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Alumni Spotlight

On Top of the World

Bob Berger with guide on Mt. Everest
Written By Jayan Kalathil

In 2012, Bob Berger (Journalism ‘81) summited Mt. Everest, something only a handful of people can say. He insisted that accomplishing something like this is a mindset he credits his time at Cal Poly with helping him forge. 

“Learn by Doing. It really is the way. In my climbing career and marketing career, you just have to get in and try. You know, there's no failure. It's only learning, and we can't be afraid to learn. So that's what you learn in mountain climbing. Over the years, I've learned some pretty good lessons that got me pretty close to negative outcomes, but because of being persistent and being able to figure things out under pressure, we were able to survive. And I think that happens a lot in our professional careers, too. You're up against deadlines and you really learn how to think clearly and be effective. And you can only do that by practicing it, and that's Learn by Doing.” 

Berger's love for climbing began before he got to Cal Poly. He first attended Willamette University in Oregon studying biology and playing football. Still, as a California native from San Mateo, he soon realized he wanted to return to his home state. Before he left, he and a couple of friends decided to climb Mt. Hood, Oregon’s highest peak and had an adventure there that started his love affair with climbing. 

“So we're there starting at midnight,” he recalled, “and we got caught in a whiteout and had to dig a snow cave for protection and sleep in it. Then when it got light out, and we were coming down, I fell into a crevasse. Fortunately, we were roped up.  But that experience got me hooked.”  

Bob Berger climbing Mt. Everest

That summer he started reading books on the subject and soon bought a rope and some gear and started climbing with his friend Tom, another Cal Poly alum. When he arrived at Cal Poly as a transfer student that fall, he accidentally found another kindred spirit upon arrival. 

“I was checking into the Palomar dorms and some guy saw me walking in with my plastic milk crate with my rope on top," he remembered. “And he says ‘Hey, I saw you had a rope. Let's go climbing.’ That was my friend John, who also lived in Palomar. We started climbing on Bishop Peak but then we started climbing all over.” 

Berger and his Poly friends would road trip around the state on their breaks from school, from the Eastern Sierras to Joshua Tree and Yosemite. Over time, as they became more skilled and learned to use tools like crampons and ice axes, they ventured to climb Mt. Shasta, Mt. Rainier, Denali, Mt. Elbrus, Aconcagua, and Mt. Blanc. Eventually, an idea began to take root, one that he’d had since childhood. 

"From the time I was a little kid, about six years old, I always wanted to climb Mount Everest." 

But that dream would take decades to fulfill. In the meantime, he had a career to pursue.  

Although he transferred to Cal Poly as a PE major, he immediately began taking Journalism classes. He wrote for the Mustang Daily and eventually became the sports and outdoors editor. He also had a memorable internship as the publicity director for the Calaveras County Fair and International Frog Jumping Jubilee, made famous from Mark Twain’s short story. After graduation, he worked for a newspaper before switching to marketing in Silicon Valley doing writing and creative work.  

After working for agencies and companies such as Edelman, Apple, and Oracle, he had an opportunity to move to Colorado to open an office in Denver for a global PR agency. That move brought him closer to the mountains, and climbing became a more accessible and frequent pastime for him. Eventually, he would make a friend there who shared his passion for climbing, and in July of 2011, when he was 54, the two were offered an opportunity to climb Mt. Everest the following spring. 

After training for the rest of the year, they left for Nepal in March 2012 and spent two months with their group acclimatizing to the altitude.  Acclimatizing involved testing their capabilities and climbing from Base Camp up to Camp 1 and back, then up to Camp 2 and back down over several weeks, to slowly get their bodies used to going up to higher altitudes. They also had to wait for just the right weather bubble to start their ascent to the summit. 

Bob Berger climbing Mt. Everest

"In the wintertime in Nepal, the jet stream comes down and goes right across the top of Everest,” explained Berger. “And what all the climbers wait for is this weather window that happens when the monsoons move north. And so, as the monsoons move north, they push the jet stream north which creates this bubble which lasts maybe a week or two weeks over the mountain. And that's why you see all these photos of these big crowds waiting to go on to the top of the mountain.” 

Climbing at that altitude is extremely risky and dangerous, and acclimatizing is essential to help prevent dangerous health hazards, such as cerebral edema. 

Berger explained, "With cerebral edema, you get kind of tired and sleepy. What will happen is these people will summit, and they'll be coming back down and they'll see the camp in the distance and think ‘Oh, it's like right there. I'm just going to sit down and rest,’ and then they never get back up again.” 

During the two months he spent acclimatizing, he was awed by the difference in daily life in Nepal compared to America. 

"When you're in the Khumbu Valley, you feel like you've been invited into a Sherpa's house. It's just beautiful. It's quiet and peaceful, with beautiful peaks. There's nothing mechanized there at all, so anything, food or whatever, that moves up and down that valley is either on the back of a Sherpa or on the back of a yak.” 

Finally, with the conditions just right, they began their climb to the top. The summit push had them climbing from Camp 3 to Camp 4, which they arrived at early in the morning and then rested in their tent all day. Then, at 8:00 pm, they headed out to tackle the last 3,000 vertical feet to the 29,032-foot summit. The climb to the top would take all night, but Berger remembers it vividly. 

"There was no wind and it was absolutely clear. We had a three-quarter moon so you didn't even need a headlamp because everything was perfectly lit. The stars were so crisp and clear that you felt like you could reach out and grab them. And it was only -50 degrees Fahrenheit.” 

When he reached the top, he took a moment to take it all in and watch the sunrise. 

Bob Berger and friend at the top of Mt. Everest

"That mountain just commands so much respect,” said Berger. “I sat there with my friend from Mexico, and just talked about how lucky we were. I saw this beautiful sunrise coming over the Tibetan Plateau and you could see the curvature in the Earth's surface. It was just an amazing spiritual experience as much as anything else.” 

Despite accomplishing a lifelong goal, Berger has no plans to slow down. He recently competed in a 64 km cross-country ski marathon in Finland, and has his sights set on other mountain ranges across the world.  

“It's like an addiction,” he said. “I'd love to go back and do another 8000-meter peak. Like they say, when you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing. Because one learns by doing!”