By Sara Ann Hutto ’17
Photography by Dallas Glass ’03 & Josh Wilson

Dallas Glass ’03, avalanche forecaster and mountain guide, has lived the mountaineer’s dream: summiting Mount Everest.

Thelonious Monk’s “Everything Happens to Me” is playing on repeat in Dallas Glass’s mind. It’s the middle of the night. The snow around him is illuminated only by the small pool of light shed by his headlamp. In front of him is a drawn-out string of slow-moving climbers. Some are clients, some Sherpa, each marked with a dot of light. Beyond, there’s nothing but the stretching shadow of Lhotse Face. His breaths are shallow, digits freezing. Glass is on Mount Everest, and he has put his body on autopilot as he trudges through the thin air. The rhythm of the jazz music keeps him moving. He doesn’t have to think about setting the metal spikes of his crampons in the ice; he just does it. Slow and steady.

BASE CAMP

Sagarmāthā. Chomolungma. Zhūmùlangma Fēng. Everest. In March 2017, Glass was at the foot of the 29,035-foot peak at South Base Camp in Nepal about to embark on his first Everest climb as a guide with International Mountain Guides — alongside three other guides, two expedition leaders, about 50 Sherpa and 23 clients between them. Every year, thousands of climbers visit Base Camp, which sits at 17,598 feet, but most don’t continue up the mountain. For Glass and his team, it was only the beginning.

The first time Glass ever clipped into a climbing rope was when he was a teenager in rural Alabama. He’d grown up outside, hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather, but there weren’t a lot of rock-climbing opportunities — until he went to a Boy Scout camp in the southern Appalachians. “There’s a wood-framed tower there that they had you climb, and that’s where I was really first exposed to climbing,” he says.

Before long, Glass was working after school at a climbing gym that opened in Birmingham, where he was mentored by the gym’s owner, a well-known Alabaman climber at the time by the name of Maurice Reed. Glass was climbing at least once a week in those days, but it never occurred to him that his hobby could become a career path.

Born into a die-hard Auburn family, Glass says it was all but assumed he would go there for college. But he gives his parents credit: They wanted him to choose Auburn rather than go there by default. So one fall, the family made a trip to Clemson to watch a football game against Wake Forest and tour the forestry department. At the end of the weekend, Glass was sold.

“We’re driving back through Atlanta, and I’m terrified to talk to my parents because I really wanted to go to Clemson,” he says. “My dad just looks at me as we’re driving, and I won’t ever forget this conversation because he started it with, ‘What will it take for you not to go to Clemson?’”

Glass thought for a moment before answering, “I want a senior trip. I want to go ice climbing in Canada, and I want all the gear.”

“Done,” was his father’s reply.

In the end, Glass couldn’t bring himself to take the deal. “I had to go to Clemson,” he says.

Khumbu Icefall

After leaving Base Camp, the first major climbing phase of Everest is the Khumbu Icefall, essentially a frozen waterfall tumbling slowly down the southwestern side of the mountain.

“The Khumbu Icefall is super fun,” Glass says. “It’s got ladders and steep sections, and then you rappel and walk over these knife edges with like 200-foot chasms next to you.”

The danger, he explains, comes less from the chasms and more from the possibility of the icefall calving blocks of ice, “and you’re talking about something that’s the size of an office building and that weighs thousands and thousands of tons.”

Glass is no stranger to the threat of natural disasters — or close calls.

When he was at Clemson pursuing forestry, he spent mornings in the classroom and afternoons in the Clemson Experimental Forest, but his climbing expeditions were few and far between. There were, however, a few memorable trips with his roommates, Drew Witt and Greg Darley, one of which brought Glass face to face with an avalanche.

“We would just come up with ridiculous things to go do,” he remembers. “We decided one spring break that we were going to go climb Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.”

During the climb, the weather was brutal. After making it partway up the peak, they crawled up to a famous notch in the side of Longs Peak known as the “Keyhole” and took refuge.

“The winds were ripping so hard that I couldn’t even stand up,” Glass says. Looking across the valley at the surrounding 13- and 14,000-foot peaks, his eye caught on a massive cloud rushing down one of the slopes. He was witnessing an avalanche.

“We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool!’” he continues wryly. “At no point were we thinking, ‘If there’s an avalanche there, there could be an avalanche here.’ No, no, no. That didn’t cross our brains.”

They never summited Longs Peak, but Glass will remember that climb for other reasons. “We probably should have died on that trip because we just didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

Western Cwm

After the team topped out of the Khumbu Icefall, they came into an area known as the Western Cwm, a flat glacier surrounded by walls of towering peaks: Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse. By then, they were in sight of Camp II, a few orange dots at the end of the cwm. They had to reach the camp by sunrise. If they didn’t, the sun would roast them in the thin atmosphere.

Like the Khumbu Icefall, this area is prone to ice calving, when blocks of ice slough off of the larger glacier. It isn’t likely, but it’s possible. According to Glass, the technical term for a place with low-likelihood events and very high consequences is a “wicked learning environment” — an environment where you can make a bad decision without negative repercussions.

In areas like the Khumbu Icefall or the Western Cwm, there wasn’t much the team could do to save themselves from ice calving. “You have to simply accept the risk,” Glass says. But in other environments, it’s possible to make mistakes without realizing it.

For example, an experienced skiier might decide to go skiing in the backcountry (not in a managed ski resort). The skier ventures into an area on the slopes that’s at risk of producing a slab avalanche, when an unstable layer of snow breaks away from the snow pack. They get lucky and go on their way without incident, but they’re oblivious to the fact that they made a bad decision.

For Glass and other mountain professionals, it’s all about risk management in wicked learning environments. Once off the mountain, they systematically try to differentiate between when good decisions were made and when luck was on their side.

“When I’m entering the mountains, when I’m skiing, when I’m climbing, I sit down, and I have a formal process that I walk through to make sure that I’m critically assessing key pieces of information,” Glass says. “Because the alternative to that, which a lot of people do, is rolling the dice. And because it’s a low-likelihood situation, they’re probably going to be fine. I just don’t really like playing Russian roulette.”

“[Dallas] also doesn’t seem to have the need to prove anything to anyone. He does this all because of his passion for the outdoors — a quality that will keep him alive in a dangerous profession.”

Lhotse Face

At Camp II, the team began to prep for the scale up Lhotse Face, which Glass describes as “pretty much an unbroken wall of snow and ice that rises very steeply for 3 or 4,000 feet straight up.” About halfway up Lhotse Face, hacked into the side of the ice, sits a small cluster of tents: Camp III.

“Don’t roll over,” Glass jokes, half serious.

On the brink of Everest, Camp III manifests just how fragile life becomes on the mountain. One misstep, one wrong turn, and it could be over. Glass knows from personal experience.

After Clemson, he headed to the University of Nevada, Reno, to get his master’s in hydrology and work with Dale Johnson, professor of natural resources and environmental science. As Glass was finishing his degree, Johnson sent him a job posting to work as an ecologist for the federal government in Alaska.

That job turned into a permanent seasonal position where Dallas spent his summers on the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In the winters, he needed something to do, so after dabbling in some Lake Tahoe-area skiing, he thought of ski patrol.

“I’d only been skiing for three years, but I was like, ‘Whatever, I can do this,’” Glass says. “So, I applied to all these different ski patrols and wound up working at a ski resort called Mount Rose Ski Tahoe, which is on the mountains between Reno and Lake Tahoe.”

Ski patrollers are responsible for keeping the slopes safe: putting up ropes and signage and administering medical attention in the event of an emergency. If an avalanche threat is located, they’re also responsible for reducing that risk to the best of their ability, whether by intentionally using explosives to set off the avalanche or closing off areas so guests don’t accidentally trigger the snow slide.

About six weeks into his job at Mount Rose, a veteran ski patroller was caught, carried and buried by an avalanche. The incident, Glass says, was ingrained in his mind in “insane detail,” especially since he was one of the first to respond to the emergency. The patroller had to be airlifted to the hospital — he was badly injured but managed to escape with his life.

“After that accident, the patrol director, my boss, was able to secure funding for a position dedicated solely to thinking about snow,” Glass says. “And I became Mount Rose’s first avalanche forecaster.”

Glass was now responsible for watching weather forecasts and studying the snow pack in an effort to predict when and where avalanches might occur, and how intense they might be. Differences between each layer in the snow pack are what cause avalanches, so the bigger the difference, the bigger the danger.

South Col

After resting at Camp III and continuing on, the team reached the South Col. A low spot in the mountains between Everest and Lhotse, the South Col ushers climbers into the summit period of the climb.

The first summit Glass guided with International Mountain Guides was Mount Rainier, despite never having climbed the peak before. And the only reason Glass got his start in the guiding industry was thanks to a chance meeting with an old friend.

When Glass was still working between Alaska and Mount Rose, he met his wife, Susie Hunter, a medical student at the University of Nevada, Reno. Toward the end of medical school, Hunter found out that she’d matched to a residency at the University of Washington. Glass made plans to go with her.

Months before the move, Glass bumped into Jenni Pfafman in Lake Tahoe, a climbing guide for IMG whom he’d met through an outdoor emergency care course in the early 2000s. When Pfafman found out Glass was moving to Seattle, she thought he was the perfect fit for the climbing company headquarted just outside of Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

“He is really unflappable, which can sometimes mean the difference between life and death,” Pfafman says of Glass. “He also doesn’t seem to have the need to prove anything to anyone. He does this all because of his passion for the outdoors — a quality that will keep him alive in a dangerous profession.”

Despite Glass’s initial doubts about his climbing ability, Pfafman put him in touch with one of the group’s owners, George Dunn. Before he knew it, Glass was scheduled for the second-most guiding days of the entire IMG staff that summer. His first gig: Mount Rainier.

As Glass and the other guides were making their way up the mountain by headlamp with clients in tow, Pfafman, who was also guiding the climb, pages Glass on the radio: “Hey, Dallas, I want you to come out here and get out front because I want your assessment of the avalanches.”

“This is all over the radio,” Glass laughs, “and I’m like, ‘Jenni, I’ve never climbed Mount Rainier. I don’t know where to go!’”

Trusting Pfafman’s promise that she wouldn’t let him get lost, Glass got out front, looked at the snow and gave the go-ahead for the summit.

“I just remember it being brutally cold,” he says. “That’s all I remember, standing up there and shivering and asking Jenni to take a photo of my first summit.”

Death Zone

The stretch from the South Col to the summit is “what everybody calls the Death Zone, being at 8,000 meters,” Glass says. “Above 8,000 meters, your body cannot survive long term. You will die. As soon as you’re not on oxygen, your body is in a very slow death process, no matter what.”

Seeing tattered tents flapping in the wind and abandoned oxygen tanks, Glass distantly remembers having one thought: They were venturing into a place humans simply weren’t meant to go. He describes Camp IV as a “toehold on the edge. Just an opportunity for you to get inside a tent for a few hours and try to sleep.”

After that, it’s either push for the summit or go home.

At the beginning of the expedition, Glass was responsible for 16 clients. At this point in the climb, he was down to nine. In the crucible of extreme conditions, climbing guides become teachers, doctors, coaches and therapists to their clients. As an experienced guide, Glass knows when to make the hard decision of sending climbers back down the mountain early because they aren’t up for it physically, mentally — or both.

“Sometimes, they’re just scared,” Glass says, “and rightfully so. Sometimes, they’re missing family, especially on these long expeditions. And then sometimes, they’re at their physical limit, and we all know that when we’re at our physical limit, emotionally we start to break down.”

South Summit & Cornice Traverse

When the team reached the South Summit, a peak slightly below Everest’s true summit, they were facing the Cornice Traverse, a ridge formed by two extremely steep faces. On one side, Camp II rests thousands of feet below, and on the other, “it’s 9,000 feet into China, straight down.”

Glass says climbing on this knife edge of the mountain was “unbelievably the most beautiful hour of climbing I’ve ever done in my life.” For him, the Cornice Traverse was a spiritual experience, and it brought the Himalayas’ cultural and religious significance into focus.

For his first Himalayan climb with IMG, Glass traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, in 2016. Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest peak at 26,906 feet, was the assignment. Before the expedition left base camp, they attended a Puja ceremony. Peformed by a local lama, the lengthy ritual is done out of respect for the mountain where mountaineers ask permission to climb its peak.

“Sure, you put one foot in front of the other the whole way, but it wasn’t because of you that you got to the top,” Glass explains. “The mountain was kind. Not that it has its own personality but that its conditions and its weather and everything else lined up to allow you to be there.”

When Glass reached the summit of Cho Oyu after months of climbing, he felt nothing but humble. After serving tea to each client, helping them take pictures and sending them back on their way, he had a spare moment with one of the team’s Sherpa: “We just sat down on the side of the mountain and had tea together and just stared off into the Tibetan plateau. And you felt like you could see for eternity because everything was just so big.”

Working with Sherpa is Glass’s favorite part of guiding in the Himalayas, especially since a few of them have become his close friends, like Pemba and Pega — the “young guns,” Glass calls them. A fixture of the Himalayan climbing industry and often second- and third-generation, the Sherpa are experts, handling almost all of the routing and rope setting of the climbs.

“Going climbing with them is like playing pickup basketball with Michael Jordan.”

  • “We just sat down on the side of the mountain and had tea together and just stared off into the Tibetan plateau. And you felt like you could see for eternity because everything was just
    so big.”

Summit

Glass took off his frosted oxygen mask and set down his pack. He turned slowly, “taking in what felt like the whole world in one turn.” He had reached the summit.

It wasn’t long before he saw another group of climbers approaching the summit from the other side of the mountain. His first thought was, “Huh! Fancy seeing you here.” The moment was surreal even though he knew that the mountain was often climbed out of Tibet as well as Nepal.

“My hypoxic brain struggled to understand how they were coming from a different direction,” he laughs.

Despite the language barrier between IMG and the other team, there was a lot of high fiving. On May 21, 2017, they’d both reached their goal.

Considering the months of climbing it took to get there, the summit celebration was short. It was critical that the climbers get in and out; they only had so much oxygen in their tanks. Glass spent only about an hour on the summit (and each client about 20-30 minutes), but he still struggles to find words to describe it: “You’re just like, ‘I’m on top of the world.’ I always used to kind of laugh at that description, but it’s literally what it feels like. Everything is below you at that point. Everything. Most planes are below you!”

Moments like this keep Glass climbing, guiding groups to new summits.

“I hope that these experiences shape [my clients’] lives in ways that actually have positive impacts on how they view their friends, their family, the environment, public lands,” he says. “For me, the outdoors and the mountains have shaped so much of my life, Everest included.”

Glass continues his avalanche forecasting work at the Northwest Avalanche Center in Washington, spending days off climbing with his wife and backcountry skiing with his black Lab, Belle. He returned to the Himalayas in 2018 to guide Cho Oyu for the second time, but he hasn’t made it back to Everest yet.

Still, every now and then, memories of the mountain sneak up on him: “The draw of Everest is still there. That magical place hasn’t lost any of its mystery. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the opportunity to go back, but for the moment, I’m left with my memories — left with my dreams.” 

Sara Ann Hutto ’17 is the assistant editor of Clemson World magazine.

5 replies
  1. Jeff Gunnells says:

    I have heard Dallas speak to a group of Boy Scouts and he did an awesome job. He would be a great speaker to any Clemson event and a tremendous spokesman for Clemson

    Reply
  2. Aimee Rosier says:

    What a great article about a great man. He was just a young man when I knew Dallas back at Clemson. He was so dear to me and for years I wondered what he was up to. I recently found him on IG and have loved seeing life from the mountains.

    From the moment you meet Dallas, you know a few things… he is wise, he is southern and he is a gentleman. Even now in this brave and exciting career that Dallas has built for himself, I can see those things so clearly. People trust and follow him because of his genuine southern kindness. It’s is real. Thank you for spotlighting this story. This humble guy would never shine a spotlight on what he has done and learned and protected. What adventurous and very important work. So proud to call him a fellow Tiger.

    Reply
  3. Alex doerr says:

    Dallas is a truly wonderful human. I worked with him at Mt rose as a fellow ski patroller. It’s amazing to see that he has one on to do awesome and inspiring things in his life. Proud to know him!

    Reply
  4. Sri Jonnalagadda says:

    Congratulations Dallas. Its an exceptional achievement. Yesterday I was watching an inspiring Indian telugu movie named ‘Poorna’ based on true story of the little girl who conquered Mr Everest at the age of 13. Mt Everest keeps inspiring normal people to become heroes.

    Reply

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5 replies
  1. Jeff Gunnells says:

    I have heard Dallas speak to a group of Boy Scouts and he did an awesome job. He would be a great speaker to any Clemson event and a tremendous spokesman for Clemson

    Reply
  2. Aimee Rosier says:

    What a great article about a great man. He was just a young man when I knew Dallas back at Clemson. He was so dear to me and for years I wondered what he was up to. I recently found him on IG and have loved seeing life from the mountains.

    From the moment you meet Dallas, you know a few things… he is wise, he is southern and he is a gentleman. Even now in this brave and exciting career that Dallas has built for himself, I can see those things so clearly. People trust and follow him because of his genuine southern kindness. It’s is real. Thank you for spotlighting this story. This humble guy would never shine a spotlight on what he has done and learned and protected. What adventurous and very important work. So proud to call him a fellow Tiger.

    Reply
  3. Alex doerr says:

    Dallas is a truly wonderful human. I worked with him at Mt rose as a fellow ski patroller. It’s amazing to see that he has one on to do awesome and inspiring things in his life. Proud to know him!

    Reply
  4. Sri Jonnalagadda says:

    Congratulations Dallas. Its an exceptional achievement. Yesterday I was watching an inspiring Indian telugu movie named ‘Poorna’ based on true story of the little girl who conquered Mr Everest at the age of 13. Mt Everest keeps inspiring normal people to become heroes.

    Reply

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