The view from atop the world’s highest peak was breathtakingly stunning.
Staring out amid the clouds at the world below on the morning of May 19, Aviad Sido was spellbound but he knew that he had to move fast.
It was the fulfillment of a personal journey for the 26-year-old Israeli that included the death of his mother and the imminent death of a fellow climber, but he kept telling himself that he had to get home to his family.
He only stayed at the peak for 10 or 15 minutes.
“You sense the danger,” Sido recounted in an interview with JNS. “You do not want to stay there a long time.”
The former IDF special forces commander made history last month by scaling Mount Everest, becoming the youngest Israeli to attain the feat.
It was a journey like life itself, filled with sadness, determination, courage, tragedy and the hope of starting anew.
A child of nature and sport
“I always had this dream to climb Everest but I never really thought I would do it,” Sido relates in the interview.
An avid lover of outdoor sports and nature from his youth growing up in the village of Adi in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, he hiked, trekked and swam. But, employing military jargon, he added that “there were never concrete operational plans” on how to succeed in this dream.
He enlisted in the Israel Air Force’s Shaldag unit, eventually becoming an officer and serving his country for five years. Shaldag specializes in clandestine operations, combat search and rescue, commando raids, hostage rescue, irregular warfare, long-range penetration, intelligence operations and reconnaissance within enemy territory.
During the last year of his service, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. That same year, Sido’s two-and-a-half-year relationship with his girlfriend came to an abrupt end.
Between the demands of his combat service and the stress of his mother’s terminal illness, Sido felt that the world was caving in on him.
“I was shattered,” he said.
Sido’s friends talked to him last summer about a trip abroad after his imminent discharge from the army.
“The dream to ascend Everest suddenly resurfaced,” he said. He began to think about it seriously and then sprang into action.
“I felt that if I didn’t do it now I would never do it,” Sido said, seeking to make the effort ahead of university studies this fall and determined to climb the mountain within the year of mourning for his mother.
He underwent intensive training for the next six months, trekking mountains in Africa, Argentina and Ecuador in preparation for the trek of his life, and practiced free diving to get used to the lack of oxygen. “My training in the IDF definitely helped me,” Sido said.
His ambitious goal shocked his father and two sisters. “It was very difficult for my family to accept this plan but they understood that I needed it for my soul,” he said.
On Passover eve, Sido found himself at the seder at the Chabad House in Kathmandu, Nepal. He didn’t share his plans with anyone there.
“It was a personal and solo journey,” he said.
The next day he began his trek through the Everest base camps, having teamed up with three other climbers—an Australian, a Greek and a Macedonian. “We bonded like brothers,” he said.
They set off for the peak on the night of May 14/15. Sido said that the climb up the nearly 8,850 meters (29,055 feet) on the Himalayan mountain on the border of Nepal and China takes four days, and another two days to descend.
On the way up, Sido kept in touch with his father via satellite telephone. “If I felt I was getting ill I would have turned back,” he said.
Braving temperatures that can sink to -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) with biting winds making it feel even colder and extreme conditions including a whiteout from a snowstorm, the group made it to the top of the Earth’s highest mountain.
There was one thing Sido had to do in the few minutes he was there. He took a photo of his mother and affixed it to the mountaintop.
“It was a dream come true for me and the completion of a personal journey,” he recounted. “In a way, I felt closest to my mother.”
But Sido also knew that he had to get out of there, to get down—and get home—safely. Indeed, 80% of accidents happen on the descent from the summit as adrenaline drops, he said.
Half an hour before reaching the summit, Sido realized he had a problem with his right hand, erroneously thinking a stone had hit it. He began his descent using only his left hand; the only doctors were a two-day journey away.
Then, two hours into the descent, the Australian climber, Jason Kennison, 40, fell ill. “He was very exhausted and could not move,” said Sido. The other climbers made their way down individually (“we had to go down to save ourselves”) as a Sherpa guide tried to resuscitate Kennison. He died on the mountain hours later because not enough oxygen was reaching his brain.
In the last seven decades, more than 6,000 people have climbed Everest; more than 300 have lost their lives during the trek.
The rest of the group heard of the Australian’s death the next morning.
“It’s a calculated risk, which we knew,” Sido said.
Over the years, eight Israeli hikers, including one woman, have scaled Everest, while another climber, Nadav Ben-Yehuda, stopped 300 meters short of the peak to save the life of a fellow hiker.
After completing the trek, Sido was airlifted by helicopter to Kathmandu, where there was concern that his fingers might need to be amputated. His family rushed him to Israel for treatment at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, where doctors have saved his fingers, and where he remains hospitalized.
Sido’s next goals are rehab and recovery, family time, and then enrolling in medical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem this fall.
“It has been an intense personal journey for me to get out of an emotional crisis,” he said.
In a twist on a Talmudic expression in Aramaic, Sido calls his personal journey “From the deepest hole to the highest mountain.”
“In order to realize my dream, I had to be active. I couldn’t just wait for things to happen because they don’t,” he said.
Of course, not everyone who faces emotional turmoil has to go climb Everest, he concedes.
“The solution is the decision to go out: Be active, be alive and live your dream,” Sido said.