The second-oldest North American to make it to the summit of majestic Mount Everest kept visualizing himself on the top of the world — and soon it was reality.
It's not that Werner Berger, 69, did not have doubts when he started the ascent to the world's famous 29,035-foot peak on May 22. He was particularly worried about the first leg of the climb through the western approach's treacherous “ice fall,” which has claimed at least 19 lives.
“A big part of overcoming [freak out] is the team,” Berger, a motivational speaker from Canada, said during an exclusive live interview Monday on TODAY. The “freak out” point is the psychological plateau where people either give up or suck it up and press on.
“You don't want to let them down. I don't want to turn back and say, ‘Eight of us summitted instead of nine. Especially being the oldest, how can I be the one to give out?’ ”
Berger did not let his team down. By reaching the summit, he also became the oldest North American to climb the “seven summits,” the highest peaks on each of the world's seven continents.
“Werner, there's golf, there's Bridge, there's Canasta. There are a lot of things,” TODAY host Matt Lauer said. “Why are you still climbing mountains at nearly 70?”
“It's such an exhilarating experience. Everest was just an exhausting experience, but at the same time the beauty of the mountain, the challenges of the mountain, just captivates,” Berger said. “Everything is accentuated. The beauty of a sunrise, getting out of a tent in the middle of the night and seeing this black ceiling, and these laser-pointed stars and maybe a sliver of the moon, as we did on summit day. It really cannot be described.”
‘He’s so determined’
Besides the desire to live, Berger had another motivation for making it up — and down — Mount Everest. Before he left, he asked girlfriend Heshie Segal to marry him. No date has been set.
“The only time I was concerned was the ice fall. That was treacherous,” said Segal, who clutched Berger's leg during Monday's interview. “I knew he'd come back. He's so determined, and so passionate about whatever he does. When he says he's going to do something and it's his dream ... he's going to do it.”
On the same day Berger made it to the summit, Katsusuke Yanagisawa, a retired schoolteacher from Japan, set a record of his own.
At age 71, he became the oldest person ever to perform the feat.
“Can you go in two years and break that record?” Lauer asked.
Berger smiled and shook his head, as his new fiancée waited anxiously for his answer.
“My concern is that the age is going to keep being pushed,” said Berger, who appeared to be in good shape for any age. “I'm not aging fast enough to catch up to it.”