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EverestHistory.com: Stuart Smith

Because It Was There

Smith unfurls his banner on top of the world.

by M. Kathleen Pratt

Stuart Smith likes a challenge. And not just any will do. He traveled halfway around the world and then trekked deep into the Himalayas to find a challenge that few before him have braved: Chomolungma, the 29,035-foot peak known to Westerners as Mt. Everest.

When a reporter from the New York Times asked Everest pioneer George Mallory why he wanted to scale the imposing peak, Mallory's answer was simple: "Because it is there." More than 75 years later, climbers like Smith grapple for their own answers to the same question.

Smith, a member of the Rotary Club of Waco, Texas, USA, has been setting lofty goals since he was a teenager. He got his start climbing mountains in Colorado, and since then he's only aimed higher. By the time he began training to climb Everest in 2001, Smith already had ascended some of the world's tallest mountains, including Cho Oyu, a 26,096-footer with spectacular views of Everest. From atop Cho Oyu in 2000, Smith first considered tackling the world's highest summit.

It took almost a year, however, for his musings to turn to plans. After summiting Gasherbrum II, a demanding 26,340-foot peak in Pakistan in 2001, he determined that Everest would be next. For Smith, it seemed a natural extension of his consuming hobby – the next step in a march to the top of the world.

To prepare for the climb, the 43-year-old attorney spent Saturdays in the stairwell of his 10-story office building with a 40-pound pack strapped to his back. Every weekend, he would ascend the staircase 20 times, or the equivalent of 2,400 vertical feet. A marathon runner with four ultramarathon (100-mile races) finishes to his credit, he also ran about 40 miles a week. Like most climbers, Smith planned to use supplemental oxygen near the top of Everest. Still, he knew he'd have to be in superior physical condition to endure the grueling final push to the summit.

"The Himalayas are just so enormous compared to the mountains we see in the United States," Smith says. "You first see Everest when you're about 10 miles away. The side you see from Cho Oyu is so steep that there's no snow on it. It's just a massive black pyramid."

Only about 20 percent of those who attempt Everest reach the summit, and the mountain claims the life of at least one climber almost every season. Even the most experienced mountaineers face potentially life-threatening situations on Everest. The weather can turn in minutes, stranding climbers at high altitudes in subzero temperatures or triggering an avalanche that can bury an entire team in an instant. Even under optimal conditions, one misstep can lead to a fatal fall.

"I have a lot of respect for the mountain," says Smith. "I can control the sort of shape I'm in and my level of skill, but what I can't control is when a big chunk of ice might fall over. All I can do is try to minimize the risk."

When Smith arrived in Nepal in March 2002, he was as prepared as anyone can be to climb the mighty Chomolungma. He would make his ascent as part of a nonguided expedition coordinated by Eric Simonson, a seasoned Everest climber. Simonson owns International Mountain Guides (IMG), which specializes in outfitting teams to climb the world's toughest peaks. On a nonguided expedition, Simonson does all of the legwork and planning, but he doesn't actually climb with the team. Instead, he stays lower on the mountain and provides logistical support.

Smith's IMG team included Phil and Susan Ershler, an experienced husband and wife climbing duo whose Everest summit would make them the first married couple to scale the Seven Summits (collective name for the highest peaks on each continent); Ted Wheeler, a 39-year-old trust executive from Portland, Ore.; Kevin Flynn, an advertising and public relations executive from Rochester, N.Y.; and Mark Tucker, the team's assistant leader. Leading the trek was Ang Jangbu, owner of Great Escapes Trekking, a local guide service that Simonson often uses to provide on-site expertise in Nepal and Tibet.

After flying from Kathmandu to the tiny airstrip at Lukla, a village that sits at 9,200 feet, the group began the slow ascent to Everest Base Camp. As they trudged up the mountainside between Lukla and base camp, they would cover 8,000 vertical feet. In all, the team spent about two months on Everest, slowly acclimatizing and preparing to attempt the summit. Even though the final push to the top lasts only about 12 hours, it takes several weeks for a climber's body to adjust to the altitude.

While he acclimatized, Smith got to know the other members of the IMG team, as well as a few of the many others who would be attempting the summit at about the same time. Despite a volatile political climate that kept tourists from visiting the rest of the country during the first half of 2002, the spring season was one of the most crowded in Everest climbing history.

As Smith prepared for his final push to the top, family, friends, and fellow Rotarians back in Waco followed his progress online. Simonson posted updates on EverestNews.com every few days so that they and others around the world could monitor the IMG team's movement. On the morning Smith made his bid for the summit, a critical window of time during which every minute and every step matter, Simonson wrote more frequently than usual.

"You have nagging anxieties on the way to the summit, but in the last hour you start to feel like you're going to get it done," Smith explains. "At the point when you reach the south summit, which is about an hour and a half away, it's becoming a reality. Up until that point, you're worried that something might go wrong."

On 16 May, everything went right. At about 11:30 a.m., Simonson posted the dispatch everyone had been awaiting:

International Mountain Guides climbers Phil and Susan Ershler, Ted Wheeler, Danuru Sherpa, Dorje Lama Sherpa, and Mingma Tshering Sherpa reached the top of Everest at 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, May 16. Team member Stuart Smith and Mingma Ongel Sherpa reached the top about an hour later. . . . They are all now on their way back down to high camp.

The sky was a searing shade of blue, and the view seemed infinite. Smith was on top of the world.

Back in Kathmandu, just two days after standing atop the world's highest peak, Smith began a whirlwind tour of Rotary clubs. Because his climbing habit often takes him to far-flung places for weeks at a time, Rotary make-ups are a regular part of Smith's travels. But after spending nearly two months on the mountain, he had to pack four make-ups into two days to avoid tarnishing an 11-year record of perfect attendance. His make-up tour included visits to the Rotary clubs of Kasthamandap Kathmandu, Kathmandu, Kathmandu Mid-Town, and Patan West, all in Nepal. (He also picked up two make-ups before beginning the trek to base camp, attending meetings of the Rotary clubs of Lalitpur-Patan and Yala, both located on Kathmandu's outskirts.)

Just as they had in Argentina, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Portugal, and everywhere else his high-altitude adventures have led, Rotarians welcomed Smith to their clubs. Visitors have been scarce in Kathmandu since Maoist rebels began attacking government targets there. Although not aimed at foreigners, the violence has had a disastrous effect on tourism. The industry is a vital part of the country's economy, and the recent downturn has deprived Nepal, already one of the world's poorest countries, of thousands of dollars.

Smith realized the extent of the tourist drought when he checked into a major Kathmandu hotel and found just 6 of 70 rooms occupied. Several villages the IMG team hiked through had been placed under curfews, but Smith says he saw little other evidence of the country's political turmoil after departing for base camp.

Not so lonely at the top

Stuart Smith wasn't the first Rotarian to set foot on Chomolungma, nor will he be the last. More than a decade before the Waco, Texas, Rotarian unfurled his club banner atop Everest, 14 members of the International Mountain Climbing and Hiking Fellowship of Rotarians took part in a 10-day trek to Everest Base Camp.

One Rotarian who completed the 1991 trek plans to return to base camp in 2003. But this time, it won't be his final destination. Dilip G. Kolhatkar, a member of the Rotary Club of Akola East, India, and fellowship chairman, plans to attempt Everest's summit in May. Kolhatkar will climb as part of a 12-person team comprising members of SAAD Mountaineers, a Mumbai-based mountaineering group.

The Waco Rotarian refers to his Everest summit, both literally and figuratively, as the "pinnacle" of his climbing career. Smith has no plans to duplicate the feat, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. "It's awfully risky," he says. "The death rate runs about 2 percent. If you're lucky enough to get up once, there's no need to push your luck."

Instead, Smith will pursue another of the Seven Summits. Already having climbed Aconcagua, Everest, Kilimanjaro, and McKinley, he had hoped to cross off Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid from his dwindling list by early this month.

At 16,023 feet, the mountain can't match Everest in size. But the climb is much more technically complex, and just to reach Carstensz, climbers must trek for more than a week through an untamed jungle that becomes even more perilous during times of political turmoil.

"Two Americans were killed by separatists in late August very near where we are going, and the government will often restrict access when there is trouble," says Smith. After the October nightclub bombing that killed about 190 people in Bali, trip organizers were unable to obtain the permits necessary to make the climb.

Undaunted, Smith instead will tackle the highest peak in nearby Australia, Mt. Kosciusko. And when the time is right to climb the Carstensz Pyramid, he will rise to the challenge.

"It's going to be a very different type of climb," Smith says. Then, he's a very different sort of guy.

M. Kathleen Pratt is associate editor of The Rotarian.

Preprinted from The Rotarian with their permission, Story by M. Kathleen Pratt.

Update 12/27/2003: Stuart Smith, a 44 year old lawyer from Waco, Texas completed the Seven Summits on December 15, 2003, with an ascent of Vinson Massif.  Smithís first of the Seven Summits occurred on August 8, 1987 on Kilimanjaro although Smith had certainly not heard of the Seven Summits at that time.  After a lull in activity following Kilimanjaro, Smith began pursuing high altitude peaks in the mid-1990s.  The chronological list of Smithís Seven Summits are set forth below:

            1.         Kilimanjaro                               August 8, 1987

            2.         Aconcagua                               January 14, 1995

            3.         Mt. McKinley                           May 29, 1996

            4.         Mt. Everest                              May 16, 2002

            5.         Kosciuszko                              December 3, 2002

            6.         Mt. Elbrus                                August 4, 2003

            7.         Vinson Massif                           December 15, 2003

             Smith has also climbed Cho Oyu, Gasherbrum II, Huascaran, and numerous peaks in the United States.

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