It's been just over 20 years since Ed Webster has set foot on Mt. Everest.
But as his audience in Old Main's Farber Hall discovered Tuesday afternoon, his enthusiasm for mountain climbing, and his love of the highest peak in the world, hasn't waned a bit.
With almost childlike fascination, he recalled his three attempts to scale Mount Everest. His most notable try at conquering the mountain changed him forever – his insistence on taking photographs while he and three companions attempted to be the first men to scale the 12,000-foot precipices of the mountain's Kangshung Face in Tibet eventually led to the loss of the tips of most of his fingers to frostbite.
"Mount Everest has been the mountain of my dreams since I was child," Webster said. "When I was 11 years old, my mother gave me a book entitled 'Everest Diary,' that was a chronicle of the first American ascent of the mountain in 1963. This one book changed the trajectory of my whole life."
Soon, Webster was learning the tricks of rock climbing by scaling small outcrops of stone approximately 30 feet high that were located near his Boston home.
"Who would have thought that these very humble beginnings would one day lead me to be part of a team of four climbers who pioneered a brand new route to the summit of the highest mountain on earth," he said. "Our team, in 1988, accomplished one of the most unusual ascents of the world's highest peak.
No other climber had attempted climbing the mountain on the eastern side of the peak. More astonishing, however, is the manner that Webster and his three comrades decided to blaze this new trail up the mountain.
They did without Sherpas to help them. They didn't carry radios. And incredibly, they decided to make the climb without carrying tanks of oxygen with them.
The tanks, they decided, would be too heavy. This decision likely was the reason that Webster didn't reach Everest's summit during his last climb of the mountain.
Mount Everest seemed to be part of Webster's fate as he gained experience as a mountain climber. After mastering the art of rock climbing, he began taking on mountains, and became experienced in Alpine climbing, and eventually what he calls "Himalayan" or expedition climbing, where men and women challenge themselves by attempting to scale the world's highest peaks.
During his lecture Tuesday, Webster described his first two experiences on the mountain. He was part of a large team that climbed Mount Everest in 1985.
"We didn't reach the summit on this particular expedition, but do you think any of us felt that it was a failure in any way? No, we did not," he said. "We didn't feel we had failed because we had tried so hard. We had given every ounce of energy we had. We came up a little bit short, but we had learned so much about ourselves."
Webster said it never occurred to him that he would climb Mount Everest again. But eight months later, he found himself attempting to scale the western face of the mountain, thanks to an invitation from a Canadian climber.
His second attempt to conquer the mountain was a solo climb. He made it up to a peak located near the summit of the mountain, and decided, while enjoying the breathtaking view from his vantage point just below Everest's highest point, to go no further.
"I stopped about 50 feet from the top," he said. "My reasoning was that the Tibetans and the Sherpas believe that the Buddhist gods live on the tops of these great mountains, and that these are sacred places, where a human footstep should not trod. So I decided I had come close enough on Aug. 28, 1986."
What Webster didn't know when he made the decision to stop climbing the mountain was that he would wind up trying to conquer Everest one last time in a manner so daring that it was never contemplated by other climbers.
He teamed up with Robert Anderson, Paul Teare, and Stephen Venables to climb a new route up Mount Everest's massive 12,000-foot-high Kangshung or East Face. The four, in contrast to most expeditions, attempted it in the best possible style – on a new route; without supplemental bottled oxygen; without radios and satellite telephones; and without Sherpa assistance. Instead they relied on their own climbing skills, mountain experience, and friendship to take them to the summit of the world and the adventure of a lifetime.
The expedition successfully ascended the huge ice face to the South Col, a high pass between Everest and Lhotse. When they reached an elevation of 26,000 feet on the face of the mountain, with the final pyramid of the Everest summit in front of them, on May 10, 1988, Teare became ill.
He was suffering from cerebral edema, Webster said, the most serious form of high altitude illness. Remarkably, Teare insisted on climbing down the mountain to the team's base camp by himself, to give his remaining three teammates an opportunity to reach the mountain's top.
Anderson, Venables and Webster attempted to reach the summit two days later. As they climbed higher and higher, Webster began experiencing the effects of oxygen deprivation. He began hallucinating, and he passed out twice.
"It's amazing that I didn't lose my balance and fall off the mountain," he said. "When I came to, Stephen was getting up from resting, and he continued to disappear into the clouds toward the summit. I kept trying to catch up with him, but I couldn't.
"I reached 28,700 feet above sea level, with my own lung power, until suddenly I had this gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach," Webster said, "that I had realized I had tried my best, but if I kept going, I wasn't going to make it back alive. I had other goals in life that I wanted to accomplish, and it wasn't worth dying on the mountain."
Venables was the only member of the expedition to reach the mountain's summit. He eventually climbed down the mountain and joined Webster and Anderson.
The three men were eventually reunited with Teare.
"We had been through an incredible experience, just the four of us," Webster said, "and to the present day, we are still the smallest team that has ever pioneered one of the major new routes up Everest."
He said they all knew of the dangers they likely would encounter on this adventure.
"We all feel honored and privileged to have climbed a new route up the highest mountain," Webster said. "We did it for the love of climbing, and for friendship."
Following his talk, Webster signed copies of his book, "Snow in the Kingdom," his best-selling autobiography which describes all three of his expeditions to Mount Everest.