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US Woman Completes Everest May 2012 to Finish the Seven Summits
By Courtenay Schurman
Congratulations to Lisa, Body Results WebTrainer client, only one of a handful of U.S. women ever to have completed such a lofty goal as reaching the summit of each of the highest peaks on all seven continents! What an amazing accomplishment! Here are her answers to Body Results trainers' questions:
Q: Tell us, how does it feel to have accomplished such a special goal as reaching the highest peak on each of the seven continents?
A: Itís exciting, and Iím also relieved and extremely grateful. It was an incredible experience to travel to these spectacular places, to see and experience each mountain, to have met so many terrific people -- including guides, teammates, and many others -- along the way, and to have made it to the top and home safely each time. It was an amazing adventure and something I will be thankful for my entire life.
Q: How long had you seriously considered striving for such a goal?
A: When I first read about the seven summits five or six years ago, I was captivated but I had very little mountaineering experience, so I had no real sense of whether this was possible for me. About three years ago, I set out to try one mountain at a time and see how far I could get. My underlying dream may have been to climb all seven, but my goal was always the next mountain. Only after summiting Denali in June 2010 did I seriously consider attempting Everest and the remaining seven summits.
Q: What was your progression of climbing the seven highest peaks leading up to your May 2012 summit of Everest?
A: My first was Kilimanjaro in 1996; Elbrus and Aconcagua in 2009; Kosciuszko and Denali in 2010; Vinson and Carstensz in 2011; Everest in 2012.
Q: Over what time span did you climb all seven?
A: Currently, the span is 16 years (1996 - 2012), but if Iím able to repeat Kilimanjaro before the anniversary of my Elbrus summit, which I would like to do, then I will have done all seven (plus Carstensz) in less than three years.
Q: What order do YOU recommend people climb the 7 Summits?
A: I recommend the order that I followed, but there are certainly other ways to go about it. It makes sense to start with Kilimanjaro and see if you enjoy that experience and can manage the altitude, then Elbrus and Aconcagua to gain skills and experience for Denali. You could certainly put Vinson before Denali, but due to the higher cost of Vinson, people typically do Denali first. Kosciuszko can be done at any time. Carstensz is best once youíve had an opportunity to practice rock climbing. Ideally Everest is last because you might as well gather every bit of experience that you can; youíll put it all to use on Everest.
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently in your preparation?
A: One mistake that I could have avoided was getting minor frostbite on Denali. During the morning that we were heading up to high camp, I could feel that my fingers were very cold, but we were busy taking down the tents and I figured I could warm them up in a few minutes when we were done. I must have taken my gloves off to untie a knot and had only light liner gloves on, which had developed small tears in the fingers. I learned two lessons: wear more durable liners (for every trip thereafter I wore Manzella liners and they were perfect), and when your fingers get cold deal with it immediately. If I had talked to someone who had frostbite before I went to Denali, I might have been more sensitive to the warning signs (tingling, numbness). But this also may have been something that I had to experience in order to learn how important it is to constantly monitor and protect your fingers and toes. On Everest, and perhaps also Denali and Vinson, consider using hotronics (battery-pack boot warmers).
Q: What were the biggest physical and mental challenges for you along the way?
A: One of the biggest physical challenges for me was preparing for, and then carrying, the weight on Denali. The guide service said to expect to carry 40% of my body weight; weighing 140-145, I worked up to carrying 60-65 lbs. When I turned up in Talkeetna, our guide said that we should expect to carry 80-85 lbs in our pack, and 35-40 lbs in our sled. I convinced myself that he was just trying to scare us, but his estimates turned out to be conservative. The strain was considerable but we took it one step at a time and we got through it.
One of the biggest mental challenges for me was getting myself to sign up for Everest. It took a huge leap of faith and a lot of deliberation, but ultimately I decided that I had to try, and this was the year to do it.
Q: Were there any parts on any of the mountains where you were really concerned about your safety or you got really nervous?
A: There were two times that I was really nervous and concerned for my safety. The first time was on Carstensz during the trek out of the jungle. At what was supposed to be the end of the third day, my teammate and I, along with two porters and our assistant guide (the main guide had fallen ill) arrived at what was supposed to be camp for the night, and found the space empty. The main group of porters had broken with protocol and had either abandoned the trip or had set camp elsewhere. We had to continue trekking and hope to find them. By now the jungle was completely dark and it began to rain heavily. In the darkness I was separated from my teammate and the assistant guide. I hurried behind the porters, scrambling through dense brush, down slippery muddy slopes, over giant tree roots and rocks; we even crossed rivers -- wading upstream through rushing water -- that would be challenging during daylight.
With my head down and fixed on every step, I cracked my head into a heavy tree branch; the sound was startling and a great light flashed in my eyes. I was stunned by the impact and stopped in my tracks. The porters, who had been walking ahead, stopped when they heard me yell. While I paused to assess the pain, I realized how unsafe I felt, unsure of where we were heading or how much longer we had yet to walk, separated from my team, and relying on people with whom I could not readily communicate. Through gesture, I arranged for us to walk closer together so that weíd have the benefit of more light. I hated to continue through the jungle in these conditions but there was no choice. Eventually we found camp, and I was reunited with my teammates; and although we were wet and cold and our tents had been pitched in puddles, we were relieved to have the nightís rest.
The second time that I got really nervous was descending from Everest. Just after the Hillary Step I took a bad step and slid out on a wide flat rock. I was clipped to the fixed line so my fall was caught, but I broke my boot, injured my left hand (turns out it too was broken), and strained my neck. With my hand swelling, I could not grip the line effectively on that side, so descending became very awkward as I tried to use only my right hand and/or hold the line in the crease of my left elbow. I winced with each step down as the impact sent a jolt of pain up my spine to the base of my head. This was the first time that I had fallen and injured myself high on a mountain, and the experience was unsettling -- what if I had hurt my ankle instead of my hand.
Everyone is aware that on Everest, if you get injured high on the mountain, you may well be beyond help. Now I had my first real sense of how quickly that could occur. Once again my guide was someone with whom I could not communicate, so I did not know how much longer it would take to reach camp. I wanted desperately to take a break, but we had to continue. I worked out a system of walking with my hand on my Sherpaís pack or shoulder, so we could walk together and I had a means of balance. In both circumstances it would have been incredibly helpful and reassuring to be able to communicate with my guides, regardless of whether they could have done anything more to improve our situation. Each time that I hit a low point, it helped for me to regroup and figure out a way for us to move as a team.
Q: Some people are unaware of the technical skills necessary to climb the Seven Summits. In your experience what kind of skills are helpful? What sorts of tips can you share?
A: The rest step is useful on every mountain to conserve energy. On Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, Vinson and Everest you are using crampons and an ice axe -- so you should know varied crampon techniques, self-arrest, and crevasse rescue. On Denali and Vinson youíre on a rope team, youíre pulling a sled, youíre using fixed lines, and youíre setting up camps in ice, so you need to know knots for tying in to the line, how to rig the sled, how to set up camp (leveling platforms and building ice walls etc.), how to jumar and rappel. For Carstensz you need experience rock climbing. For Everest it helps to have practiced ice climbing, as well as using crampons on rock, and crossing ladders in crampons. Before Denali I took a technical mountaineering course, and I did a Denali Prep Course with IMG, which included a variety of lessons including building snow caves and using avalanche beacons. Before Vinson I took a wilderness medicine course.
Q: How did the food work for you on Everest, in particular, and did you find that certain foods were better at those altitudes? Did food choices with other climbers vary quite a bit?
A: Meals were included in our trip, but we were encouraged to bring snack food, energy bars, Gatorade, etc. The key here is variety. We did the best we could to keep our weight up, but towards the end, pretty much everyone lost their appetite and found eating to be somewhat of a chore. I tried a lot of different bars and jerky at home looking for easily transportable snack food that I might like to eat at altitude. Probars were probably my favorite although I ended up not bringing very many. Some things that I didnít particularly care for at home tasted pretty good on the mountain (e.g. jerky), and other things that I thought would be appealing werenít (e.g., candy). I was concerned about not having much protein and so I brought some foil packs of tuna, salmon, and chicken. I usually eat a lot of fruit at home so I brought some foil packaged pureed fruit. I also brought a couple of Mountain House freeze-dried meals. Amongst the group we had the usual assortment of nuts, trail mix and bars, but there were some things that I hadnít seen very often on other trips such as: wasabi nuts, Pop Tarts, freeze pops, protein powder, and chia seeds. Folks also brought condiments that were hugely appreciated (mustard, A1, hot sauce, BBQ sauce). We had a variety of quick energy snacks (e.g. chews, Gu, jelly beans) and water flavoring (powder mixes, Nuun tablets, Emergen-C). Hard candy and cough drops were in high demand due to the dry air.
Q: What kind of pack weights were you carrying both for training and doing the various climbs?
A: I trained with pretty much the same weight I expected to carry on each trip, which varied from very light (Kili) to very heavy (Denali); except for Everest I trained with more weight than I expected to carry -- I got up to 60-65 pounds in training which was more than I expected to carry on the mountain (~30 lbs).
Q: Which of the Seven Summits was hardest to train for?
A: I learned the most for Denali (in the Technical Mountaineering Course and in the Denali Prep Course), but I worked the hardest for Everest.
Q: What components of the training program you went through with Body Results do you feel were most important to your success on Everest? Did you do anything differently, in terms of conditioning, for that mountain compared to the others?
A: For all of the climbs leading up to Everest I set my own training schedule, but for Everest I wanted more guidance and so I signed on with Body Results. I appreciated not having to worry about what to do, but instead I could focus on doing the work. For prior mountains Iíd done primarily cardio, pack carrying, and overall strength training (e.g., body pump class). But I hadnít done a truly mountain-specific program. Many of the things I did through Body Results were different for me, such as: working with an online trainer, charting weights exercises, climbing high-rise stairwells, intervals, using a heart rate monitor, and working within certain heart rate ranges; also, many of the leg and core exercises were new to me. I think the most important components were the leg exercises (in particular the one-leg squats and calf work), core work, weighted stair climbs, interval stair climbs, and track intervals. Monitoring my heart rate during the cardio work was helpful; I found that I could sustain a higher work rate than I was accustomed to.
Q: How does climbing complement the rest of your life? Do you see yourself continuing to climb or what new challenges or ambitions do you have in store for yourself?
A: Climbing has been a huge focus for me over the past few years. At some point during each trip (during the long, cold, uncomfortable parts), I am certain that Iíll never sign up for another mountain, but once I am home Iíll feel compelled to try again. So I believe I will keep climbing, but Iím also interested in trying something new. For instance, the idea of doing an Ironman is appealing, but I know it would take a lot of work and Iíd have to get more comfortable swimming.
Q: Which was your toughest summit of the 7 and why? What was the easiest? What was the largest obstacle you faced getting to your goal?
A: I felt the worst getting to the summits of Aconcagua and Denali -- I was exhausted and sick to my stomach. I actually felt the best reaching the summit on Everest, being on oxygen, and having the benefit of what I imagine was a giant adrenaline rush. The biggest obstacle for me is acclimatization -- there are days on most every trip where I lag behind, have headaches, and vomit; in fact I vomited on most summit days (Aconcagua, Denali, Vinson and Kilimanjaro) and at several points on Everest -- but not on any day with oxygen. The first two days on oxygen leading up to the summit push were the two best days Iíve ever had on a mountain. I enjoyed an extreme boost from using supplemental oxygen, to the point where many of the steep sections felt level.
Q: From a physical challenge and training standpoint, what were the most surprising things about climbing Everest and the training for it?
A: The biggest surprise for me was that the aspects of the climb that I feared most heading into the trip (ladder crossings, the icefall, the Lhotse face, the Hillary Step) turned out to not be the most difficult parts. Of course you have to pay close attention when you are doing the ladder crossings, you have to move quickly through the icefall and thank your lucky stars (and the ice doctors, and your guides and Sherpa) each time you get through safely, and you have to apply yourself to get through the steepest parts of the mountain; but the harder parts of the trip were managing the things that you couldnít control or didnít expect: e.g., the weather, the crowds, errors with logistics, gear failures, illness and injury. Another surprise for me was that the brief ladder practice that I did at home with my niece (putting a ladder across the pool and crossing it in my boots and crampons) was actually very helpful; the method that I figured out that day at home, was the same method that I used on the mountain.
Q: What other training do you recommend that isnít strictly about building oneís physical capabilities or stamina? (e.g. cold resistance, psychological endurance)
A: I spent time trying to understand and plan for the mental challenge of climbing Everest. I asked the few friends that I knew who had climbed Everest what their most difficult times were on the mountain and what they did to get through them. One friend had turned back at the South Summit and I tried to understand what had led him to make that decision. When I came across a photo of the view from the South Summit, I imagined how I might feel at that point and what I would say to myself to keep going. Another friend told me how it was frustrating for him to be at the back of the pack during rotations, but everything changed for the better when he got on oxygen. When I struggled during rotations, I had hope that the oxygen up high would be a huge boost, and it was. A third friend who had reached the summit, warned me that ďEverest will give you a million reasons to turn around.Ē During the trip, and on summit day in particular, it helped to think -- ok, here come the million reasons, but Iím going to continue anyway . . . in fact, the more frustrating this becomes, the more determined I am to get to the top.
Besides the mental preparation, Iíd recommend a wilderness medicine course, and reading the latest research and advice on acclimatization and high-altitude medicine.
Q: What are common misperceptions, or under-emphasized aspects of climbing high-altitude peaks, and Everest in particular?
A: A huge part of an expedition like Everest is down time. It can be frustrating and uncomfortable to train hard for a trip, to be in great shape, to show up ready for one of the greatest physical challenges of your life, to then spend days waiting to fly in, or have ten consecutive rest days, or wait for weeks for a weather window that changes, shortens, or disappears altogether. On a regular night at base camp we might go to our tents at 7:00 p.m., and have 12+ hours until breakfast. At higher camps you might reach your tent early afternoon and not come out until morning. For long periods of time you have to have patience and you have to rest. Itís important to prepare for all of this down time. For one, make your tent comfortable. Bring e-books, TV, movies, and some regular books and magazines. It also helps to have a social group! My team on Everest talked (and laughed) a lot in the dining tent, which was a perfect way to pass time and keep morale high.
Q: What does it mean to you to be one of only a handful of US women to have succeeded at such an ambitious goal?
A: While itís a privilege to be one of a few women who have completed the Seven Summits (plus Carstensz) and itís fun to feel like youíre out there doing something different, it would be great to see more women climbing big mountains. Of note this season on Everest, there were two great achievements for women: Tamae Watanabe, of Japan, at 73, became the oldest woman to climb Everest (breaking her own record from 10 years ago), and Melissa Arnott, USA, became the first woman to climb Everest four times! There are so many great experiences to have on expeditions -- immersing yourself in nature; getting a break from routine; being among like-minded people; working with people of different cultures and backgrounds; being part of a singularly-focused team; challenging yourself physically and mentally in exceptionally beautiful environments -- I hope by sharing my story I might inspire more people, especially women, to head for the mountains.
WOW, Lisa, what a fantastic story! It's truly an honor to have had the chance to work with you toward your Everest and Seventh summit, and we wish you much success in years to come. Thanks for all your time sharing your insights, and much luck to you on your speaking circuit! -- Courtenay Schurman