for the mountain and those who have perished there.

Onward & upward

Exceptionally fit, Rogers maintained the conditioning level he reached in 2014, when he summited the Himalayas’ Cho Oyo, the world’s sixth highest peak, at 26,906 feet. Everest wasn’t originally on his bucket list, but after running past 100 other climbers to the top of Cho Oyo, friends said, “You need to climb Everest now.” He’d literally worked up to the Himalayas, having previously climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (twice in one day), with other climbs in Bolivia and Ecuador.

But not everyone approaches Everest with the same discipline. Just before that harrowing moment on the ridge, Rogers was delayed by a climber ahead of him. “He was very slow, awkward, unsteady, uncoordinated, struggling with every step, barely able to get over rocks … and what’s worse is, he wouldn’t allow anyone to pass,” he said, noting that climbing at a pace other than one’s own saps strength.

An Everest ascent is made at night, when the ice is more stable. It melts in the intense daytime heat — some areas reach 80 degrees. “It will be baking hot, then drop 30–50 degrees when the sun dips behind a cloud. You’re always putting on and taking off layers,” Rogers said. Using supplemental oxygen helps keep climbers warm while in the death zone.

In August, Rogers shared a slide show of his epic Everest adventure with former college professors and high school teachers at the Alamosa home of Dr. Kay Watkins ’55, emeritus professor of chemistry. Rogers very clearly recalled where he was April 25, 2015, when the devastating earthquake hit Nepal and killed thousands, including 22 on Everest: he was in Camp I, above Base Camp.

“There were multiple cracks and booms as we were thrown in the air. You grab your boots and run — toward the avalanche, because the larger avalanche is coming from behind you,” he recalled. The resulting powder blast created white-out conditions with only 50 feet of visibility. He and fellow climbers barely avoided the avalanches, but no one on the mountain was injured above Base Camp.

Dr. Marty Jones, emeritus professor of chemistry, was in the small audience at Watkins’. “It is not surprising that he is an extreme adventurer,” Jones said. “I can clearly recall skiing with him at Wolf Creek on Snow Daze back in the early 1990s. I was not particularly good, but I did like to go fast down intermediate slopes. Darren, on the other hand, was a very good skier and liked to go even faster than me. I’d be cruising down a run and Darren would pass me like I was standing still. Darren is still passing me, which is just what I hope for — students who surpass their professors.”

After completing his chemistry degree at Adams State, Rogers earned a chemical engineering degree at Colorado State University in 1998. He lives in Sheridan, Wyoming, and is president of CH4+ Engineering, which provides project and engineering management to the oil and gas industry. Currently, he is working on an enhanced oil recovery project.

What will Rogers get up to next? He’s thinking about climbing through Europe. “Whatever it is, it won’t be any higher.”

By Julie Waechter