John Quinn Takes On Mount Everest

John Quinn, known for representing Samsung in patent wars with Apple over its Android smartphone, says there are two types of people in this world: beach people and mountain people.

“I’m a mountain person,” said Quinn, fresh off a 24,000-foot hike of Mount Everest’s North Col.

Quinn, 65, spent three weeks making the trek, on the border of Tibet and Nepal — or as he described it, “the most time I’ve ever taken off [from work] in my whole life.”

During this time, from April 21 to May 13, he established a correspondence with friends and family, which Quinn agreed to share with Big Law Business.

In it, he makes observations about society and every day life in Tibet and its surrounding regions and the challenges of climbing Everest.

“The nights were very long,” wrote Quinn, in one dispatch, dated May 8. “It was so cold and you always felt you were on the verge of suffocating and had anxiety about whether you could keep your breathing under control.”


John Quinn, at Everest’s advanced base camp. Courtesy photo.

In other emails, Quinn spoke of Tibet and its culture, explaining how polyandry is practiced in both Tibet and Nepal and how a special 40 mile-per-hour speed limit was enforced between the city of Lhasa and Shigatse — slowing his group’s drive to Everest base camp — because of a fatal bus crash several years ago.

“They enforce it by electronic and visual sensors en route, plus we had to stop 2-3 times at check points,” wrote Quinn. “If you are covering distances or getting to check points faster than you should you are in trouble. They don’t use radar or real cops.”

Quinn, of course, is name partner and founder of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which posted $1.2 billion in revenue and $5 million profits per partner in this year’s American Lawyer ranking, covering the financial year of 2016.

His firm is known for its unconventional law firm culture. The firm’s lawyers like to throw cocktail parties on law school campuses rather than simply partaking in the traditional on campus interview process. Its dress code is decidedly casual, as it even created, years ago, custom made flip-flops for employees. And Quinn has brought his mountaineering persona to bear on the firm’s 700 lawyers, hosting an annual hike that’s open to any of the firm’s lawyers.

“Last year we went to Iceland and we had about 170 lawyers who went there,” said Quinn, in an interview. “It’s someplace different every year.”

“To me,” he said, “there are few things better than being able to be outdoors and in a good place to participate in strenuous exercise. You can draw analogies to litigation, but we aren’t trying to replicate the litigation experience. It’s just an outside experience.”

For this excursion, Quinn hiked Everest with Peter Calamari, managing partner of Quinn Emanuel’s New York office and chair of its national banking and financial institutions practice, Tigran Guledjian, a Los Angeles IP litigation partner, and his nephew, Steve Wood, a lawyer in Salt Lake City.

For preparation, he ran stairs in the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California and rode his bike, he said.

While he didn’t reach Everest’s 29,000-foot Summit, Quinn said that was never the goal.

“Without spending a lot of time acclimatizing to the climate and to the altitude, you really couldn’t go much further than that,” he said of his 24,000-foot hike. “Most people who climb Everest take 40 to 60 days. They go up, recover and come back down, and it’s a real process to get used to the altitude, and I didn’t have that much time.”

Below, Big Law Business has published the sections of Quinn’s dispatches we found most insightful — both about Quinn, and of the Everest and Tibetan experience. We left uncorrected typos and Quinn’s writing style — often with lower caps. All photos were provided as courtesy.


April 25: Greetings from Lhasa

I have been here 3 days, mostly to acclimate to the altitude, but also to see the cultural and historical things to see here. I am sure i won’t see much else of cultural interest from here on, as we head higher and higher into the mountains.

The chinese “liberated” tibet and “brought it back to mother china” in 1950.   They have essentially destroyed Tibetan culture, at least in Lhasa.  I asked our Tibetan guide isn’t it true that the chinese brought electricity, highways schools etc etc.  His response was “the chinese brought nothing”.  Most of the old town of Lhasa has been destroyed–much of it in the cultural revolution when temples, monesteries and other monuments were torn down.  I have sent you pictures of the huge Portola palace, up on a hill over looking the city.  At the foot of it used to be a village which the chinese cleaned out and replaced with a big modern square, the centerpiece of which is a 30 meter tall monument to “the liberation of tibet”.  The city itself has grown in every direction with modern streets and buildings built by the chinese.  China has encouraged development and chinese immigration here and there are at least as many chinese as Tibetans in Lhasa now.  90+% of the tourists are chinese.  There is a very large chinese military and security presence.  What is left of old tibet is very small and fragile and inundated with chinese tourists.




April 26: Deeper into Tibet

Yesterday we drove in a minibus from Lhasa to shigatse, which is either the second or third largest city in tibet. The distance is 165 miles but it took us over 5 hours. That is because tourist vehicles are subject to a 40 mile per hour speed limit. A tourist bus crashed several years ago killing 40 people so the chinese created a special speed limit. They enforce it by electronic and visual sensors en route, plus we had to stop 2-3 times at check points. If you are covering distances or getting to check points faster than you should you are in trouble. They don’t use radar or real cops (only the dummy ones i sent you a picture of). Interesting, different approach.

The route was through a river valley which narrowed at some points to a canyon. This river ultimately joins the Ganges and empties into the Bay of Bengal. The road was also clogged with caravans of chinese military.

In shigatse we stayed at a Tibetan 3 star hotel which is not the same as a western 3 star. I paid an extra $70 and got the presidential suite. Presidential it wasn’t.

The sanitation is medieval too so it stank in many places. I can imagine what it was like when there were 2000 monks living there rather than the 300 there are now.

As in Lhasa there are packs of chinese tourist everywhere, dressed to the nines. A group of about 20 included several who were wearing New York yankee baseball caps. I decided to ask them if they had any idea what the insignia was on their caps? At first they thought i was telling them that they were doing something irreverent or disrespectful and did i want them to take them off immediately?? They got their group leader who spoke english and we got it straightened out. Then they all giggled and wanted to have a group photo with us. (Btw, i have never been in a country where so many people come up to you and ask to have your photo taken with them).


April 29: Shagar to Everest Base Camp

Our camp is on a huge plain–a glacial moraine–at the foot of everest. Everest is really spectacular–not just because it is so high and massive but because it stands on its own, with no competing peak close to us.

On this plain there are 6 or 7 other camps organized by other trip outfitters spread out over the plain. Ours outfitter has the felicitous name of climbaya. We are one of the smaller groups. There is a russian group that has a couple of dozen tents and a huge geodesic dome they call the pleasure and relaxation tent. They have a pool table and other entertainment. Steve had tried to get us in with the russian group but couldn’t.

Our camp isn’t bad. We have a kitchen tent with two cooks. We have a heated dining room tent with a table that seats ten people. The food is no worse than the food i have had elsewhere on this trip. We each have our own tents, which are reasonably comfortable, with a good mattress and a genuine, good sized pillow. (Tho i only have one and am used to 3 or 4).

In the day its glorious, sunny, with the biggest mountain in the world looming over. Late in the afternoon the window blows up and and there are huge streams of snow blowing off the peak of everest.

The nights are bitter cold, dark, lonely, freezing. I woke up at 5 am and stumbled over to the dining room tent expecting the help to have the heat turned on, lights, etc. But no, no one else was up. I sat there in my puffy tops and bottoms and read on my kindle for 1.5 hours before anyone else showed up. The cold temporarily knocked out all devices so i couldn’t even read emails. Tonight i am putting my phone and ipad in the sleeping bag with me.

Today we went on a acclimitization hike–450 meters elevation gain over 4.5 hours. We made it to about 18.5 k feet–higher than Pallapattar in Nepal and a new personal record for me. I got stronger as the hike went on.


Hiking Everest, with a yak to help with luggage.


April 30: Last Day in Everest Base Camp

Today i woke up at 5 30 am and went to the dining tent and turned on the light and fired up the heater (which i had had them show me how to do).  Actually i was awakened by a phone call from a lawyer in nyc at 3 am but was able to get back to sleep.  I read until 7 am and still no one else showed up.  I was feeling tired so i went back to sleep until 7 45. I returned again to the dining tent and still no one else was there.    Finally steve wood appeared at about 8 15 so i had some company.  But none of the help showed up with hot water until 9 30.  There is something to be said for “chinese time”.

Last night we actually had a fantastic indian spicy chicken flambé.   Don’t know how these Tibetan cooks did it but it was delicious.

Today we didn’t do anything strenuous.   We practiced using crampons, ice axes, ascenders and rappelling on some ice flows near the camp.   We will do more practicing at the camps up the mountain.  At least that will give us something to do.

Equipment and clothing management is a huge issue.  There is so much to keep track of.  And every effort–like putting on your boots, or going back to the tent to fish out something you forgot–causes you to lose your breath.   We’ll be packing up tonight and dividing our things into 3 categories:  what to leave at the bottom, what to take with us, and what to have the yaks carry.   This is going to be a big headache.

Some factoids:

Polyandry (one wife having multiple husbands) is practiced today in tibet and Nepal.   It is dying out in tibet, but even young people practice it in Nepal.   Both husbands are never home at the same time.  One will be at home and the other out doing nomad type stuff.  The supposed reason for this is that it keeps the property in the family–??

Only 1-2 percent of climbers who reach the summit of everest do so without supplemental oxygen.   We will have oxygen, tho we are going nowhere near the summit.


May 6: Everest Tibetan Advanced Base Camp, 21+ Feet

We are camped right at the base of the north face of everest.   We can see our two objectives:  lahkpra ri and the north col.  This is where george Malloy camped when he made his attempts on everest.  He tried from the tibet side because the Nepal side was closed to climbers back in the 20s and 30s.  He and his companion were last seen thru a telescope making good progress up a ridge and then a cloud enveloped then and they were never seen again. (Until Mallory’s body was found a few years ago).

You can see steps on this side leading up to the summit pyramid.  By steps i mean a vertical wall that must be climbed.  In fact there are 3 sets of such steps on the tibet side.   But these are not the famous Hillary steps.  Those are on the nepal side.  Interestingly, the routes from nepal and tibet only join precisely at the summit.

Many guides, including our guide tulsi,  won’ t climb from the nepal side any more.   The Krumbu ice fall right at the beginnning is just too dangers.  The tibet side is said to be longer, and easier (if there is such a thing).   It has more camps.  Nepal is steeper and shorter.  But its harder to get to everest from the tibet side as our last week + of traveling has shown.

Today and tomorrow are rest days and we are to decide what, if anything, we want to do further.  It would be fun to set foot on north col of everest but its pretty miserable and boring in camp.

Another significant thing that happened yesterday is that i changed my clothes.   You might think that is disgusting–with the implication that i had not done that before.   But just the effort the change clothes leaves one panting.

There are Himalayan partridges we saw on the way up.  Very fat , colorful birds.  God knows what they survive on.  Am sure you could make a good meal of one but they are protected.

Intermediate base camp was disgusting.   They call in yak shit camp.   The yaks bed right now in the middle of the camp.   And there is shit everywhere.   They boil the water but its still flavored.  We persuaded them to chop some ice from a glacier and that was much better.


Advanced Everest base camp.


May 8: Assault on the North Col of Everest

Advanced base camp itself is another tent city, this one mostly situated on snow and ice.   Most of the people in the camp are there just to be there, at the foot of everest, with no intention of going higher.  Some want to try to climb the north col.  And a few are there to try to summit.   There were ten “teams” of climbers who were trying to summit.   Nine of these were led by Nepali guide services.  One was chinese.  Under the chinese regulations, chinese climbers are not permitted to climb with a group other than the one chinese one, so spots on that team are very competitive.   The chinese are much less concerned about promoting tourism and alpinism in tibet than they are with security.

The other climbers with our climbalya outfitter included several  who were attempting to summit.   We would encounter these climbers at each of the camps as the went up and down the mountain acclimitizing to the altitude.   They would climb up to advanced base camp and then alll they way back down–sometimes all the way to Lhasa.  Then they would climb up again to the north col, say, and then climb back down.   The idea is to gradually accostom the body to the altitude, by sleeping higher and higher and in between retreating to a lower altitude to recover.   They were devoting 60 days to this project.  All climbers seeking to summit were shooting for a one week period toward the end of may when history predicted the weather would be best.   With nothing else to do in camp, we would all hang out in the dining tent (advanced bc was much more primitive than the ones below) and talk.  So we got to know some of these climbers.


May 12: The Final Dispatch

One eventful particular is i woke u one morning with bites all over my stomach, chest and back, i assume from bed bugs.   Don’t  think that has happened to me before.   They still bother me almost a week later

The second particular is that we did succeed in amending our itinerary to include a visit to the remote monastery of Sakya and its library which i wrote about before.   This proved to be one of the highlights of the trip.   As i mentioned, this remote sect formed a priest-patron relationship with the mongols in the thirteenth century.  Some of the monastery buildings were destroyed in the cultural revolution.   But the main building and its streets and ancillary buildings are entirely preserved and still in active use by a few hundred monks.

The library itself is astonishing.   There are thousands of hand copied manuscripts on shelves in a long narrow room behind a row of large buddhas in the main hall of worship.  Apparently these were saved in the cultural revolution because the room was used for storing bags of barley.  The shelving is at least 60 meters long and 10 meters high.  You wonder how many monk years over how many centuries this work represents.   The monk who guided us said that no one reads these manuscripts now.   Someone has made an effort to catalogue them because there were numbered stickers on each manuscript.  One manuscript was giant–each page 1.5 meters lengthwise, requiring 3 people to open the book and turn the pages.  Our guide said that this book had to deal with ways of communicating.

We also saw (and heard) the conch that was supposedly a gift of kublai khan.   The sound has healing properties.

The monastery was kind of a dark labyrinth which we explored.  Occasionally in remote rooms we would come across monks praying, chanting or beating drums while an assistant poured donated absolutions over sacred figures.   Walking through the complex seemed to take one back centuries in time.

The last leaders of this sect fled at the time of the cultural revolution to India and the us.    (I asked our guide what the chinese people think of the cultural revolution now.   He said people think “it was a mistake by one person”).  The lama who went to the us recently died in seattle;  he has two sons who have visited satya.  There are still followers of the satya sect around the world.

I would never describe this trip as a fun one.  Tibet is so different than nepal;  it doesnt have the climbing support infrastructure.  It is so much more isolated.   The weather is brutal;  nothing is easy.  It is harder to get around in.  Coming back was like returning from outer space.  But it left a real impact on all of us.   We felt like we learned to deal with a very hostile environment, and got accustomed to living in tents for 10 days.  I am not sure i would ever go back, but i am glad i went.

Bangkok was the perfect city to visit after the trip to the Tibetan moonscape.   There can’t be a city more sensuous than Bangkok, with its tastes and smells, its rivers and golden  temples.  And the mandarin oriental–one of the great hotels in the world.    I wish i could have stayed there longer.

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Quinn, at lower Everest base camp.


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