Rising: The first North American Woman to summit Everest

Enjoy an excerpt from "Rising", by Mountaineers Books author and BeWild presenter Sharon Wood, on what it was like to be the first North American woman to summit Everest.
Mountaineers Books Mountaineers Books
January 08, 2020
Rising: The first North American Woman to summit Everest
We reach the summit at 9:00 p.m., Everest Light time. Photo by Dwayne Congdon.

In 1986, Canadian Sharon Wood became the first North American woman to summit Mt. Everest and is still one of the very few who have accomplished the summit via the West Ridge. As we look forward to her BeWild presentation on January 9, we would like to take a moment to share an excerpt from her new release Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest. It has been edited for length.

Chapter 1: THE PROMISE

MARCH 17, 1986

WITH MOVEMENT COMES COMFORT. In the dark, between Laurie and Jim, mentor and leader, I doze as my head jounces and lolls between their shoulders. We are nestled in the cab of a five-ton diesel truck climbing more than a thousand metres via sixty or more switchbacks to reach Pang La, a 5,200-metre-high pass on the Tibetan Plateau.

While the rest of our entourage overnights in Shigatse, we are getting a head start with the slower-moving trucks carrying our cargo. The truck heaves and sways over potholes and then races toward the next straightaway, pressing our spines into our seat backs. At first we braced ourselves, our hands on the dashboard or the roof, careful to not touch one another in the jostle. But now we’ve surrendered to the movement and relax into each other. Rather than try to talk over the truck’s throaty growls and sighs, I stare through the sandblasted windshield. It feels like no one else is awake in the world.

Jim reaches across my back and grips my shoulder. He points. “Here it comes, Woody!”

A scent—part feral, part mothballs—fills the cab. Rawhide and thongs wrap the driver’s ankles, replacing the missing eyelets and laces in his boots. Bailing wire binds the rest of the boot to the sole. He wears a khaki-green cap with turned-up fur-lined earflaps and a parka and pants with a time-worn sheen at the elbows and knees. I guess his clothing is Chinese People’s Liberation Army cast-offs, and he, Tibetan. His face is all sharp angles. There is some fire in his eyes—a hint of hope that it’s not over yet for his beleaguered country the Chinese now occupy. He has offered no name, nor answers to our questions, and I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t understand or if he’s been ordered to remain silent. Soon, my eyes close and I feel myself being rocked and cradled as we rise.

IG---horiz---team-members-West-Ridge.jpgTeam members are on their way down the West Ridge and nearing Camp Four at 7,300 metres. Photo by Jim Elzinga.

I wake with a start when Jim slaps his palm on the dash. “Stop here!” he says. He raises his arm and slices the air. “Cut!” The driver pumps the brake and wrenches the emergency lever up, and the truck comes to a stop. Then Jim points at us, the roof and the back of the truck. “We ride up on back.”

Laurie yanks the door lever up and pushes his shoulder into the door. It creaks open and he steps down, then offers me his hand. In the dim of the predawn light, the three of us stumble around to the back. We climb over our cargo and wedge ourselves so we can look out over the cab. Jim slams his hand on the roof and yells, “Okay, go!”

With the drawstrings of our hoods cinched tight around our faces, we huddle close to fend off a cold wind that bites through our clothing. Laurie pulls me into his side as he shouts over the din of the truck and the rush of the wind, “Any minute now!”

 Jim reaches across my back and grips my shoulder. He points. “Here it comes, Woody!”

 As we crest the top of the pass at sunrise, Laurie sweeps his arm over an ocean of brown hills crowned by the white wall of the Himalayas in the distance, and says, “Sharon Wood, welcome to Mount Everest!”

 The driver pulls over to stop amidst rows of rock cairns festooned with string upon string of prayer flags streaming in the wind. Far off, the mountain that I’ve been planning for, thinking about, dreaming about, reigns above all else on the horizon, with a plume of snow tearing off its top. But what hits me harder than this first sight of Everest is how grateful I am to be sharing this experience with these men who have been so instrumental in bringing me to this magical moment. There’s no one in the world I’d rather have beside me, and I sense I’ll feel this way every day for the next two and a half months of my life.

 We travel for several more hours before reuniting with our ten other team members and our Chinese Mountaineering Association liaison, interpreter and their cook at the entrance of the Rongbuk Valley. Travelling in faster jeeps, they have caught up to us at this gateway to Everest, or Chomolungma, as it is known to the Tibetans.

IG---horiz---exped-team.jpgThe Canadian Everest Light Team: Standing, left to right: Laurie Skreslet and Kevin Doyle. Back row, left to right: Barry Blanchard, Dan Griffith, Dwayne Congdon, James Blench and Dave McNab. Front row, left to right: Jim Elzinga, me, Chris Shank, Albi Sole and Dr. Bob Lee. Jane Fearing is missing from the photo. Photo courtesy of the Continental Bank.

Raging monsoon waters and extreme melt-freeze cycles obliterate the final stretch of the road to Basecamp every year. This year seems no exception, and I am thinking we will have to walk the last three kilometres.

A straggle of Tibetans huddles in the lee of an abandoned stone hut. They are all sinew and tendon, with weather-beaten faces, and clad in a contrast of secondhand ski jackets, hide and homespun. We wait in the jeeps and watch our Chinese interpreter, Mr. Yu, inch open his door against the pressing wind to speak to them. His cap flies off his head, and a Tibetan’s arm darts out and snatches it mid-flight. Mr. Yu totters with arms out as he picks his way over the rubble toward the man. The Tibetan meets Mr. Yu with a bow and a thin smile as he returns his cap.

Mr. Yu and the men talk as they point up valley. Then the Tibetans shoulder pry bars, shovels and pickaxes and make their way to the head of the cavalcade. As we start moving, some trot easily beside us while others ride the jeeps’ bumpers like broncos, their bodies folding and rocking to the buck and jostle. When we roll to a stop at the edge of a torrent, they stride ahead through the rushing, hip-deep water and leap up onto the ice-bound rock shelf on the other side. Some chop away at its edge while others pry boulders and shovel gravel. Soon, there is a ramp leading up the opposite bank. The labourers wade back toward us, their clothes wicking water up past their chests as they rearrange rocks they have rolled into the river for the vehicles to drive on.

It will take the dozen or so men a few hours to prepare the final stretch to Basecamp. While we sit warm and dry on soft, cushioned seats, their hardship, and our comfort, keeps my eyes from meeting theirs. We are climbers here for good reason, not tourists, I tell myself. But I recognize the Tibetan man’s thin smile to Mr. Yu as one for us all.

Sharon Wood is an internationally certified alpine guide and was recognized as the “Mountaineer of the Year” by the American Alpine Club. She will be a guest speaker in the BeWild series on January 9, 2020, at the Mountaineers Program Center.

top photo: "We reach the summit at 9:00 p.m., Everest Light time." Photo by Dwayne Congdon.