Need for Bead: Neal Beidleman enjoys life as an Aspenite, engineer and inventor
It’s not all that unusual to meet Aspen-area residents who have climbed Mount Everest. The town’s surrounding mountains both attract climbers and serve as a training grounds for them.
But there’s only one Aspenite to have reached the top of the world who also is an engineer and inventor who owns or is named on about a dozen patents, is an accomplished skier and endurance athlete, and played a pivotal role in saving lives during the 1996 Everest disaster in which eight climbers still died.
Although Neal Beidleman occupies rarefied air even among climbers, you’d never guess it in talking to the soft-spoken, easygoing 53-year-old.
“Humility, Neal’s got that in spades. He’s extremely humble, reticent to talk about himself,” said fellow Aspen-area resident Chris Davenport, a world-class extreme skier who teamed up with Beidleman when he returned in 2011 to summit Everest again under better circumstances.
These days Beidleman is more interested in talking about the latest product he played a big role in inventing. The Ultralite Sports titanium road bike pedal was released just last year but already has won early acclaim in biking circles. Its titanium pedal system — which weighs just 112 grams for the pedals and cleats combined, the lightest on the market — won a “Gear of the Show” award from Outside magazine at last year’s Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. The pedal, based on a minimalist spindle design, also has been written up in several biking magazines.
Beidleman’s partner on the pedal project is Bill Emerson, a Carbondale-area cycling enthusiast who came to him with the idea for a lighter bike pedal and asked for his help in refining it.
“Now we’ve got this product out there and people really like it,” Beidleman said.
Beidleman’s engineering efforts have focused on aerospace and outdoor recreation products. Black Diamond Equipment asked him to help design its AvaLung, a device that has saved people’s lives in avalanches.
His feats in the engineering, athletic and climbing worlds don’t entirely surprise his Grand Junction parents, Larry and Evelyn, because he had shown aptitude in all those areas from a young age.
Still, “We’re very proud of him,” Larry Beidleman said. “He’s just a super guy.”
Mountains in his blood
Neal Beidleman’s mountaineering roots date back to his father. Larry, 89, who’s from Maryland, fought in the Army in World War II, landing on Omaha Beach in France just weeks after D-Day. He later fought in Korea as well.
He was stationed for a time during his Army career in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where a lot of officers vacationed and he was put to work as a chief warrant officer running a ski lodge.
He loved the mountains and skiing, and after retiring from the Army ran a lodge in Crested Butte. The family moved to Aspen when Neal was 5. There, Larry ended up using skills learned in the Army to survey for lifts at Snowmass as its resort planner.
Neal Beidleman “grew up on skis,” Larry said. Beidleman also did summer mountain guiding for kids when he was as young as 18, through the Telluride Mountaineering School.
Beidleman did some “horrendous” climbs while still young, his dad remembers. Larry said his son “knew what the rules were,” which included instructions from his dad to turn around from climbs at 2 p.m., even if just 20 feet from the summit.
He remembers his son’s first climb of Pyramid Peak, a challenging 14,000-foot mountain near Aspen.
“We had a little problem with his turnaround time. He didn’t come down when he should have and I grounded him,” Larry said with a laugh.
After graduating from Aspen High School as valedictorian, Beidleman ski raced at the University of Colorado even as he earned an engineering degree. He also coached skiing there, and it was during dryland training that he discovered a love for trail running. His fondness for endurance activities has served him well in training for big-mountain climbing. He once joined a friend in biking from Boulder to Longs Peak, running to the base of the technical Diamond climbing route, summiting and making it back to Boulder in 10 1/2 hours.
Beidleman eventually competed in 100-mile trail races, twice taking second in the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah.
Beidleman worked a few years in aerospace engineering for McDonnell Douglas in California before moving back to do the same work in Boulder. In 1994 he decided it was time to go back to Aspen and start an engineering consulting company, while also doing professional mountain guiding.
His direction in life was itself guided in some respects by the death of his younger brother, Keith, 23, in an accident building a gondola.
“It hasn’t been lost on me, just kind of the fickle nature of life. It definitely affected how I approach my own life, just knowing that whatever is going to happen is going to happen and you have to live every day to the fullest,” he said.
To the Himalayas
As a young man Beidleman acquired experience on 26,000-foot peaks, with his first trip to the Himalayas involving an attempt to climb the notoriously difficult and dangerous K2. He was forced to leave before summiting due to job commitments.
One of Beidleman’s fellow K2 climbers was Scott Fischer, who later invited Beidleman to help him guide a 1995 Everest trip. As fate would have it, they didn’t get enough clients that year, and ended up on the mountain a year later, making a summit attempt during what proved to be a deadly 24-hour period.
Back then, the competition for clients was fierce and there was a lot of pressure on guiding companies to get them to the top of Everest, Beidleman said. Companies even were sued for failure to deliver services when they insisted on turning around customers they felt shouldn’t try to continue to the summit.
In the 1996 disaster, climbers got backed up at chokepoints, designated turnaround times weren’t followed, and teams were caught in a fierce storm. Beidleman’s good friend Fischer died, as did Rob Hall, the lead guide for another team. Beidleman ended up with 10 people from Fischer’s team and Hall’s, trying to find their tents in a blizzard on a 26,000-foot saddle called the South Col.
Much criticism and second-guessing of guides’ actions during the climb has occurred in ensuing years, but Beidleman has been widely praised for his efforts to save climbers. He worked to persuade the group that it was too windy and dangerous to keep looking for their shelters, and later led some to safety.
“I just yelled to everybody that we had to just sit down and kind of wait it out, and it got better,” he said.
When the storm broke, some were able to make it to the tents and back down the mountain, although not everyone in the group of 11 survived.
Beidleman said one of the subtle lessons of the disaster for him involved leadership. He was just an assistant guide and felt he had no authority over decisions until he realized Fischer wasn’t around.
“You have to kind of know when to follow and when the time calls to ascend in leadership and be vocal in what’s happening,” he said.
Beidleman said he’s never sought publicity and attention regarding his role on Everest, although it has sought him out. He believes he’s one of the few survivors of the tragedy who didn’t write a book, he said.
While over years of reflection he has come to take pride in how he acted in a bad situation, he doesn’t look at his actions as being heroic.
“It’s nice to be credited for that but in the end people still died. ... It just felt terrible that we had been in that position,” he said.
“We were all part of what happened from beginning to end. I don’t think there were any individuals that were the sole cause of what happened. We were all culpable at some level.”
Beidleman and his wife Amy have two children born after the 1996 tragedy. She had some reservations about him returning there to re-climb the peak.
“But she knew it was important to me to go back and kind of why I was going back and she knows that mountains are very important to me,” he said.
He went back to pay respects to people such as Fischer, whose body remains where he died, and to make peace with the mountain.
“I just didn’t want what happened to us in ‘96 to be the last word that Everest spoke to me. It’s such a great place and mountain and the culture there.”