Like many people who grow up in the urban chaos of New York City, Athans had hopes of moving west. He had friends who attended the University of Colorado and, he says, "they would tell me how great Boulder was." Athans first got a taste of Colorado when he came here in his sophomore year of high school; he decided that this was the place for him, and after graduation, he came to CU to study journalism and English.
But even his new life in the Rockies wasn't enough to satisfy his yearning for the mountains. In 1980 he conquered his first mountain, Alaska's Mount Hunter, and he subsequently climbed Mexican volcanoes and scaled seven 20,000-foot peaks. Athans first tried to climb Mount Everest in 1985, but failed that year -- and in 1986, '87 and '89 -- before finally getting it right in 1990.
"Being at the top of the world for the first time, watching the sunrise -- it was a very spiritual experience," Athans says of his first successful summit. "It's like Neil Armstrong looking back at the earth and saying how beautiful and fragile it was." As of this year, he has reached the peak six times, more than any other person in the western hemisphere. On Thursday, in an event sponsored by the Colorado Mountain Club, Athans, whose cinematographic forays include working on the set of the film Seven Years in Tibet and a documentary series called North Face Television (which began airing this past Sunday on NBC), will talk about his adventures and present video and slide footage giving a detailed view of the colossal crest so many people have tried but failed to reach.
Not every trip went as well as the one Athans made in 1990. In 1996, when a sudden blizzard caused one of Everest's most tragic disasters -- eight members of three different climbing teams were frozen to death in their tracks -- Athans helped save climber Beck Weathers's life. Athans and the members of his team thought Beck was dead, but when he wandered into their campsite, the climbers gave him warm clothing and medicine and stayed with him until he could be rescued by helicopter (Athans received the David A. Sowles Memorial award for the rescue).
Despite the obvious risks, many people attempt the treacherous trek up Everest each year. More than a thousand have succeeded; as of last year, 145 people had died trying. And since he studied literature, shouldn't Athans have learned from Melville what sort of harm an obsession can cause?
"Climbing is something I have to do," he says of his Captain Ahab-like excursions. "Where's the challenge in doing something totally safe?" Athans acknowledges that there's an "indulgent" factor of the sport. "Many people looked at climbing Everest like an outdoor 'Pirates of the Caribbean,'" he says. "Everest has gotten a lot of notoriety in recent years because of novice climbers who go and get themselves into a lot of trouble. People see it as a great overwhelming mountain without mercy, when really the unmerciful ones are the human beings who go to climb it. You should approach the risk intelligently."
To combat their admittedly risky actions, Athans and several fellow Everest "repeat offenders" have formed an organization they call "Everest Anonymous."
"If one of us decides to go back, we have to pay each of the other members $1,000," Athans says, grinning. "It's our way of stopping our absurd, compulsive behavior."