by Kate Shunney
Sean Forney’s fascination with Mount Everest — the world’s tallest peak – might have been born when he was a child studying the pages of “E” volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That fascination didn’t stay dormant for long.
Just barely into adulthood, Forney tried to find sponsors to fund the dream of an Everest summit expedition. There were no takers, and the price tag seemed out of reach.
“The problem with mountaineering is it’s expensive. And you don’t skimp on gear,” Forney said.
Good gear, experienced guides and trusted Sherpas are the only elements that make it possible to survive a trek to the deadly elevation where Everest’s summit lies. Those weren’t things Forney could afford as a 20-year-old. But his dream of summiting Everest was there to stay.
Years later, as an insurance agent, owner of several local businesses and president of the Morgan County Commission, Forney had more resources at his disposal.
The birth of Forney’s fourth child — his son Tripp — in December 2021, and an inspiring movie reignited his dream to reach Everest.
Forney said holding his baby one day, he started watching a documentary about training to climb Everest. A colleague in the insurance industry then told him about the film, “14 Peaks” – the story of Nepalese mountaineers who demolished the world record for climbing the 14 mountain peaks on the globe that rise above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). The mountaineers summited all 14 in under seven months. The previous record was seven years. Their story, and the expedition company they formed, grabbed Forney’s attention.
He contacted the company, Elite Expeditions, and chose a Lobuche East Peak climb that would be led by Nimsdai Purj and Mingma David Sherpa.
“I booked it and started training in late December,” said Forney.
Just a few months later, Forney would be standing in the thin air of Nepal, trekking out of Everest Base Camp in the dark up to 19,300 feet toward Lobuche East Peak.
Unless you have lived at high elevation for multiple years, the human body requires training and time to adjust to being active at heights above several thousand feet above sea level.
The consequences of not training for climbing at elevation range from getting dizzy and sick to dying.
Forney opted to do his physical training here in Morgan County with an altitude mask, which simulates breathing at elevations of 4,000 feet to 12,000 feet. Here, mountains only rise a little above 2,000 feet.The mask did what the local landscape couldn’t do – prepare his body to exert its energy in thinner air.
His expedition team gave him fitness goals – to be able to run 10 miles and hike for 10 miles carrying 40 pounds of gear.
“They want you to be outside, so I trained in all temperatures and in the snow,” said Forney.
He took to the trails at Cacapon State Park and traipsed around his own farm property, building stamina and endurance for an Everest summit attempt.
Mountaineers are clear on this point — there’s no sense flying halfway around the world and paying for an expedition you haven’t prepared to undertake.
On April 18, Forney landed in Kathmandu. He said the city was unique in so many ways, from its people and daily practices, to the presence of wild monkeys in the streets. Trash and electricity services were hard to fathom, but the people were welcoming, he said.
After staying in Kathmandu at 4,600 feet elevation, Forney and members of his expedition team flew in a helicopter to Lukla, which stands at 9,383 feet and is considered the world’s deadliest airport.
From Lukla, the expedition would take team members on trails to get them acclimated to the natural environment and the elevation.
“The worst part about the acclimation process is there’s a lot of down time,” Forney said.
He would hike up several thousand feet in a day, then return to lower elevation over and over.
“You always sleep lower than the highest elevation of the day,” said Forney.
From Lukla, climbers and trekkers moved upwards to Phakding, then to Namche, the biggest village on the trek, carved out of the mountains at 11,286 feet.
Along the way, Forney reflected on how the Nepalese people have moved materials and supplies up steep and narrow passages to keep the Everest climbers on the move toward their goal, and to take care of the people working to assist climbers.
Expedition leader reminded them not to waste anything – food or materials – because it takes such effort to get them in the hands of climbers.
At Namche, members of the expedition got their first clear view of Mount Everest’s peak. They spent two days at the Everest View Hotel, received a blessing from Buddhist monks for success and safety, and began working their way further toward base camp.
On Day 6, they climbed from Namche to Debuche, then to Dingboche.
As the elevation increased, the temperatures dropped.
When Forney and his group reached the edge of the Khumbu Glacier, “it started to get cold.”
Rooms were below zero at night and it dropped to 10 below zero at one point.
“Everest base camp sits at the glacier. You can hear it cracking and popping,” Forney said.
The base camp stretches for a mile, with tents and shelters everywhere.
At Lobuche high camp, standing at 18,000 feet, temperatures plummeted even further, and climbers had to double up on clothing, gloves, boots.
Forney made it to 18,800 feet. Then he heard from home that his wife and three of their four kids were ill with the flu. Forney said his wife Jackie didn’t ask him to come home, but he knew he needed to get off the expedition.
Before arranging for Forney to fly out from their location, Nims took him up to 19,300 feet on Lobuche East Peak – just a few thousand feet from the summit.
Forney said he hadn’t had the fixed rope and crampon training that his expedition group would get before heading further up, so he decided that was as high as he’d go. For now.
If his plans work out, Forney expects to return to the Everest peaks soon, to complete his summit and train for the next one — Manaslu. He knows what to expect in training, and trekking, and acclimating to elevation. His body functioned better than most, according to the doctors who monitored climbers’ oxygen levels daily.
The climbing season for Everest is April to May. Smaller mountains can be summited in September and October if the weather is favorable.
Even though he did just 15 days of the 23-day expedition, Forney brought home an appreciation of the Nepalese people, their culture and warmth, and what they do to help mountaineers reach their summits.
He learned that “slow and steady wins the race” when trekking high on the highest mountains on Earth, and that a climber must trust his boots to grip and move him forward.
“Trust your Sherpas – they know the mountain,” Forney said.