OBW ... Andy Luks

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Oct 04, 2020

Welcome to "On Belay With..."! This is just one of a series of short interviews with folks involved in mountain medicine. Joining us at the belay for this post is Professor Andy Luks. Andy is a respiratory physician based in Seattle and editor of High Altitude Medicine and Physiology. Originally written by John West, Michael Ward and Jim Milledge in 1989, this textbook quickly became a leader in it's field. The 6th edition is due out later this year and comes highly recommended!

What was the last mountain you climbed?

I'm pretty confident that the last peaks I climbed will not really make it onto anyone's tick list - Indecision and Outpost. They are two largely obscure peaks in the North Cascades National Park and the only reason to climb them was to get into and explore a relatively untravelled area that affords spectacular scenery and rarely another person in sight. The challenge in the North Cascades, however, is that "untravelled" and "solitude" usually imply at least some amount of bushwacking and less than fun encounters with Devil's Club, Alder and Willow!

Devil's Club - the backcountry skier's enemy!

What does the perfect mountain day consist of?

There are two perfect days - (1) walking along some high mountain ridge covered in wild flowers with stellar views all around and (2) breaking trail through fresh snow above tree line on my backcountry skis.

What's been your worst mountain mishap?

Probably the single worst moment in the mountains was on one of my trips as part of a Denali Ranger Patrol. We were descending from the 14,000 ft Camp to the 11,000 ft Camp at the end of our trip in deteriorating weather conditions. We were travelling on skis and had to ski downhill roped up which I had never done before. I was on telemark skis with a ridiculously heavy pack, roped to a snow boarder with her board set up in walk mode (i.e., split in two planks) as we moved through crevasse-laden terrain with high winds and low visibility. I never fell over so much in my life and was so thankful to get into camp. Glad too that the crappiest ski ever didn't turn into its own Search and Rescue Incident!


What's been your best mountain day?

Boy ... too many to count. If I had to pin it down though it would be one of the days I worked at the Himalayan Rescue Association's Pheriche Clinic in the fall of 2003. We had a lot of time to explore and day hike that fall and I had spent some time trying to locate some lakes I knew were below the summit of Taboche across the valley from the village. I had made a few attempts to get to them but when all you have is one of the classic Nepal trekking maps with huge contour intervals, it's hard to read the terrain and I had been skunked a few times. Finally, on my third try I had the lay of the land all figured out and made it up to the lake I had been searching for. What a spectacular setting. I still remember hanging out all alone, taking photos of the lake with reflections of Ama Dablam with Makalu, Baruntse and other large peaks in the distance. An absolutely sublime day. Even now, I still think of that trip just about every day as I have a massive version of one of the photos from that day hanging on the wall in my house. 

The Himalayan Rescue Association's Pheriche Clinic is located at almost 4400m on the popular trail to Mt Everest Base Camp. Details of the HRA's work can be found here.

What mountain changed your life?

I wouldn't say any one mountain or climb changed my life. What I would say is that Mt. Rainier is the way I stay centred. The national park is only 1.75-2.5 hours away depending on which entrance you access and, between ski touring, climbing and hiking, I probably find myself there 8-10 times per year. After long stretches of work or long periods of bad weather that keep me out of the mountains, it's the place I want to go to refresh myself. I'm only 3 for 8 on summit attempts but love nothing more than poking around the various areas of the park with nothing making my day more than a ski tour up on the Russell Glacier with no one around. 

What's been your best bit of mountain kit?

Therm-a-rest NeoAir Elite sleeping pad... not sure how I ever slept at night on my old closed cell foam pad.  

A very thorough review of the latest Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad can be found here

What makes a great climbing partner? Has anyone come close?

I'm not sure there's one perfect model of a climbing partner but one thing I really value is the way someone assesses and responds to risk. We may not agree on the risk of something or have the same degree of willingness to venture into some terrain or up some objective but I want a partner that listens to my concerns and is willing to back off if me or someone else expresses strong reservations. I hate the phrase "I think we can manage the risk."

Oh... and don't slow the group down and don't take your boots off every short break!

What's been your biggest mountain disappointment?

Not sure I really have one. I've been weathered off peaks and turned around on a bunch of things but i don't have any single big thing I look back on in the mountains with a lot of regret. Lately, I've tended to design my mountain trips less around trying to climb a single peak and more around trying to get into and tour through beautiful country. I'll aim for peaks along the way but if they don't happen, I will have still seen a lot of great things along the way. 

What is your "dream" mountain objective?

I'd love to ski off the top of Mount Rainier. For many years I was a telemark skier - and not a particularly good one at that - I became resigned at some point that my skills were not good enough on telemark skis to deal with the iffy conditions and other terrain factors often encountered high up on the mountain. A few years ago, I left my pigheadedness behind (enough of this "Free your heel and your mind and body will follow" BS!) and got on alpine touring equipment. That has upped my game  to the point that in the right conditions, I just might be able to do it. 

Skiing down the Kautz Glacier - one of the more challenging descents off Mt Rainier! Details can be found here

Give us a mountain "tip"!

Stop and smell (or at least look at) the wildflowers! I love the gorgeous mountain vistas, but there's a lot of beautiful things close to the ground as well. Now only if I could remember all of their names!

Thanks Andy!

What do Karen GreeneStuart AllanEdi AlbertAbigail ForsythJon MorganTom YeomanMarika BlackhamDavid Cambray DeakinJon Ellerton and David Hillebrandt have in common? They have all taken part in "On Belay With...". Please get in touch if you would like to join them!

If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.

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