The ground shook as a 7.8 magnitude earthquake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, prompting a Colorado high school student and other climbers at the Everest Base Camp to run for cover.
“We jumped behind rocks, pulled neck gaiters over our faces and sat there for about a minute, then we started to look for people. The debris cloud lasted about two minutes. It was like a wall of snow hitting you,” said Matt Moniz, who was just 17 at the time. (Listen to Moniz describe the avalanche during an interview on Colorado Public Radio.)
Matt and his climbing partners were preparing to make their summit bid when the avalanche thundered down Pumori — a peak just west of Everest. The blast of snow killed 23 people who had been on Everest and pulverized tents and equipment. Matt and his teammates were uninjured, but the earthquake and its aftermath forced a big change in plans.
Matt indefinitely postponed his dream of summiting Everest, and he and his climbing partner, Willie Benegas, instead joined the rescue and recovery efforts.
They spent a month in Nepal raising money to hire 800 local porters to carry food to remote villages that had suffered severe damage and had been cut off following the 2015 quake.
While Matt eventually climbed Everest in 2018 and has set three mountaineering world records, the aid and recovery work left an indelible impression.
“The most memorable time I’ve spent in the Khumbu Valley and in Nepal was in 2015. I learned a lot about myself and what it was like to feel productive,” Matt said.
“It was a big change from previous climbing trips. Climbing is a wonderful sport, and something I love doing. But, it’s also inherently selfish,” Matt said. “Being there in 2015 and seeing the entire base camp destroyed was a really eye-opening experience. I want to use that experience to guide my goals.”
Ambitious plans: mountaineering and serving his country
Matt just turned 24 and already has climbed several of the world’s tallest peaks. His mountaineering aspirations remain alive and audacious. He has a new passion for sailing and dreams of someday navigating remote oceans to reach otherwise inaccessible peaks, then traveling to icy shores, strapping on skis and climbing summits no other mountaineer yet has ascended. Those expeditions will take years to plan and execute.
For now, Matt has taken to the skies, earning his pilot’s license while finishing college during the pandemic and applying to fly in the Air National Guard. His goal is to serve his country while continuing to explore the world.
“My grandpa served in the Navy. I remember hearing stories of how he was stationed in Morocco and skied in the Atlas Mountains. He came from a poor immigrant family from Portugal and used his military service as a means to see the world.”
Matt graduated in 2020 from Dartmouth College with dual degrees in global health and government. He’s now living in Winter Park, Colorado, and is working for a firm that specializes in preventing biothreats like future pandemics.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced lockdowns in the spring of 2020, Matt took advantage of online school, lived in a camper van near an airport in western Colorado and took flying lessons while finishing his classes online for Dartmouth.
Piloting his ultralight, single-engine Carbon Cub plane is his current passion.
“It’s all about freedom. It’s a great way to explore,” Matt said.
Eye surgery and perfect vision enhance adventures in the mountains and in the sky
Making all of Matt’s adventures easier was an eye surgery he had in July of 2020.
Matt has needed glasses or contacts for years and was eager to get LASIK surgery. Through his climbing partner, Willie, Matt met renowned eye surgeon, Geoff Tabin, who, along with other medical volunteers, performs life-changing cataract surgeries for people in Kathmandu through the Himalayan Cataract Project. Tabin encouraged Matt to connect with Dr. Richard Davidson, a specialist in cataract, cornea and refractive surgery at the UCHealth Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center.
Matt’s LASIK procedure went very well.
“He’s seeing 20/15 now. That’s better than 20/20,” said Davidson, who also is a team doctor for the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, holds an endowed chair in eye care innovation and is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
Learn more about LASIK eye surgery
Matt loves having perfect vision. It makes all of his wilderness pursuits easier.
“I no longer have to deal with half-frozen contact lenses. That was like putting a piece of ice in your eyes and it wasn’t a sterile environment. I also do a ton of white water kayaking and I worried about my contacts every time a wave hit my face,” Matt said.
Months after his surgery, Matt did a winter camping ski trip and reflexively reached for lenses.
“Every morning, I woke up first thing dreading how I would thaw out frozen contacts. Then, I’d look outside and could see without having to put in contacts,” Matt said.
He also marveled at the stars.
“In the past, I would have to take my contacts out at night. The stars looked like haze. After surgery, I saw a beautiful shooting star,” Matt said.
Now Matt depends on perfect sight as he flies his plane, banking over mountains and canyons. The scenery is spectacular.
“It’s like seeing in high definition,” Matt said. “It’s been wonderful.”
Plus, perfect vision makes him feel safer.
“One of the biggest dangers with flying is mid-air collisions. Another plane looks like a tiny speck until it’s right on you.”
Excellent vision without corrective lenses is especially helpful since Matt is certified to fly only via visual flight rules, not with instruments.
Everest beckoned when he was only 9 years old
Matt always has loved the outdoors and thrives in uncomfortable, high-altitude environments, whether he’s at the top of a remote peak, or more recently, flying over them.
Matt and his twin sister, Kaylee, grew up with their mom and dad, Dee and Mike Moniz, in a canyon outside of Boulder and spent plenty of time on weekends at a cabin near Winter Park. The twins were on skis by age 2.
When Matt was 9, one of his dad’s friends offered the family the chance to hike to the Everest Base Camp. Matt leaped at the opportunity and adapted well to hiking in Nepal, easily reaching the bustling Everest camp at 17,500-feet that draws climbers from around the world.
Matt instantly felt the 29,032-foot-peak calling to him.
“I remember looking up and seeing the summit pyramid and thinking, ‘Someday, I would love to stand on top of that.’”
During the trip, Matt bonded easily with Nepali kids, kicking a soccer ball with them. He fell in love with the region and the people.
“These were the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen. I made long-lasting friendships. I’m still in contact with some of the people I met when I was 9.”
Inspired by Matt’s love for the Himalayas, the family began climbing the world’s tallest peaks. Matt and his dad notched their first of the “Seven Summits,” the highest peaks on each continent, when they climbed Mount Elbrus — Europe’s tallest peak — in 2008.
Then in June of that year, the whole family did an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro where Kaylee became the youngest female at that time to have climbed Africa’s tallest peak. In December of 2008, Matt clinched a record of his own as the youngest person ever to summit Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Americas.
By 2009, Moniz was on a new mission. He set a goal to climb 14 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in 14 days to support a lifetime buddy who suffers from pulmonary arterial hypertension, an illness that makes it tough to breathe, similar to the kind of breathing challenges that some people experience at high altitude. Matt accomplished the feat in just eight days.
Then, in 2010, Matt and his dad set out to break a speed climbing record. They summited the highest point in each state in the U.S., accomplishing their 50-state whirlwind adventure in 43 days, three hours, 51 minutes and 9 seconds. Matt set two records: one with his dad for posting the fastest time, and second, as the youngest climber ever to have climbed to each of the 50 states’ highest points.
For their accomplishment, National Geographic named Matt and his dad Adventurers of the Year. Chronicling the “kid climber’s” journey, National Geographic noted that Matt not only spent time hunting for high points in each state, but also scoped out the best hot chocolate and root beer.
Why mountaineering? Challenge, beauty, exploration
Some people don’t understand the appeal of climbing dangerous mountains where most people can’t breathe.
Matt, however, loves mountaineering and seems especially well-suited to clinging to ice and rock miles above sea-level.
“I enjoy being there, being half-frozen. It’s negative 40 in the middle of the night. Your hands are frozen and you have to go to the bathroom,” Matt said. “Obviously, you’re in pain and it’s uncomfortable, but I love it.”
Matt also seems to have been blessed with the perfect physiology for his passion. Before South American authorities allowed Matt to climb Aconcagua when he was just 10, Matt had to see multiple doctors. At the trailhead, officials checked Matt’s vitals and his resting heart rate and oxygen saturation levels both were outstanding, some of the best that medical authorities there had ever seen.
Matt is humble about his abilities and grateful to local partners, like Phura Sherpa, the Nepali climber who accompanied Matt and Willie on their Everest expeditions.
“Some people do well at altitude. There have been a lot of recent studies on how humans adjust to high altitude, and a lot of it is coded in your genetics,” Matt said. “Peruvians, for example, have genetic anomalies that allow them to have higher hematocrits in their blood. And the Tibetans have larger lungs in relation to their body sizes. You can take a super-fit ultrarunner to 8,000 meters and they’ll get edema (altitude sickness). Meanwhile a person who works out once a month might do fine. It’s a big mystery.”
Matt and Willie both seem to acclimatize fast and well at high elevation, which allows them to accomplish unusual feats.
“We know our bodies well,” Matt said.
The relative ease of high-altitude exploration, the beauty, the sense of accomplishment and the unexpected experiences all keep Matt coming back.
He has fun, silly memories of the summer he spent climbing the 50 tallest points in each state.
“In 2010, when we were climbing Mount Rainier (the tallest point in Washington state) we got about 400 feet from the summit and had to turn back. We got back down to Camp Muir, had a great snowball fight and built a snow cave.”
Matt also met his future climbing partner there. Willie was working as a guide on Rainier at the time. When the snowstorm hit, he stopped by the Moniz’ camp to check on Matt and his dad. Since the two were trying to set a speed record and were traveling with ultralight packs, they hadn’t brought extra food and fuel.
“Willie checked to be sure we had everything we needed. We hung out and stayed in touch, then became close friends,” Matt said.
Willie and Matt discovered that they are both twins (and later participated together in an Everest Twins Study, modeled after the NASA Twins Study that included now-retired astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly).
Willie is twice Matt’s age, but Matt is mature for his years and the two get along well in challenging settings.
A pandemic plus: becoming a pilot while finishing college
As the pandemic forced lockdowns and prevented global travel, Matt took advantage of the pause in his mountaineering career.
He was on campus and said goodbye to friends before spring break in March of 2020 and never got a chance to spend time with them at Dartmouth again.
“It was terrible and a blessing at the same time. On the one hand, not spending the last part of my senior year with friends was tough,” Matt said.
On the other hand, the pandemic created a new opportunity for Matt.
“For a long time, I wanted to get my pilot’s license,” he said.
Years earlier, while doing climbing trips in Alaska, he had flown in small bush planes.
“I saw how you could use planes as an amazing tool to explore areas and access the backcountry. I thought it would be an interesting idea to do some flying,” Matt said.
He wanted to learn outside the congested skies around Denver and instead found experienced instructor, Ladd Klinglesmith, at the Mack Mesa Airport near Grand Junction close to the Colorado-Utah border.
“The area around Mack Mesa is beautiful with desert cliffs. You can fly over the Colorado River,” Matt said. “I headed to Mack and lived at the airport for a month-and-a-half in a van.”
He learned to fly in a beautiful area with excellent weather and an exacting teacher.
“Ladd is a former acrobatics pilot and flew corporate jets for a while. He has drilled into me that you have to feel perfect about the weather. When you fly, you’re not only putting yourself in danger. You’re putting anyone on the ground in danger. So, you want to approach it in a safe way, especially flying in the mountains and in backcountry areas,” Matt said.
Matt also did additional flight training in Arizona and at TacAero facilities in Oregon and in Texas.
Matt’s mountaineering adventures can be nerve-racking for his family. But his dad worries more about potential mishaps in water and in the air than when Matt is scaling a tall peak.
Mike encouraged Matt to spend additional time flying in Texas to learn survival skills and what pilots call “spin training.” The weather was so good there that Matt spent nearly every hour of every day in the air.
“You get flyable conditions from sunrise to sundown,” Matt said.
By the fall of last year, he had earned his pilot’s license and could apply to serve in the Air National Guard — an ambition made possible by his newly perfect vision.
LASIK success stories
Davidson, Matt’s eye surgeon, also loves peak climbing, so he and Matt bonded quickly over discussions of mountains and medicine.
“We really hit it off. He walked me through different aspects of eye surgery and why I should consider it. He gave me the whole picture,” Matt said.
Davidson carefully reviews all of the options with each patient well in advance of any procedures. That’s different from some eye centers where the patients don’t meet their doctor until the day of the surgery.
“We spend a lot of time doing pre-operative assessments and we always consider other options aside from surgery,” Davidson said.
In addition, all of the experts at the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center are corneal specialists, which improves the outcomes.
“More than 95% of our LASIK patients have 20/20 vision without any kind of enhancements,” Davidson said.
Getting eye surgery at an academic medical center, where doctors also do research, means that patients benefit from new discoveries and new techniques.
“The treatments have become better and better,” Davidson said. “The newest lasers are faster and more precise.”
In the earliest days of laser eye surgeries, Davidson said some people loved their new vision, but afterwards, were sensitive to light or saw halos. That’s much less common today.
“The technology has improved dramatically over the last 10 to 12 years,” Davidson said.
Since Matt spends so much time in extreme environments with bright light — and also wanted perfect vision for flying — he had to be certain that he wouldn’t experience any light sensitivity.
He has been thrilled with his results.
“It’s been wonderful. I have no halos and no decreased night vision,” Matt said.
Prior to his surgery, Matt had what Davidson classified as moderate nearsightedness, which works well for LASIK.
“It’s a great correction to do because the patient sees a huge difference,” Davidson said.
Both he and Matt said the procedure was quick and seamless. It only takes about 15 minutes to do both eyes.
LASIK is an excellent option for people who have otherwise healthy eyes and are dealing with mild to moderate nearsightedness.
“If you have a cataract, glaucoma or retinal detachment, you’re not a candidate for LASIK. And people who are farsighted also are not good candidates. You have to meet the vision criteria,” Davidson said.
Matt sees Davidson for annual checkups, but otherwise should be set for decades.
“LASIK lasts quite a few years. Most patients get 10 or 20 years of excellent vision,” Davidson said.
A grand vision: Eager to see what Matt accomplishes next
Inspired by Matt, Davidson and his family are planning to climb Kilimanjaro this summer.
“I’m in awe of his accomplishments and the mountains he has climbed at such a young age,” Davidson said.
“I love hiking Colorado 14-ers. I love the challenge, the training required to get into shape, the sense of accomplishment and being in the wilderness with friends and family,” Davidson said.
Davidson loves being part of Matt’s fan club and can’t wait to see what he accomplishes in the future.
“I’m really proud of him and proud that I could contribute to his wellbeing,” Davidson said.