With a wide grin and a warm chuckle, Sean Egan welcomed me into his modest office at the University of Ottawa. His mumbling Irish-accented voice instantly put me at ease.
From that first meeting in early February to our last phone conversation a week ago from the Everest Base Camp, I developed a more intimate relationship with an interview subject than journalists normally do.
Over the next three months, I would write seven stories about his historic attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest. I repeatedly referred to him as “Mr. Egan.”
To me, though, he was always Sean. I looked forward to his daily diary updates from the mountain and even more so to our weekly telephone chats. I was always eager to hear about his latest adventure from the treacherous terrain.
I only knew him for 2 1/2 months, but during this brief time I learned to respect him and his way of life.
Even while battling fatigue and illness in bone-chilling conditions a half a world away, he’d always begin each of our conversations by asking me how I was doing. He became as interested in my life as I was in his, and I came to admire him not only for his drive and dedication but also for his morals and modesty.
He was living out his dream. A fitness nut, as he described himself, Sean taught his students the principles of practising a healthy lifestyle.
He practised what he preached. Climbing Mount Everest was an extension of everything in which he believed. He called it a part of his “mission” of promoting health and fitness.
“The best teaching approach is to be a model,” he once said.
He also knew the dangers involved in the climb. He knew the risks.
Only a week ago I had asked him for his comments on the broken leg that Ben Webster, a fellow Ottawa mountaineer, suffered on Everest.
“It can happen to anyone. It can happen to me as well.” He paused. “It could have been worse.
“One little step in the wrong direction and you’re kaput.”
That was what I secretly feared. Plummeting through a crevasse on the Khumbu Icefall? Maybe.
A wicked gust of wind near the summit? Perhaps.
But a heart attack? A physical breakdown? Not Sean Egan.
This was a man who took pride in his health and conditioning, who called the body “the temple of our soul.” He had prepared for this task for more than three years. He had a breathing rate of two breaths a minute, a resting heart rate of 38 beats a minute and a blood pressure of 95/50.
Thirty-five years my senior, he could have easily bested me at any physical challenge. Everything about him exuded confidence in his body, and in himself — from his chiselled frame to his flawless posture to his firm handshake.
Yet, I knew he was struggling in his climb. He told me about the acid reflux, about the loss of appetite, about the breathing difficulties. Still, I always believed he would find a way to reach the top. I came to have as much faith in his resilience as he did.
That’s what makes his sudden death all the more painful.
I can only take comfort in the fact that he died doing what he loved.
“Climbing is kind of like life, you have to take it one step at a time,” he repeatedly told me. “If I keep myself focused on my baby steps, I can make it.”
Sean Egan never made it to the highest point on Earth. But to those who knew him, he couldn’t have reached any higher.