Ralph Kisso (BBA '11) was in high school in 2006 when Maxime Chaya became at once the first Lebanese mountaineer to summit Everest and a national hero, appearing in newspapers and magazines, ebulliently chomping on a cigar. “Everyone was like… whoa! I wanted to do that, to do what he did," says Kisso.
The country's youth came down with a brief spell of mountain climbing fever, looking up at the mountains from seaside Beirut, hands-on hips, chests puffed out, believing, for a moment, that they too could reach the top of the world. For most that belief faded, but not for Kisso. He transformed his adolescent dream it into a concrete goal and with concrete steps.
He began training year-round like a triathlete, running, swimming, cycling, and lifting weights, and summiting his first mountain. “I started with Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is a beginner level mountain." From there he hopped between continents, Europe, Southeast Asia, North and South America, climbing the highest mountains leading up to Everest, as part of the Seven Summit Challenge, achievements he recounts with quiet, unaffected self-possession.
En route to Everest, “I was training twice per day, waking up at 4:30 am, and doing long endurance training on the weekends, which proved very effective. I got no altitude or mountain sickness. I also naturally pay attention to what I eat."
On March 22, 2019, after three months of intense training, and climbing some of the world's highest peaks (but not the highest one), he left Lebanon for Nepal. He'd hooked up with the American firm International Mountain Guides to help him navigate his way to the summit. All but the most experienced mountaineers rely on guides and sherpas to climb Everest.
He arrived at Katmandu International Airport, “then we had one day to do a gear check. I had a minus forty-degree sleeping bag for high camps and a zero degree one for base camp. I swapped out the zero degree one for a minus twenty one as it turned out that the zero degree one wouldn't keep me warm at base camp, so I had a minus twenty and a minus forty. It was important for me to be as comfortable as possible in base camp since it would be my new home for the next 60 days."
Various firms and mountaineers operate and share the tented city at the foot of Everest known as South Base Camp, 5,350 meters above sea level. “We had everything there, cooking tents, showering tents, toilet tents, wifi." Over the next 50 days, Kisso would acclimatize to the mountain, making treks up to the camps higher up, then back down. “We'd sleep at Camp One or Two a couple of nights, then come back and rest for a few days at EBC (Everest Base Camp). We had to sleep with oxygen for one night in Camp Three before the summit push. They say it's not good to sleep at Four, which is known as the death zone."
He climbed with Sonam, from Phortse, a Nepalese farming village about 4,000 meters above sea level. “We communicated in basic English. I asked him how he makes a living. He said from being a sherpa. I think he makes a good living, but he definitely deserves better compensation. I don't think the sherpas make enough."
He kept in touch his family, using wifi when at base camp to talk to his mother. “She was worried, always asking if I was eating and feeling ok."
On May 21 at 8:00 pm sharp, “earlier than usual because we wanted to avoid the traffic," Kisso began the summit push from Camp 4, getting in line to cross the Hillary Step, a near-vertical rock face that leads to the summit. This past year, long lines of climbers were photographed moving up and down the ridge. Many journalists attributed this to overexploitation of a natural wonder. Kisso says it's because this year's climbing window—the period during the year when the weather allows for safe climbing conditions—is unusually short, being only two days compared to 11 for last year.
Reaching the top of Everest is a seemingly superhuman feat. The human body simply isn't suited to life at the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner, yet more and more people seek the summit each year, seduced by the thrill of pushing the body to the extreme. How better to escape the monotony of daily life than to take on some sort of extreme challenge?
At 4:30 am, after eight and a half hours of climbing, the rough equivalent to a full day's office work, Kisso greeted the sun at the summit, wrapped in a heavily insulated suit and wearing an oxygen mask that he says began to frost over, making breathing difficult. He says the summit is not a pointy tip, but a cold and flat plateau. He unfurled the Lebanese flag from his pocket. “I took out my iPhone to take a few photos and got frostbite on my finger tips." After ten minutes, he began his descent, determined not to lose any fingers. In that brief instant, he became the second-ever Lebanese mountaineer to reach the summit, followed by Tima Deryan, the first Lebanese woman, and another AUBite, Nelly Attar, who reached the summit on May 23.
On reaching base camp and turning on wifi, he received a flood of congratulatory messages, and of course, expressions of relief from his mother. His friends and family had been following his progress on mountainguides.com, which covered the 2019 expedition. “Everyone was proud." His mother was relieved. Her son had achieved both a personal goal and a national one.