Wallburg native scales Mount Everest

Jun. 09, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

When Scott DeRue took up mountain-climbing a few years ago, Suzanne DeRue had a serious heart-to-heart with her grown son.
“There are two things I absolutely forbid you to do,” the Wallburg woman said. “You are not jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, and you’re not climbing Mount Everest. People die on that mountain every day.”
Now, people don’t literally die on Everest every day, but her message was clear: Plenty of climbers, even experienced climbers, have died trying to scale the world’s highest mountain, and she didn’t want her son joining that somber fraternity.
Last year, though, Scott called his parents, Suzanne and Jim, with a compromise.
“I’ll make you a deal,” said Scott, who grew up in Wallburg but now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he’s a faculty member at the University of Michigan. “I won’t jump out of an airplane.”
Suzanne’s heart sank. Her son had decided to climb Mount Everest.
“I knew that he knew what he was doing, and I knew the company he climbs with is one of the best in the world,” she recalls, “but in my heart, it was killing me. (The time Scott spent scaling Everest) was the longest two months of my life.”
But for Scott, 35, who graduated from Ledford High School in 1995, climbing Everest was incredibly exhilarating.
“It was everything I hoped it would be and much, much more,” he says during a telephone interview from Michigan.
Scott’s journey to the top of the world can be traced back to around 2006 or 2007, when he took up mountain-climbing “as an excuse to travel to places around the world I wouldn’t otherwise go,” he says. He also enjoys the physical challenge of climbing mountains and the opportunity it gives him to be outdoors.
In 2009, he conquered Aconcagua, a South American mountain that’s just under 23,000 feet high. The following year, he scaled Alaska’s Mount McKinley, which tops out at just over 20,000 feet and is considered a good warmup for climbing Everest — which is located in the Himalayas — because of its similar climbing conditions and harsh weather.
Mount Everest, though, at just over 29,000 feet, would be a much tougher monster to face. Climbers must overcome bone-chilling temperatures, a heightened risk of frostbite, dangerously strong wind gusts, and a significantly lower atmospheric pressure at the higher altitudes, requiring most climbers to use supplemental oxygen to survive.
And, as Scott’s mom indicated, a good many climbers have died in their quest to reach the summit, while others have died on their way back down. Ten climbers died last year, making it the third-deadliest Everest climbing season on record.
With that in mind, Scott began an intense nine-month training period to prepare for the climb.
“Most of my time was spent with a pair of boots, a pack and lots of time on a StairMaster,” he explains.
“I would put on the boots and the pack, and I’d put dumbbells in the pack to weight it down, then I’d spend anywhere from one to three hours at a time, four or five days a week, on the StairMaster. I found that’s the best simulation for what it’s like on the mountain.”
He flew out of the United States on March 30 to Kathmandu, Nepal, where his 12-member expedition team met. From there, they hiked to the Everest base camp, which is about a 12-day hike to an elevation of about 17,500 feet.
“Each day you’re gaining in altitude and allowing your body to acclimatize, so that your body can process oxygen more efficiently,” Scott says. “Once you get to base camp, you feel good and you’ve got your energy.”
Climbing Everest is not a straight shot to the top. Teams typically climb in “rotations,” which means they climb from base camp to increasingly higher camps, each time coming back down to a lower elevation to rest. This process helps climbers continue acclimatizing and gaining strength before they attempt to summit.
“When you add it all up, it’s about six weeks of climbing and resting,” Scott says.
For example, Scott’s team reached base camp on April 13 — after already hiking about 12 days from Kathmandu — but didn’t reach the Everest summit until May 18.
While many stories about Mount Everest allude to the “death zone” — the area above 26,000 feet where a number of climbers have died because the oxygen is so thin there — Scott remembers also being nervous about the Khumbu Icefall, a dangerous part of the climb that’s not far above base camp. Formed by glacial movements, the icefall is subject to sudden, unexpected crevass openings and ice avalanches that can kill climbers.
“The Khumbu Icefall is a maze of ice,” Scott says, “and you are the little mouse in the maze, and at any point in time the ice that makes up the maze can move and shift and fall. So there’s a lot of uncertainty about going through that, because it’s probably the most objective danger on the mountain.”
In the aforementioned “death zone,” Scott’s team didn’t encounter any dead bodies in the frozen terrain — media reports often mention such sightings — but there were two climbers who died in the zone on May 20, only two days after Scott reached the summit.
Overall, Scott says, his team encountered very few problems, though one climber on his team had a scary fall while descending an extremely icy part of the mountain. He was tied to a rope with a carabiner, though, so his fall was broken after about 50 feet when his carabiner hit a rope anchor. He wasn’t injured.
Reaching the summit, Scott says, was exhilarating.
“You’ve worked so long and hard to get there, and sacrificed so much, so to finally get there is exhilarating,” he says. “You’re standing on top of the world and looking in every direction, seeing mountains for miles and miles. It was just beautiful.”
The team spent about 15 minutes on the summit — where wind gusts of about 40 mph caused wind chills of about negative 50 degrees — before beginning their descent.
Coming down is anticlimactic, of course, but it still requires caution. “Getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory,” Scott says, quoting famous climber Ed Viesturs.
It took the team two days to get back down to the base camp.
Meanwhile, back in Wallburg, Suzanne DeRue had been tracking her son’s progress online, reading posts from Alpine Ascents, the company that guided Scott’s team. She couldn’t sleep during the 12-hour period that she knew the team was attempting to summit, and she unleashed a flood of emotions when she read the team had made it safely back to base camp.
“It was extremely nerve-racking and very stressful,” she says. “I’m so proud of him and thrilled for him, but I told him, ‘Don’t you ever do this again.’”
Scott understands his mother’s anguish, but he says he enjoys challenging himself as he did on Mount Everest.
“I truly believe that it is through challenge and adversity that we learn the most about ourselves,” he says. “Climbing the tallest mountain on Earth might be the best laboratory for learning about yourself, your character and what you can accomplish.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579