Parkites Rob Lea and Caroline Gleich summit Everest
On May 24, Parkites Rob Lea and Caroline Gleich stood on top of Mt. Everest, looking out over the endless expanse of the Himalayas.
It was the culmination of years of preparation, and for both it was another step in larger projects.
For Lea, it was the first trial in his World Triathlon project, which includes summiting the highest mountain, swimming the English channel and biking across America in a year. For Gleich, it was a major step in her Climb for Equality, a social media campaign and her latest effort to raise awareness about the gender gap in outdoor recreation. She also climbed the whole mountain without an ACL after she tore it skiing in the Wasatch the day after the couple put down the sizable deposit to go to Everest.
“I was devastated, then I talked with my doctor and he said I might still be able to do it,” Gleich said.
When Gleich found out their expedition leader also climbed Everest without an ACL in 2013, that solidified it. She was going.
Lea and Gleich, who are engaged to be married, spent 40 days on their Everest expedition (Gleich had proposed to Lea last September on their training trip up Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain). They flew into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. From there, they spent three days driving higher into the Himalayas until they arrived at base camp in a valley below Everest. Their route would take them up the northeast ridge of Everest, which is typically less crowded, and saw perhaps a third of the number of attempts as from the traditional south ridge this season.
From base camp, Lea, Gleich and a handful of fellow climbers and guides from Alpenglow expeditions trekked up along the mountain’s glacial shoulder to their advanced base camp at an altitude of 21,000 feet.
Gale-force winds repelled them from the north col, the glacier-carved pass at 23,000 feet during a training day, but the team attained it the next day on May 20. They proceeded up an uncharacteristically rocky and bare route, blown dry of its usual blanket of snow and ice, to Camp 2, at 24,750 feet on May 21, where they camped out and waited for a day.
Lea said he and Gleich had chosen Alpenglow because of some of the amenities they provide. In particular, Alpenglow pays for a top-notch meteorological service out of Sweden. That service allowed them to see a broad view of their upcoming weather window before departing from base camp. They could also see the other parties planning on making their summit bid for the weather window. On May 22 a viral photo was taken by Associated Press photographer Nirmal Puja showing a long line of climbers clad in puffy parkas along the south ridge in Nepal.
The narrow weather window, along with a rise in the number of inexperienced climbers and the lack of a cap on mountaineers making the approach from Nepal, caused the infamous traffic jam. Overcrowding has contributed to the reported deaths of 11 climbers on Everest so far this year, including two Americans.
“We could tell the 23rd was the day to go, and we could tell most teams were going to go,” Lea said. “It’s not hard to see this happening, because everyone is moving from basecamp to advanced basecamp and from there to the north col.”
The Alpenglow party decided they would wait for a later day in the brief window instead of joining the other parties in attempting the summit on the 23rd, and so lingered at Camp 2 for an extra day.
“Honestly, if you take the number of people on Everest, on a general year I don’t think it would have been a problem,” Lea said. “This year we had two summit days that were great summit days, then a handful a week later, I think people were antsy and went for it all on one day.”
The Parkites’ experience – approaching from Tibet, whose government places caps on climber numbers – was very different. They spent a full day in their tents, doing as little as possible while the world went past. They had little to do anyway, but also being at altitude and breathing supplemental oxygen combines to give climbers a feeling of both having a low fever and a buzz.
“Generally we did nothing,” Lea said. “You’re slightly lightheaded and have no motivation. And to get out of the tent, it was on a super steep slope. You’d have to put on all your gear, your crampons and boots. So most people did literally nothing.”
After a day of waiting, they moved up to Camp 3 at 27,390 feet on May 23.
A day later they made their push to the highest point on Earth, 29,029 feet.
They left close to 1 a.m. for the summit. The climbing was more technical than Lea had expected, but he said physically, mentally and emotionally, he and Gleich were well prepared. They had spent months acclimatizing and training, preparing their bodies for the notoriously grueling climb in low oxygen – many of the deaths on Everest happen on the way down, when climbers succumb to the lack of oxygen. They ran into a few small groups, but they largely had the mountain to themselves, and at 7:05 a.m., they reached the top of the world.
They stood on the summit of Everest and took photos of themselves without their oxygen masks on so that their faces were visible.
“This happens with a lot of summits, but, it’s slightly anticlimactic,” Lea said. “It’s kind of like, ‘OK, I’m here, now what.’ But you’re also like ‘We have to get off of this mountain and out of harm’s way.’ … The summit is definitely the goal, but the summit doesn’t mean as much as the experience as a whole. That’s where all the memories come from.”
They had done it. Now they had to get away with it.
They started their descent immediately, returning all the way to advanced base camp over an 18-hour period.
Over the next few days, they descended down to base camp, then drove out to Lhasa, flew to Chengdu, China, then Shanghai, then Los Angeles, then home.
Lea, who isn’t done with his to-do list, now needs to put on a considerable amount of weight – 30 pounds of fat and muscle for insulation – before swimming the English Channel. Gleich went in for ACL surgery on Tuesday, and will start preparing for their wedding, and planning to help crew Lea’s project. She’s also hoping to inspire 1,000 Climb For Equality posts by the year’s end.
As for the English Channel, it’s close to 21 miles across from England to France, typically takes 13 hours to swim, and hovers around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I definitely need to get in the pool and lake and train,” he said. He also has a 6-hour qualifying swim he will have to complete to prove he is a worthy challenger for the Channel. Once he’s done that, he will leave for England on July 7, and is scheduled to swim the English Channel between July 10 and 16.
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