Canadian mountain climber, alpine guide and inspirational speaker Sharon Wood says many people have asked her this question recently, in the wake of her recent book, “Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest.” After all, as the titles suggests, she was the first North American woman to summit Earth’s highest peak in 1986, more than 30 years ago. So what prompted her to write a book now?
Many reasons, she explains.
“A buffer of three decades has given me the courage to expose both my frailties and my motivations, and allowed for admissions that I would not have had the insight or courage to disclose when I was younger.” She didn’t anticipate that Everest would never go away, that it would become an almost-daily part of her life as it led directly to her speaking career.
Many Pacific Northwest hikers and climbers are also avid readers about this challenging mountain. No doubt they’ll find Wood’s writing both technically descriptive and personally revealing, a mix that sets it apart from many accounts that focus primarily on the difficulties involved in the trek.
In the 1980s, Everest was not the overrun madhouse it eventually became. When Wood joined 11 men and one other woman (the cook), their team — called Everest Light — used no Sherpas to scale the seldom-attempted West Ridge from Tibet. They used snow vehicles and then yaks to ferry 5 tons of supplies to base camp, where they were followed only by an American and Spanish team. Because they had to fix more than 8 kilometers of rope — as well as carry nearly 2 tons of food and equipment to higher camps themselves — Wood estimated their small team climbed the height of Everest seven or eight times before making Camp Six, the last camp before the summit bid.
In another interesting twist, Wood learned that her former lover, Carlos Buhler, was a member of the American team, which also hoped to put the first North American woman at the top. This “other woman,” Annie Whitehouse, was romantically involved with Buhler and had failed in earlier attempts to summit Everest. Wood couldn’t help but feel pressured; she did her best to avoid fueling a media blitz that concentrated mostly on the race and the romance.
Two and a half months on the mountain proved hard enough. Base camp was at 5,200 meters (a meter is 39 inches, so triple elevation numbers for a rough equivalent in feet), where the atmosphere had half the oxygen normally present at sea level. Everyone was breathless at first, struggling to acclimate to the wind and to cope with the dusty, glacial grit that got into their clothes and tents and everything else, the loss of appetite, the difficulty sleeping, the headaches, coughing, sunburn and cracking skin.
But then, the beauty of the place kept inspiring Wood, as did the group’s wonderful camaraderie. They all hoped to reach the top, of course — even including Jane, the cook, in purely fanciful moments — so which team or teams that would actually be chosen for the attempt was always on everyone’s mind. Here, the fact that Wood was Everest Light’s lone woman, the one who might make history, added yet another complication.
Wood writes of her doubts with tact. If selected, she wanted the choice to have been made fairly and based on her hard work. But, in fact, when the time came, she was one of the few lucky ones to remain healthy. Others developed stomach problems, laryngitis, colds, strained intercostal muscles from coughing, cerebral edema, even retinal hemorrhage.
The team arrived in Tibet in mid-March and scheduled the summit attempts for mid-May. As always in climbing, success depended on weather. Storms sometimes delayed their progress. The group managed to get an extension on its permit, but even so, it was running out of time.
Wood and Dwayne Congdon set off for the summit on May 17. They learned the Americans had already turned back. Using small rations of oxygen, they went step by arduous step in “numb resignation.” May 18, Wood’s 29th birthday, wouldn’t fulfill her dream of standing on top of the world, but the pair made steady headway. They were able to keep contact with lower camps, which all offered advice and encouragement.
At 9 p.m. on May 20, the duo reached the summit. Wood’s fantasies of celebration vanished. “Right now,” she writes, “all I care about is that there is no more up.” Her account of the difficult descent is well-detailed.
What’s more, in the book’s second part, she briefly explores the homecoming and the years after Everest, when life reinforced a valuable insight: that work of many spelled success for few. Wood and Congdon were the only team to accomplish a West Ridge summit climb that year. Her memoir is a spirited, perceptive account that’s been well worth the wait.
“Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest” by Sharon Wood, Mountaineers Books, 272 pp., $24.95
Author appearance: Sharon Wood will speak about “Rising” at 7 p.m. Thursday Jan. 9 at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, 7700 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; mountaineers.org; 206-521-6000