LINCOLNTON – North Lincoln High School graduate Dustin Mitchell has climbed towering mountains on nearly every continent, but his voyage over the last three months to the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, most stands out in his mind. Located in the Himalayan Mountains along the border of Nepal and Tibet, the snow-covered peak rises nearly 30,000 feet above sea level.
Mitchell, 25, will never forget the clear, sunny sky or the overwhelming feeling of achievement that filled the minds of him and his fellow climbers when they reached the summit at 7:35 a.m. on March 24.
“We just missed sunrise,” he said.
In addition to admiring an incredible view, Mitchell’s group took time at the top to tie a prayer flag to a pole containing a number of similar colored cloth pieces.
Each color symbolizes a separate meaning, and native Buddhist priests encourage climbers to take blessed prayer flags with them for protection, Mitchell said.
Each day, the group traveled about 2-3 miles up the mountain in 12 hours, before returning to camp to eat, sleep or relax in tents, often waking in the night to a snow-covered abode or the need for additional clothing layers.
“We saw other tents obliterated because of wind and snow at times,” Mitchell said.
A total of only three camps lined the brutal trek – the first one, known as “base camp,” and the last one, dubbed “death camp,” situated at nearly 26,000 feet above sea level.
Mitchell referred to base camp as a “mini-city,” where a number of climbers across the world flocked for one mission – to beat Everest.
He and his group followed a route along the south side of the mountain, he said, for safety reasons. Mitchell described the mountain’s north side as windier, steeper and requiring twice as much time and energy to hike.
Each person wore oxygen while climbing and donned a down-feather suit to prevent the minus 45- to 50-degree wind chill from burning their skin or producing hypothermia.
“You can still feel the wind cut through your face,” he said. “It’s a long, grueling hike.”
The group, which signed up through Rainier Mountaineering, Incorp. (RMI), the company Mitchell serves as a climbing guide, was assisted by weather and medical experts along with roughly 35 Sherpas, indigenous people known for helping guide Everest climbers.
The group departed from the United States mid-February and returned earlier this month.
In addition to battling gusting winds, frigid temperatures, and the added weight of a 20- to 30-lb. food and supply bag, the group often witnessed the frightening sight of unsuccessful climbers’ bodies lying frozen and ominous in the mountain’s crevices.
“It’s the highest graveyard in the world,” Mitchell said.
He noted how the spring season only allows about 12 days of safe hiking due to the wind factor and unpredictable weather.
While most would cringe at the thought of surveying the dead and hiking such high elevations, the Lincolnton man continually craves the threatening climb and considers it an “adventure,” he said.
Always intrigued by the outdoors, Mitchell spent much time during his childhood alongside his father, who had similar interests.
He said he possessed a more daring nature and, unlike his father, hungered for extreme backpacking and climbing missions.
He typically trekked the routes at Crowders Mountain State Park in Gastonia and secured employment with the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte the year it opened.
Following high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management.
Yet, his desire for the outdoors proved more extreme and included alpine climbing and mountaineering.
“I sort of took it to the next level,” he said, “to the snow and ice world.”
In order to fully satisfy his daring dream, he moved to Leadville, Colo., where he attended a special school for outdoor recreation and leadership, graduating in 2012.
Mitchell later joined the school staff, teaching ice and rope climbing. He even took a group of students to Africa last year to climb Mt. Kilamanjaro in Tanzania.
While he still maintains a home in Colorado, he currently lives in Washington State, the site of RMI.
But for one-third of the year, during the climbing off-season, he returns home to stay with his uncle in Lincolnton.
Off-season typically occurs mid-April through May 1 or September through January, he said.
When Mitchell isn’t guiding, he hangs out in the RMI warehouse, packing food and other supplies for future expeditions.
“It’s a pretty sweet job,” he said.
Despite the death of more than 15 climbers, including a number of Sherpas, during an Everest climb earlier this month, Mitchell has yet to cancel plans for a potential second trip, but noted it won’t be anytime soon.
According to National Geographic online, the tragedy was deemed “the worst single accident” on the mountain in history.
Mitchell is currently working to obtain his International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) certification to privately guide in Canada.
And as for his next adventure?
He is planning to climb one of Ecuador’s highest volcanic peaks, Mt. Cotopaxi, in November.