Dianne Feinstein could see the highest point on Earth from the Everest View Hotel balcony above Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region of Nepal. But not even the wildest imagination could envision that this experience would transform her life later the same month.
I encountered “DiFi” on that hotel balcony, two weeks into a 1978 fall trek to the base of Cho Oyu and Mt. Everest, on leave from my newspaper job and strengthened by what our Sherpa guides described as “much up go, much down go.” We camped below the Japanese-owned hotel, where wealthy guests were challenged to adjust to 12,000-foot elevation and a cold fog which rose from the Indian Plain just before noon to blot out all views.
A trio of grungy trekkers headed up the hill for a beer. We encountered a tall, regal American woman, criticizing the hotel service and lamenting the fog just about to blot out the 29,028-foot summit of Everest. We marveled at how Sherpa kids from Namche stood the daily grind of about 2,000 feet hiking up to school in Khumjung.
Two in our party, from the Bay Area, came up a bit later, joined us and did a double take: “It’s Dianne Feinstein!” Indeed, it was. They enjoyed a record-high handshake with a down-to-earth American politician. Or soon-to-be ex-politician: a nine-year member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Feinstein had just lost her second bid to become Mayor.
What brought her to the “Roof of the World?” Love. The widowed Feinstein, then 45, was being courted by financier Richard Blum. He was a climber who would help found the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF), boosting education and health care for sons and daughters of Sherpa guides who carried loads and set routes through such danger zones as the Khumbu Icefall. Such good works had been pioneered by Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay was first atop Everest (or Sagarmatha, its name in the Khumbu).
We were acclimated. So was Feinstein. We chuckled over hotel guests, some arriving by chopper, who sucked oxygen at $30 a liter. Where were we from? I said Seattle, and “DiFi” mentioned having a sister who lived on the Eastside. She was a cradle San Franciscan, born there, a Jewish girl educated at a Catholic girls’ school.
We parted ways in the fog. Our group headed for Gokyo Ri, an 18,000-foot Himalayan “hill” atop which you can view four of the world’s seven highest peaks, with a head-on view of the west ridge of Everest and the route by which Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein traversed the mountain. We also visited a lamasery in the valley with paintings of the Buddha serene while witnessing all sorts of intimate acts.
Feinstein headed home to Babylon-by-the-Bay, recovering from the dysentery we nicknamed “King Birenda’s Revenge.” On her feet again, she called a news conference and told reporters she would not seek another term on the Board of Supervisors. She went back to work, and a couple hours later heard gunshots.
By this hour, I was dragging a duffel bag through San Francisco International Airport, and saw people huddled around TV monitors. I joined one group, and there was Feinstein on the screen, announcing to horrified onlookers that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot to death. She had put finger in bullet hole to see if there was any pulse from Milk, America’s first high profile LGBTQ officeholder. The assailant was former Supervisor Dan White, rebuffed in his attempt to rejoin the board.
Feinstein handling of the tragedy showed both compassion and competence. The city needed healing. She was picked as Mayor by the full Board of Supervisors. The remaining 45 years of her life are the stuff of history, or “herstory.” DiFi served as Mayor from 1978 to 1988. She was a finalist when Walter Mondale selected his 1984 vice presidential running mate. She lost a bid for Governor in 1990 but was elected to the Senate in 1992.
DiFi would serve longer than any woman in Senate history – she was sworn in a few weeks ahead of our Patty Murray – and witnessed ranks of the Senate’s “Gentle Ladies” rise from three to 24. A women’s bathroom was installed off the Senate floor in 2011. Two women – Murray and Sen. Barbara Mikulski – have chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Murray is now president pro tempore of the Senate.
As a first-termer, Feinstein took up gun safety and passed a ten-year prohibition on assault rifles. She wrote the California Desert Protection Act, protecting public land and elevating the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments to national park status. She would later chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, delivering a report on torture of those suspected of 9/11 and post-9/11 terrorist involvement. The Bush and Obama administrations pushed back, but Feinstein laid out unpleasant untruths.
The Himalayan encounter would come up again. DiFiccame north to visit her sister and I twice used the Everest View memory to score interviews. Feinstein was blunt and wasted neither words nor time. Husband Richard Blum didn’t like talking to the media, but he did like to talk about good deeds of the American Himalayan Foundation.
Out of that contact came another. A friend, bearing a spare ticket, invited me down to San Francisco for an AHF dinner honoring the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. On the morning after, we met up for breakfast at the hotel dining room. There, breaking bread, were Richard Blum along with Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary. We were motioned to the table for a brief talk. Hillary was a great old boy, with sense of humor and very bushy eyebrows. I was on top of the world.
The Bay Area has given us, for better or worse, a long line of prominent Democrats: Vice President Kamala Harris, California Gov. Gavin Newsome, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rep. Phil Burton, The Browns father and son, and Mayor Willie Brown. Admittedly prejudiced, I would rate Feinstein as the greatest.