What's the best advice you ever got?
My dad said, "Don't take life too seriously," and more than anything, he always told me to pursue my dreams. I'd started Kühl Clothing with my business partner in 1983, but I had this opportunity to become a professional climber. My dad said: "If you want to go climb mountains, this is the time. You have to go do it." That was that. I sold the company, and I'm completely happy where I am today. Would I have discovered George Mallory's remains and climbed Everest three times if I was working at Kühl?
What goes through your mind when you reach the summit of Everest?
A moment like that is described as type two on the fun scale. There are three types of fun: Type one is fun while you're doing it and fun afterward, like going to the movies; type three is fun while you're doing it but not afterward, like drinking too much and having a hangover the next day. Type-two fun is when you're not having any fun when you're doing it, though it's fun afterward. It's climbing Everest — miserable, suffering, and feeling like you're dying. I trashed my body and it took me six months to recover. But being able to talk about what it was like, that's fun now. I walked across western Tibet for 270 miles and ran out of food, but I guess I have a Jack London view that says you've got to be out there to really have fun.
Was Jack London one of your heroes?
Yes, I was inspired by Jack London and still love reading his books. Ernie Banks is another hero, because I lived in Chicago for two years as a kid, and I loved that he was the Cubs' loyal underdog and one of the first African-Americans to make that breakthrough. I always followed his story.
What did you learn on that trip to Tibet?
I met a lot of happy, content people who were living in the moment. I learned that in Western society, we're so caught up with either living in the past or planning for the future. I like to think that today is the best day of my life and tomorrow will be the next best day of my life. And if you think that way, you're living for the beauty of today.
Your climbing partner Alex Lowe died in an accident in 1999; afterward you married his wife and adopted his three sons. How did that change you?
It was a heavy time. Alex had died, and when I came back, I fell in love with Jenni and raised the boys. I learned that life is about the people around you and the people you give back to. That's what parenting is: You're not there for yourself; you're there for your offspring and everyone else around you.
What music has had an effect on your life?
Elvis Costello. My motto — "Be good, be kind, be happy" — comes from his 1980 album, Get Happy!!
What do you get from being in a wild place at the edge of the world?
A source of rejuvenation and deep happiness. Here at home, we're in a world of right angles and human construct, so whether it's cement or plastic or steel, everything is at an angle. But nature is chaos theory in full play. So having that uniqueness of what nature is gives me a sense of rejuvenation and scale. If you're in a place like Antarctica, you're out there in a landscape that hasn't changed in probably a half-million years. There's the timelessness of it. And then standing on Everest, looking up through the sky, you're at the highest point you can be on the planet and you're experiencing the immensity of the cosmos.
How do you know when to say goodbye to something like Everest?
Everest I'm good with. Climbed it three times. You know, I quit while I'm ahead.