Your Wikipedia page describes you as a noted mountain climber, who, by the way, is also a scientist. Tell us about your trailblazing climbs.
Well, we had the opportunity to do some things that hadn't been done before, so, as in science, you grab them. That was at a time, in the late ’60s to early ’80s, when things were much more remote, so these could be long trips; on our successful Everest trip, I was gone for two and a half months.
For Everest, Richard Blum—California Senator Dianne Feinstein's husband—had gotten a permit and asked me to be involved. I did a little reading and realized that nobody had even visited the east face of the mountain since 1921, and it had never been climbed. There are some wonderful words of George Mallory's in a 1921 book describing the route. The gist of it was, “Others more foolish might try this, but it was not for us.” When I realized that, I thought, “We'll obviously have to try it.”
If it's there, you have to climb it?
It was clear we were going to be the first group the Chinese let in to do this sort of thing, so we should try something that was new and different. But we did not have very good pictures of the mountain, and when we arrived, half the team just wanted to go around to the north side.
But we had Edmund Hillary in the tents telling us, “Well, of course you could do the north side, but it would have no significance.” We actually got up what I'd call the difficult part but didn't go on because we had terrible weather. People were clearly very scared. When we went back two years later in 1983, it was an El Niño year. In Tibet, that means a drought, so we did not have any of the problems with storms, and it went remarkably smoothly. Nobody's gone back to repeat that route since.
How about the K2 trip?
Reichardt at the summit of K2.
I think at the time we went, there had been six previous unsuccessful American expeditions to K2, and there was a history of sagas and tragedies. The Italians came in 1954 and knocked the thing off, which annoyed everybody, with a huge expedition of about 100 people. So, when we went in ’78, we felt like we really needed to do it.
That involved a lot of politics. Jim Whittaker had been turned down by the Pakistanis, but he knew Senator Ted Kennedy quite well, who intervened with the Prime Minister, Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's father. By the time we arrived, Bhutto was in jail, and the Pakistanis didn't really want us.
They said we could only come in the summer, which is the worst time. So we were there a long time, 68 days at or above our base camp. We got very lucky at the end, had a few days of good weather and were able to climb it. But my buddy stayed on the summit longer than I did and ended up extremely sick. In the end, he had to get carried out.
There's actually a play inspired by this expedition, which describes two guys on a ledge, one of whom is a scientist and the other a lawyer. Depending on the end of the play, they either both die on the ledge, or one guy walks off. [Laughs] Actually, it's a very good play; it won a Tony Award.
Do you see a link between climbing and science?
Yes, a lot of my friends who are serious climbers are scientists, particularly engineers or physicists, more than biologists. I think it's because each involves solving problems. Climbing a route is in some ways like designing an experiment. And there's a lot of focused energy and intelligence in making decisions in climbing.