Written by Nikki Mills
Take a deep breath. At 6,035 feet in Colorado Springs, we like to think we’re at altitude. Now imagine taking a deep breath on top of the highest peak in the world: Mount Everest. At 29,029 feet, Everest dwarfs the rest of the world and slowly strangles any brave soul who attempts to conquer it.
Climbing Everest has become extremely common in the past few decades. Since the first successful attempt in 1953 to the early 1990s, there were less than 50 successful expeditions a year. But following 1993, there has been a steady increase to a record breaking 600+ successful climbs in 2007. This begs the question: has there really been an increase in the number of competent mountaineers globally, or has climbing Everest lost its difficulty?
Opinions on the challenges of mountaineering aside, let’s travel back to 1988 when there were only 25 successful summit attempts and the price of climbing Everest was nowhere near the $65,000 it is now. On one of those successful teams was American mountaineer Stacy Allison, who, on her second attempt, became the first American woman to summit Everest—without the gadgets, resources, and guides of today.
The first time Allison attempted Everest was the year before, guided by Scott Fisher of Mountain Madness. Allison, Fisher, and two other climbers had been stuck at Camp 3 and 4 for seven days because of a storm. Their bodies had atrophied so dramatically at altitude that they had to descend. After her initial failure in 1987, returning to her home in Oregon was complicated. For 6 years she was married to a man who relentlessly abused her physically and verbally. She had grown to depend on him and her dependence diminished her own strength. She only felt strong when she was with him—until she concocted a plan to climb Everest. Everest gave her the strength she was lacking.
When I picked up Allison’s book “Beyond the Limits” from Poor Richard’s a few weeks ago, I figured I was reading another adventure story about the miraculous capacity of the human. Non-fiction adventure stories like Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” or John Roskelley’s “Nanda Devi” get me high. It’s incredibly inspiring to read what humans are willing to do for adventure and it gives me the shot of high altitude I need being so low in Colorado Springs. But Allison’s book turned out to be far more captivating than any other Himalayan adventure I’d ever read. The image of Allison on the cover standing on the summit in her red parka holding an American flag is so powerful. Her smile is big and triumphant. I never could have imagined what I was about to read in her 300 page book.
Not only does this book speak to the physical capacity of a human to climb Everest not once, but twice, it also speaks to the fact that such a determined woman—the first American woman to summit the highest peak in the world—can fall victim to domestic abuse. All I could think after putting this book down was thank goodness she found the mountains. In “Beyond the Limits,” Allison writes, “I climb because I’m here. I don’t battle the mountains. I don’t conquer anything […] it’s the sheer pleasure of being on the planet, of seeing the mountains around me and, for a brief moment, being part of them.” She climbs because she’s alive. George Leigh Mallory, British mountaineer who died on an Everest attempt in 1924, said that he climbed Everest “because it is there.” Similarly, Allison also climbs because she is here.
Allison survived 6 years with someone who never appreciated her, someone who tried to cut her down and cut her off from any possible opportunity. To the average American, climbing Everest is a task in and of itself, but to Allison, it was a means to an end. She was finding out who she was without being under the thumb of another. The same way she rid her pack of extraneous “gramage” before climbing, she rid her mind of anything that didn’t affect the climb, anything out of her control. She took it out of her head and put it away.
Allison’s focus and determination, especially when working towards healing from such a heinous experience, is something all Colorado College students can learn from. With so much pain in the world, we are used to ruminating over efforts to solve every problem, yet it’s important to take time to remove that extra “gramage” now and then. Take those negative thoughts out of your head and put them away before the climb. Reading stories of the human capacity to cope with the most extreme environments and to push themselves to their limits is truly amazing; Allison’s story is no exception. If you get a chance, read her book “Beyond the Limits;” it’s so much more than climbing mountains.