Conjure a portrait in your mind's eye of a man who has climbed Mount Everest. Whom do you see? Someone larger than life, fearless, a testosterone junkie — the loudest person in the room everywhere he goes?
That's not the picture Lindley Zerbe presents. What you notice first about Zerbe, 33, a fourth-year student at the UCLA School of Dentistry, is his forthright gaze. He is mild-mannered and soft-spoken. You have to lean in to hear him tell the story of how he came to climb the tallest peak on our planet. Keep listening, and you are struck by how thoughtful he is.
"People, when they hear what I've done, tell me all the time, 'Man, you conquered Everest!'" Zerbe says. "But I tell them that you don't conquer Everest, you conquer yourself."
Climbing Everest, which lies at the border of China, Tibet and Nepal, was not Zerbe's lifelong ambition. Born and raised in Carmel, Calif., he was, he says, "your typical California boy. My twin brother is a surfer. I was a cross-country runner. We used to camp, hike, rock-climb and ski growing up, but I never once thought about training for something like Everest."
Upon earning bacherlor's and master's degrees in earth systems at Stanford University, Zerbe took a position as an associate scientist with the Centre for Remote Sensing, Imaging and Processing at the National University of Singapore (NUS). His arrival coincided with the university's daring plan to commemorate its centennial in a big way. Why not show the world what NUS was made of by training a team of faculty, students and alumni to represent the island country in doing the unthinkable: scaling the highest mountain in the world?
Zerbe first learned about the bold idea by way of a mass email. Instantly, he knew he had to go. He called his parents back home in California, then put his name on the list. A strenuous two-year preparation process ensued. Singapore's special forces put the candidates through a series of physically and mentally challenging training exercises which winnowed 100 hopefuls down to 30, then to 10 and finally to a group of five men who would make the attempt.
As fate would have it, Zerbe's spur-of-the-moment decision to climb Everest also led to another unexpected turn in his life's course. Early in his mountaineering training, as the NUS team came together on climbs of Pakistan's Gasherbrum II and Cho-Oyu, on the China–Nepal border, Zerbe volunteered to be the group's medic.
"On a climb in Pakistan, I helped a fellow climber who was in extreme pain with a broken crown. I re-cemented it for her," he says. "On later training trips, on our descents, we would use our excess supplies to treat local people. It meant a lot to me to be able to help kids in particular. Medical care was in short supply in many parts of Nepal, Tibet and Pakistan, but access to dental care was even scarcer. Those are the experiences that made me decide to apply to dental school."
These days, at every dinner party and speaking engagement, the future pediatric dentist is asked the same question: "Did you summit?"
"I did," he says. "On May 31, 2005, I was there, just me and my Sherpa, Tashi. We planted a flag for NUS and I tried to place some satellite calls back to the university. We could see a giant electrical storm massing over Tibet and I couldn't get through. We posed for pictures and then went down the mountain a little and made the calls. We were so happy."
All around the men, streaks of lightning illuminated the ominous storm cloud already tinged with the blood-red light of dawn. Suddenly, Zerbe knew they had stayed too long at the peak.
"We needed to get down, and fast. I shoved the camera into the top of my coat and started my descent," he recalled. "But I was going too fast. My adrenaline got away from me and I started to black out. I dropped to my knees in the snow and fell forward and hung my head, trying to catch my breath."
That was it — the moment when Zerbe feels sure he lost his camera.
"That was the best thing that could have happened to me," he muses. "I didn't need those pictures. I needed the lesson. I needed to feel thankful that I made it off the mountain alive. And I needed to remember what it took to get me there."