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From Summit to SFARI: The High-Altitude Life of Louis F. Reichardt

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Published: 
September 3, 2015

Photo of Louis Reichardt on K2 by Jim WickwireDepending on your interests, you may have heard of one of two Louis Reichardts. There's the scientist, now head of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), a researcher who has spent four decades in neuroscience untangling the intricacies of the human nervous system. This is Dr. Reichardt the former Fulbright scholar, professor and bespectacled author of scores of scientific papers, now intent on unraveling the secrets of autism.

If you're more intrigued by adventure than science, you've probably heard of another Louis Reichardt, the so-called "climbing gorilla" with an equally impressive resume: first human to stand atop K2, arguably the world's deadliest mountain, without an oxygen tank (or a coat). First ascent of the East face of Everest, a route so challenging it has not been climbed since. Third person (and first American) ever to climb both K2 and Everest, one of the most accomplished high-altitude mountaineers of his generation.

These two resumes, in fact, belong to the same man. Which begs the question: what kind of person drives himself to perform with equal intensity under the fluorescent lights of a lab as well as the blinding sunlight of the highest mountains? How do those of us who live a sea-level type of existence understand someone drawn to the "death zones," those places above 26,000 feet where there is not enough oxygen for people to survive for long.

A Casual Hiker

As Dr. Reichardt tells it, he became a world-class mountaineer by an equal mix of accident, timing and luck. He enjoyed hiking in the Sierra mountains while growing up in Pasadena, California, during the 1950s. But the mountains were just an infatuation back then. In 1960, he went east for college at Harvard. While there, he caught the science bug in a class he took from James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA. Then came a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to the University of Cambridge. He returned to California to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Stanford University.

While in grad school, he met climber Paul Gerhard, who "pushed" him into a visit to Alaska's Mount McKinley (Denali), North America's highest peak at 20,237 feet. His eyes brighten when he describes the experience. The summer sun never truly sets, bathing the scenery in orange and pink glows. It was "the most magical experience," he said, his scientist's heart touched by a hint of the poetic. The same magic would engulf him on his first climbing expedition to Nepal, where he felt wonder at the vastness of the mountains, the intensity of the weather (huge hail that shredded umbrellas), and the warmth of the people.

It was in Nepal, during his first major Himalayan climb, that he would face the worst moment of his nascent mountaineering career – one that may well have ended it.

The Accidental Mountaineer

Louis Reichardt Photo, by SFARIIn Reichardt's telling of the story, his inclusion in the 1969 American expedition to Dhaulagiri was part happenstance. Mountaineer Boyd Everett wanted to organize the second-ever ascent of that 26,795-foot mountain, but many top-tier climbers were unavailable. The climbers who made the first American ascent of Mount Everest in 1963 "all had jobs by this point," and the timetable for the Dhaulagiri expedition was short, Reichardt said. Everett took a chance on Reichardt, then a graduate student whose schedule was flexible.

On April 28, "the worst day of my life," Reichardt, Everett, Gerhard and five other climbers were forging a route up the East Ridge of the mountain. Reichardt heard the roar of an avalanche. He took shelter in a change of slope on the glacier. When it was over, he stood up, uninjured, "fully expecting to be surrounded by the same seven companions," he wrote in The American Alpine Journal. But they, their equipment, even the snow they had been standing on, were gone. In their place was "only dirty, hard glacial ice with dozens of fresh gouges and scattered huge ice blocks, the grit of an avalanche."1 And utter silence. "No screams, just silence," he wrote in his diary.2 He searched for them, in vain. They would not be seen again. By some quirk of fate, the avalanche did not carry him away into oblivion. After he returned home, he, the sole survivor, traversed the country visiting the families of the men who perished.

In 1972, he finished his Ph.D. at Stanford, where he "helped to uncover the now renowned DNA regulatory mechanisms that allow one of the simplest life forms, lambda phage, either to hide within a cell or to make its presence known via massive replication."3

A Return to Dhaulagiri

By 1973, Reichardt had a wife and a promising career in neuroscience before him. No one would have blamed him if he had hung up his crampons, especially after bearing witness to one of mountaineering's worst accidents. But that spring Reichardt returned to Dhaulagiri for a second summit attempt. To do otherwise felt like being "a quitter," he recalled in a recent interview with the Interactive Autism Network.

Whatever else he may do, Reichardt does not quit. Gale winds, sometimes reaching 200 mph, pinned him and his fellow climbers in their tents for days high on Dhaulagiri, and they went without sufficient oxygen "far too long," he wrote.4 At upper elevations, even with supplemental oxygen, the human body simply cannot adapt for long. But still Reichardt, John Roskelley, and Nawang Samden reached the summit, only the third such ascent by any group.

With Dhaulagiri conquered, he returned to do post-doctoral research in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston for three years. From there he took an assistant professorship at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and began a steady climb up the academic ladder over the ensuing decades. (He would later direct both the Biological Sciences and the Neuroscience Graduate programs at UCSF).

"The Tragic Expedition"

Photo of Mount EverestBefore starting at UCSF, he made time for another trek to the Himalaya, this time on what would later be called "The Tragic Expedition."5 He joined the 1976 expedition to Nanda Devi in India with Willi Unsoeld, the philosophy professor who made the first ascent of Mount Everest's west ridge in 1963. With Unsoeld was his 22-year-old daughter, Nanda Devi, named for that Indian peak.

As is not infrequent on expeditions, this one was consumed by jockeying to see who would be on the first summit team, what route would be climbed, and differences in climbing philosophies. Amid the bickering the quieter Reichardt emerged as the climbing leader, able to bridge differences between those who thought the strongest should summit first and others who wanted a more egalitarian approach. Personally, Reichardt leans toward the former view. He believes the "mountain makes the decision for us": those who adapt best to the physical strain and thin air should secure the route to the summit first.

On September 1, Reichardt, Roskelley and James States climbed snowy "powder on iced rock" to reach the 25,645-foot summit via a novel, northern route. Reichardt left the mountain shortly afterward so he could attend the birth of his first child, without realizing his victory would soon be an "empty" one. While awaiting her turn to summit, Devi Unsoeld died suddenly of an apparent abdominal ailment.6

What followed were several tell-all books and articles that laid bare the high-altitude infighting and drama surrounding the expedition and Devi's shocking death. Reichardt did not write a book about this or any of his expeditions. "If you read most of these books, you think it's better that you not write one," he said. "I'm not impressed with the dignity they impart."

Mastering anxiety – or how to sleep soundly on the mountain

Climbing an old route is like doing a lab experiment in high school or college. You know it will work, you know what you have to do, which chemical you need, that the reaction will work. The other way, you don't know what's going to happen, what the answers are going to be. You don't know what you're going to see.

Mountains and the danger they impart – people die of altitude sickness, falls, avalanches, accidents, and extreme cold quite easily – stoke an anxiety that brings out the worst in some people, Reichardt allows. It also does not make the mountain any safer. Did he ever think he wouldn't make it off a mountain safely? "You never think those things. You censor yourself," he said. His self-censorship may be why he seemed self-contained and disengaged from the drama during climbs. Roskelley once described being alone with Reichardt for 10 days on Dhaulagiri without having a single conversation – because there was nothing to say.2

At six-foot-one, Reichardt was known for carrying great loads at great speed up and down mountains, without complaint. He still looks like he could still do so at 73. Was he genetically suited to high altitudes, or simply someone with a will that didn't brook weakness? According to a 1986 article in Backpacker, "Within this rumpled, foggy professor pump the heart and lungs of a climbing gorilla. 'The guy's a monster,' says Dr. Jim Morrissey, a cardiac surgeon and longtime Himalayan expedition leader. 'Reichardt is unstoppable. Point him toward a peak and get out of the way.'"7

Climbing was more than just recreation for Reichardt. If he was born too late to be the first person to stand atop a major peak, he would be the first to summit by a previously unclimbed route. As he explained, following others' footsteps up a mountain held no appeal for him. "There's just no reason to do it if it's not going to be a first ascent of that route," he said.

Professional climbers hope new routes will promote their careers and attract sponsors, but Reichardt was indifferent to those concerns. He never considered climbing as a career, he said. "I can't imagine what my parents would have thought if I'd done something like that," he said, chuckling. He came from an older tradition of mountaineering, which culled its climber-explorers from the ranks of teachers, scientists, doctors and lawyers.

Finding a new route appealed to that part of him that found sustenance in discovery. "For someone of Reichardt's temperament, climbing the world's highest mountains presents an abundance of the kind of problem that research scientists (and chess players and computer programmers and crossword puzzlers) relish, multifactorial conundrums where each element depends on the other in complex and novel ways," according to Fatal Mountaineer, a book about Willi Unsoeld. "The thrill, for such practitioners, comes from teasing out a possible solution at the very border of knowledge, counting on some basic lawfulness of the physical world in one of its most chaotic, most threatening forms."8

Or, as Reichardt himself explains, "Climbing an old route is like doing a lab experiment in high school or college. You know it will work, you know what you have to do, which chemical you need, that the reaction will work. The other way, you don't know what's going to happen, what the answers are going to be. You don't know what you're going to see."

Practically speaking, these two worlds – the mountain and the laboratory – would remain separate for him. When he was in the lab, he was consumed by the science of the brain, and when he was climbing, his focus was squarely on getting to the top – and down. He ran regularly but did not otherwise train between expeditions. According to lore, he would emerge from his lab every few years, "his skin gone pasty from long days and nights under fluorescent lights," and get into high-altitude shape while on an expedition.7

Next, the Savage Mountain

In 1978, he joined an assault on K2 in Pakistan, hoping to be part of the first American team to summit the world's second highest mountain. K2 is more remote, more technically difficult, and less traveled than its more famous cousin, Mount Everest. Just a few hundred people have been to the top, compared to roughly ten times that many for Everest. The fatality rate on K2, at 25 percent, is ten times greater than Everest.9, 10

American teams failed to reach the summit of K2 on five attempts from 1938 to 1975. The drama and heroics of those attempts, well-told in books and articles, contributed to a mythology about the so-called "savage mountain."11 But reaching the top of K2 was not the only goal for Reichardt's team. The climbers wanted to carve a new route up the mountain, by the difficult, corniced Northeast Ridge.

Due to K2's remoteness, the expedition members and 325 porters walked for 13 days in often-blazing heat just to get to base camp. The porters insisted "at the top of every pass that we dance with them in the broiling sun to disco music from a cassette recorder instead of collapsing in the shade," Reichardt wrote.12

Soon enough, he would be fighting through waist-deep snow to get high up the mountain. Heavy monsoon snow pinned them in their tents for a total of 35 days during the expedition. "As summer turned to fall, failure seemed certain," he wrote.13 Finally, a break in the weather enabled him to make a summit attempt with teammate Jim Wickwire, an attorney from Seattle. But as they climbed, Reichardt found himself trailing behind, thanks to a malfunctioning oxygen apparatus. Instead of turning around, Reichardt flung off the oxygen and his parka in the snow. That might seem unwise; no one had successfully climbed K2 without oxygen before. At that altitude, not far below the average cruising altitude of a commercial jet, little oxygen reaches the brain. People can hallucinate or make a fatal mistake. Reichardt the neuroscientist knew this well. When he caught up to his climbing partner, he said, "Tell me if I exhibit any bizarre behavior." Wickwire replied, "You realize I'm going to the top regardless."12

After tagging the summit, a "very cold" Reichardt, his face covered in ice, quickly headed down, while his partner, who had supplemental oxygen, took photos and buried microfilm with the names of contributors to the expedition. "My judgment was a little better," Reichardt recalled. "I felt quite lucky to get up there while there was a little sunshine. I thought we should just leave."

So he did. "For me the descent was a desperate race against the setting sun," to reach the relative safety of a lower camp, he wrote.12 Wickwire stayed on the peak too long, and darkness forced him to bivouac (sleep outdoors without a tent) alone at 27,700 feet. He miraculously survived one of highest recorded bivouacs.

Their summit inspired a play and movie, called K2, in which two climbers, one injured, try to get off the mountain. Reichardt inspired the character Harold, a "cautious belt-and-suspenders type, a professor and deep-thinking scientific researcher."14

"Other men, less wise, might attempt this way…"

Photo of Louis Reichardt on summit of Mount EverestBack home, Reichardt continued to work and publish at UCSF, and spend time with his growing family. Nearing his 40th year, one might wonder if the wanderlust was behind him. But Richard Blum, husband of San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, had gotten a permit to climb Mount Everest, and he asked Reichardt to go.

Had it been an expedition up a well-trodden route, it likely would not have enticed Reichardt away from his lab and his family. But the route the American team chose – via the Kangshung or East face – had never been climbed before. For good reason. When fabled mountaineer George Mallory laid eyes on the Kangshung Face in 1921, he wrote, "other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but emphatically, it was not for us."15

Reichardt, the climbing leader, dove into the expedition, "consistently carrying more and heavier loads that anyone else on the team."16 But fierce weather, the perils of the route, and fear of avalanche caused climber after climber to retreat. Not even the Sir Edmund Hillary, who lent moral support at Base Camp, could salvage the endeavor. Reichardt eventually called off the expedition when the risks outweighed the small chance of success.16

Still, not one to give up, Reichardt and a new team returned two years later for another shot at this unclimbed face of Everest. This time, the weather cooperated. On October 8, 1983, Reichardt and two comrades, Carlos Buhler and Kim Momb, reached the summit of Everest; three of their team members summited the next day.17 In the 32 years since, no one else has climbed Everest by the route they forged, apparently heeding the words of Mallory, who lost his life on Everest.

Although he did not know it at the time, Reichardt had finished his last Himalayan expedition. He was 41, and a rising star at UCSF. The demands of running a lab, which include funding and grant headaches, made it difficult to hang up his lab coat and disappear into the wilds for months at a time. "I had to do penance when I came back from the second Everest expedition," he said. "I had a reasonably-sized lab. It was just too much of a pain."

In years that followed, he became a full professor in the physiology and the biochemistry and biophysics departments at UCSF, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, among other achievements. He researched proteins that affect the functioning of nerve cells, as well as proteins that cause nerve cells to stick to each other. His name appeared on more than 200 studies published in scientific journals and on chapters in 30 books.

He and his wife, Kathy, raised two sons and two daughters, a physicist, a computer scientist, a lawyer, and an MD/PhD student. (None chose high-altitude mountaineering as a past-time, he said. But one son enjoys running from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the North Rim, and back.)

In 2013, he left California for a new challenge in New York, where he now directs the Simons Foundation's autism research program. Autism "was something very different that I had always been interested in. Some of the genes we had worked on are clearly involved in autistic pathways," he said. He works to support science that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of autism, to help those affected by it. For this, he has high hopes. "The whole history of biology has been that things have shown up that we can't imagine. In terms of the science we're doing, a lot of it is laying the groundwork for therapies that we're sure will come, but at this point we don't know or can't imagine the technologies."

Autism will help write "the final episode in my career," he said at talk he gave at his 50th class reunion at Harvard last year. In his presentation, he tied together the lessons learned on the mountains and the lab:

  • "Persistence is important, even when failure seems certain.
  • "Success or failure depends on the quality of the people you are with. Trust is essential.
  • "In science, like life, optimism and confidence make a huge difference. You cannot do more than you can imagine as possible."13

And there was this: "The journey is more important than the endpoint. In science or life, little time is spent at 28,000 feet."13 Asked to explain that, he said, "I've had highs and lows in my scientific career. If you discover something, it's really wonderful, but it is a minute, actually. Time passes. You don't stay, and you don't automatically go from discovery to discovery. There are a lot of valleys in between. On K2, I was mainly eager to get off the summit and get down. The sun was setting and it was time to go. In science, you would love it if you just stayed high, but realistically, you don't."

Science, like mountaineering, involves a lot of hard carries, careful plans, and preparation for a chance to reach the rarified air where something new and true may be found. But then you must leave, and do it all over again.

IAN thanks Jim Wickwire for permission to reprint his K2 photos. Photo credits: Dr. Reichardt on Everest: Louis Reichardt. Reichardt photo: SFARI. Reprinted with permission.

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