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Deadly tragedy ended Everest dream for Sacramento man. Now, he’s focus of documentary

Jim Geiger, a Sacramento retiree in his early 70s, spent years preparing and secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in the pursuit of a rare accomplishment. He wanted to summit Mount Everest.

But for someone who likely had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity snatched away by bad luck and unprecedented tragedy, Geiger remains remarkably grateful.

His story involves nearly three decades of physical conditioning, dead bodies being flown off a mountainside and an attempt to make mountaineering history. It sounds like a tale fit for film, because it is. A cameraman accompanied Geiger through his endeavor. This week marks the premiere of the documentary “Accidental Climber.” It will debut Thursday at the Napa Valley Film Festival.

In April 2014, 68-year-old Geiger set out to become the oldest American to ever climb Mount Everest, a journey he’d been readying for since 2010.

That expedition went unfinished. On April 18, 2014, an icefall avalanche resulted in the deaths of 16 people, all of them climbing Sherpas. It was the deadliest single-day tragedy ever recorded on Everest, until a year later, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal and killed at least 24 mountaineers there.

The 2014 avalanche sticks with Geiger; now 73, he still thinks about what he saw that day from base camp, all starting just before 6:30 a.m.

“All of a sudden the radios started going off. And radios going off, and radios going off. And then we knew, this is not a normal avalanche,” Geiger said. “We heard the ‘Thump, thump, thump’ of the helicopters coming up the valley. They were there to rescue whoever they could rescue.”

Reports made their way to Geiger’s tent of fatalities — first five dead, then seven, then nine, 10, 11 and finally 16.

The thumping helicopters carried the dead off Everest using long lines, Geiger said.

“I could only watch five of those bodies being flown off the mountain,” he said. “That was awful. Then it became a waiting game.”

No one in Geiger’s company, and no one whom he knew personally, was killed or injured. At home, Geiger’s family tried frantically to reach Jim, unaware of his status until he was able to call and assure them he was OK.

“My daughters found out about it on the news. They were freaking out.”

The deadly icefall event put all climbing plans on the mountain in limbo. Geiger and others continued acclimation climbs on nearby Pumori. Despite a concerned family and the lingering possibility of more avalanches, he intended to press on if he could. As he reminds himself and others, climbing Everest is “an incredible expense of time and money.”

Just as Geiger felt he had finally reached the level of physical conditioning he needed to summit the world’s most famous mountain, the Sherpas called it all off. No one would climb to Everest’s summit for more than a month; and no one summited Everest at all in 2015.

Geiger’s opportunity was gone.

“And everybody went home.”

“Accidental Climber” follows Geiger’s journey of training and attempting to climb Everest. It opens with news clips and footage from the aftermath of the 2014 avalanche. Then, it cuts to Geiger, gearing up for a hike in his small suburban garage.

Raised in Wisconsin, Geiger has lived in the Sacramento area since the 1980s. His Natomas home has a “man cave” dedicated to pictures of, and rocks from, dozens of peaks he’s scaled, some of them more than 100 times. He keeps a 60-pound backpack ready to go in his garage, wearing it on most hikes.

It all began very casually. Following a “devastating” divorce at age 40, he befriended a neighbor at his West Sacramento apartment complex, a “massive mountain man” named Steve.

“He said, ‘Hey, you wanna go for a hike?’ And that’s how it all started,” Geiger said. “And then shortly after that it was, ‘You wanna go to Mount Shasta?’ Sure!”

Since then, Geiger has amassed a résumé of peaks conquered that makes it hard to believe the man, a great-grandfather, is still considered an amateur. He’s reached the summit of Mount Shasta and Mount Whitney 13 times apiece. Kilimanjaro in Africa, Half Dome at Yosemite, Mount Rainier in Washington, Denali on Mount McKinley in Alaska — all summited.

“I started saying yes to these things just because the mountain was an excuse to go to some incredible places,” he said.

“I never gave a thought to Mount Everest, ever,” before his 2010 climb of Aconcagua in Argentina, a summit of almost 23,000 feet, showed him it might be possible, he said. “And this was like 30 years ... I don’t want to die on this mountain.”

His first three decades of climbing took Geiger all around the globe, including the base camp at Everest.

He recalled the moment he got his chance to tackle the whole mountain.

Following a 2013 climb in Antarctica, Geiger found himself drawn to an empty chair in a mess tent, as if that chair was speaking to him, he said. He sat beside a man, Andy Entrouter, and the two were surrounded by a group of gregarious Russians celebrating a safe return from the South Pole.

Geiger and Entrouter spoke for less than 10 minutes about mountaineering. Impressed by Geiger and his accomplishments, the benefactor sponsored him.

“Within a split second he says, ‘Well, I’ll fund you,’” Geiger recalls. “And that’s when Everest became a reality.”

Just like that, Geiger’s entire expedition was paid for — a dedication of about $220,000.

Exceptionally good fortune and right-place, right-time coincidences have opened the doors for some of Geiger’s biggest successes, hence the documentary’s title.

Of course, this isn’t to say Geiger’s accomplishments have been handed to him; far from it. The key to the climbing endeavor, he explained, is “an unwavering desire” to reach the top.

It helps that he’s in great shape. Still an active mountaineer at 73, Geiger says he has never sustained any significant injuries climbing, nor has he experienced any long-term health issues.

He takes no medications, not even the ones doctors prescribe to him, he says. Instead, he stays in tune with what he calls his “sweet spot” — just the right level of physical exercise and dieting habits, as determined by his own personal experience and intuition.

Had his Everest adventure continued successfully, Geiger might have gone on to join a very short list of mountaineers past age 70 to conquer the Seven Summits — the highest peaks in each continent — upon his upcoming climb of Kosciuszko in Australia. Less than 500 climbers of any age have completed them.

At his home, Geiger has a plaque ready that reads “Mount Kosciuszko — 2019,” a motivator to check it off the list of seven peaks next year. He had notched four of the seven by 2010, when he first considered the Everest venture.

The icefall avalanche disaster in 2014 didn’t injure him, but it did wipe away Geiger’s chance to reach Everest’s peak, most likely for good. Conquering Everest is no easy feat; to even secure the opportunity would require another sponsorship, and to ready for another summit attempt would demand rigorous acclimation climbs beforehand.

He would be in his mid- to late-70s by the time he’d be qualified and trained for a second shot. It’s not on his immediate radar, which includes Kosciuszko and Mount Fuji in Japan.

Being the center of a documentary was a strange experience for Geiger, who is timid to appear in the spotlight. The idea was first posed to him by Entrouter.

Shyness aside, climbing a mountain with a camera operator greatly alters the group dynamic. Geiger said it was strange to have a Sherpa on one side of him and a cameraman on the other, rather than the typical straight-line climbing team.

Part of the reason Geiger said yes to “Accidental Climber,” despite reservations, was his consideration that funding might possibly be pulled if he didn’t agree to film.

Geiger said he and his friends and family who have viewed “Accidental Climber” thought it was excellent.

“Accidental Climber” is directed by Steven Oritt, whose body of work includes music videos for Muse, Foo Fighters and other commercially successful bands.

When Geiger’s not climbing or cross-training by way of hiking or rides on American River bike trails, the mountaineer trains others. Based out of his home, Summit Leader Coaching is Geiger’s life/climbing coaching business. Certified by the Academy Coaching Excellence and credentialed by the International Coaching Federation, Geiger is also a certified personal trainer.

His website details his coaching services, broken into three categories: “Empowerment,” “Age Well” and “Mountaineering.” The site also offers insight into his climbing life via photos and blog posts. He also provides links to third-party resources, including fitness regimens, diet plans and mindset coaching websites.

“The reason for climbing all these mountains that I’ve climbed after 50 was to find out if I could still do it,” Geiger said. “Is it still possible for me at this age? And I wanted to not only prove to myself, but others, that you don’t have to get old as you age. And if you continue doing these things, you can age pretty well.”

If you go

The Napa Valley Film Festival runs this Wednesday through Sunday at multiple venues. “Accidental Climber” will be shown Thursday at Native Sons Hall in St. Helena, Saturday at The Archer Hotel in Napa and Sunday at the Drive-In at the Calistoga Fairgrounds.

Ticket prices for the Napa festival start at $20-25 for a “rush ticket” for a single screening, and festival pass prices start at $125 for a five-screening flex pass. More information can be found on the festival’s website, www.nvff.org.

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