Because It Was There
Smith unfurls his banner on top of the world.
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
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
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
Not so lonely at the top
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.
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
"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:
Kilimanjaro August 8, 1987
Aconcagua January 14, 1995
McKinley May 29, 1996
Everest May 16, 2002
Kosciuszko December 3, 2002
Mt. Elbrus August 4, 2003
Massif December 15, 2003
Smith has also climbed Cho Oyu, Gasherbrum II, Huascaran,
and numerous peaks in the United States.