Top of the World: How the first American woman reached the summit of Mt. Everest
Sagarmatha. Jomolungma. Mt. Everest. In any language, no matter what the name, the world’s highest peak has inspired dreams and sparked the imagination of world-class adventurers for over a century. Stretching 29,035 feet into air as thin as gossamer, flirting with the jet stream for most of the year, capped by ice and savage winds, Everest is a formidable, enticing hulk of rock that every mountaineer approaches with awe and aspirations of capture. Although harder, more technical mountains lurk nearby, Everest remains the sparkle in a climber’s sky.
In 1988, 35 years after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made their historic ascent, the first American woman captured the prize. Reaching the top of Mt. Everest was no ordinary climb for Stacy Allison, who ascended from far lower than the Nepalese highlands at its base. In fact, Allison pulled herself up from the depths of domestic violence, a dawdling career and the stigma of being a college dropout to claim the title that had eluded American women for six years. (The first U.S. woman attempted to reach the top of the world in 19821.) The story of how she bagged the summit is an inspirational tale of stretching perceived limits and striving constantly to perfect skills in pursuit of a goal.
At a party one night, she and her friend Evelyn Lees met up with a graduate student who convinced them to go rappelling from a 50-ft. Douglas fir nearby. When Allison’s turn came, she climbed up the tree and hooked the rope through the carabiner on her borrowed harness. Hesitant at first, when at last leaped into the void – and arrived on the ground ecstatic. The trio took turns scaling the tree and rappelling down until the wee hours of the morning. Allison’s love affair with climbing had begun. “Just realizing this life existed, this intense collaboration of nature and physics and human strength, launched me forward, and now I needed to know: Could I do it, too? Was I strong enough, brave enough, smart enough to dance on the edge of my limitations?” she asks in Beyond the Limits; A woman’s Triumph on Everest. co-authored with Peter Carlin.
She and Lees spent their first spring break in Zion learning the basics of rock climbing – how to set protection for a belay anchor, how to belay another climber, how to find solid holds in the rock. In Zion, they met and climbed with Scott Fischer who, waylaid by an ankle injury, offered his instructional assistance. Fischer would later climb with Allison on two expeditions, including one to Mt. Everest. But he was doomed to die on the world’s highest peak in 1996 during the disastrous storm that claimed 12 lives, chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
Fischer helped to stoke Allison’s passion for the sport, which consumed her days during breaks from school and her thoughts when she couldn’t get away. Suddenly, college seemed pointless – climbing was the only thing she knew for sure that she wanted to do. Against all her principles and in spite of her mother’s strong protests, she dropped out of school
And she kept climbing. Following the successful but arduous ascent of Mt. Washington, Allison went on to climb in Alaska where she was swallowed up and spit out by an avalanche on Peak 12,380, struggled in frustration to keep up with two climbing partners in an attempt on Mt. Huntington and was trapped overnight in a blizzard on the peak of Alberta’s Mt. Robson.
During this time, she and her boyfriend, Curt Haire, lived together in a tiny cabin they could barely afford, dressing in layers of wool to avoid turning on the unaffordable hear, and were always only a few dollars away from having to hang around for scraps at the local ski resort cafeteria with other “climbing bums.”
But Allison’s resolve and ability to overcome obstacles was remarkable. Taking a firm grasp on her stalled life, she left Curt, then put the lessons she had learned on the early mountains to work on strong, successful ascents of Denali, the highest peak in North America, Ama Dablam in the Himalayas and Pik Kummunizma in the former Soviet Union. Within a year or two, she also met and married Mark Meinert, a carpenter in Zion, who taught her how to build.
But even after the papers were signed and the split final, Allison had trouble eliminating Mark’s influence from her life. “That’s the cruelest irony of abuse – it’s so shameful, it becomes a secret that only spouses share,” she writes. “It stays tucked away, putting on weight and adding gravity until it pulls you away from the rest of the world.” She moved back to Oregon in an attempt to right her life.
What got her through the aftermath of her divorce was her spot on a team going to Mt. Everest in 1987. Fischer led the team that year, a group that ended up fracturing into sub-groups vying against each other for the summit. After spending weeks laying the route up the difficult North Face, Fischer granted Allison a position on his first summit team, with its promise of making her the first U.S. woman to ascend the peak.
The team made it with 4,000 feet of the summit, but a violent snowstorm forced them to retreat to a snow cave at 23,500 feet for five days. Crawling out of the cave once the storm had subsided, the climbers beheld a white plume coming off the summit: the jet stream had descended and was raking the upper reaches of the mountain with 150-mile-an-hour winds that would rip them off the peak if they tried to ascend. “That’s the ball game,” Fischer observed bleakly. The expedition packed up and went home.
Top Of The World
But the climb unfolded quite differently. Once the route was laid and the camps stocked, expedition leader Jim Frush poked his hear into Allison’s tent one afternoon: “Do you want to be on the first summit team with me and Steve Ruoss?” Frush had put four summit teams together, with those who had climbed highest on the route going first. Dailey would ascend with the second group.
Allison, Frush and Ruoss, accompanied by three Sherpas (Nepalese climbers), climbed under clear skies and reached Camp IV just before 2:00pm on September 28. At 26,000 feet the group was now in the death zone, that realm above 25,000 feet where cells no longer regenerate and the body, technically, is dying.
After a quick dinner and even quicker sleep, they started for the summit at midnight to ensure daylight at the top of the mountain and during the descent. They climbed through the night under the light of a full moon, but a 5:00am two Sherpas who had been trailing the group suddenly turned and retreated – with two of the oxygen bottles that would be needed for the descent. Frush recognized the climb would become too dangerous without adequate oxygen and proposed that just one of the three Americans continue to the summit with the remaining Sherpa, Pasang. In a game of pick-a-number, Allison won and found herself climbing up the world’s highest mountain practically alone.
Step by step, the summit drew closer. They negotiated the Hillary Step, a 40-foot cliff of rock and ice and the highest technical climb in the world. Next came an expose ridge of overhanging cornices – one strong gust of wind would have blown them 8,000 feet down into Tibet. Allison pushed forward, one foot in front of the other and suddenly there was nowhere left to go. At 10:30 a.m. on September 29, 1988, she became the first American woman to stand atop Mt. Everest.
Allison’s later observations on climbing and life offer some insight into how she summoned the strength to overcome so many obstacles in reaching the highest point in the world: “Climbing is the key that unlocks my spirit, the clearest representation of who I am,” she said. “There may be difficulties ahead – of course there will be difficulties. Life is a constant maze of problems and puzzles. But now that you’re alive, the key question is, how do you respond? What does your solution say about you life?” Hers speaks volumes about Stacy Allison by Heather Baldwin
STACY ALLISON WENT ON to lead an expedition to K2, the world’s second-highest mountain and the most difficult to climb. Today, she runs her own company, Stacy Allison General Contracting, a residential building company in Portland, OR. She is a motivational speaker and in her new book Many Mountains to Climb: Reflections on Competence, Courage and commitment, she encourages people to move beyond their self-imposed limitations and reach for their dreams. Allison offers Selling Power the following tips on achieving goals:
- HAVE A CLEAR PERSONAL VISION. Personal vision directs, motivates and gives us the strength to persevere.
- DREAM BIG. Lofty goals are the foundation of great accomplishments.
- BE A TEAM PLAYER. The moment we think beyond ourselves to the team as a whole, our chance of success increases.
- LIGHTEN UP! When a situation gets intense, laughter or quiet humor releases tension. When we can laugh at ourselves, we relax and become more creative and effective.
- DRINK TEA WITH OTHERS. Sometimes we get so caught up in the busy-ness of business, we don’t take the time to build relationships. Professional relationships are built by sitting down and listening.
- ANTICIPATE CHANGE. Ignorance is not bliss. Not on a mountain, and not in business. What we don’t know will hurt us. Things are changing so quickly all around us that we must stay alert, examine how we do things and constantly educate ourselves.
- STAY FOC– USED. There are distractions everywhere in our lives. Focus on that which you can control and which will help propel you toward you goal.
- THINK BEYOND THE TOP. The top is the most vulnerable place to be because it is so tempting to rest there. But we cannot survive on the tops of our mountains. We must turn around, come back down and set new goals for ourselves.