Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman to Climb Everest

Wood, a Canadian, pulled one over on Americans in a race that had gone on overlong. Three-plus decades later, she has come out with her memoir.

By Sharon Wood | September 30th, 2019

Sharon Wood on the summit of Mount Everest, May 20, 1986. Photo: Dwayne Congdon.

 

From the editors:

May 16, 1975. Junko Taibei was the first woman ever to climb Mount Everest.  This pioneer died at age 77 three years ago and was memorialized around the world.

View from 7,200 meters shows the ridge to Camp V at the base of the upper pyramid of Everest. Photo: Jim Elzinga.

May 15, 1982. Marty Hoey, a much-respected Rainier guide and Snowbird ski patroller, died on Mount Everest. Hoey had cut the leg loops off her harness for utility and either neglected to double back the buckle or left insufficient tail to hold the webbing in place. She and her friend and teammate Jim Wickwire were ascending a fixed line when she fell, leaving an empty waist belt on the rope.

Asked, in a film later unintentionally serving as a eulogy, if she would like to be the first American woman to climb Everest, Hoey agreed. When pressed to say the words herself, she said with a little laugh, “Oh dear” and then cooperated. Her death was a huge loss to the climbing world as well as her loved ones. She was also considered likely to have made the top of Everest.

What ensued, in an era when few climbed Everest (remember that? —maybe not), was a protracted endeavor to put the first American woman up there. The goal helped—an understatement—everybody with fundraising, and the achievement portended fame and opportunity, corporate and lay-citizen recognition. The race over time felt overwrought, causing concern that someone inexperienced would be lured into danger on Everest, a new concept at the time, or ushered and helped up to claim the prize.

On September 26, 1988, to her relief and everyone else’s, Stacy Allison of Portland, Oregon, reached the top, via the normal southeast ridge. Her ascent ended the campaign and felt deserved in that she was a longtime climber with, for example, an ascent of the Cassin Ridge on Denali under her belt. But meanwhile, this had happened ….

Sharon Wood leading on Bourgeau Right Hand, Canadian Rockies. Photo: Pat Mor.

May 20, 1986. Sharon Wood—a guide in the Canadian Rockies and a veteran of climbs on Mount Logan, Denali (the Cassin Ridge), Makalu, the south face of Aconcagua and the northeast face of Huascaran Sur (1985)— climbed Everest. She and Dwayne Congdon also did it by a hard route, a new variation on the West Ridge. Her ascent was worldwide news and a lot of fun for the Canadians, who got one over on their noisy southern neighbors.

“We’re here, we’re really happy up here!” Wood said into the radio at the time. But she and Congdon had arrived late in the day, with darkness impending and an ordeal ahead.

Everest was her signature act and a great blessing, providing her a long career as a motivational speaker, but, as she writes in the foreword, she could never get away from it:

“I never expected this one climb to permeate my life to the extent it has. Not a day has gone by without some reference to Everest, whether from a friend or a stranger; from a journalist, a student or a speakers’ bureau; or from an aspiring mountaineer or an autograph hound. … Everest has opened doors for me and expanded my world. But at times, Everest has felt like an overbearing friend. It has often preceded me, elbowed its way into rooms, sashayed across floors, cut swaths through conversations and embarrassed me.”

Wood, who has now returned to her first love of guiding, had never been comfortable with the idea of being a public persona.

Still there was an inevitability to her writing a memoir, and 30-plus years later, she has finally come out with it. 

Below is an excerpt from the book.


 

 

THE MEETING

 

Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest, by Sharon Wood.

Jim has called a meeting to discuss our strategy for preparing the upper camps and timing for the summit bid teams. Albi, Dwayne, Barry, Jim and I meet at Camp Two on May 6, when our rest and work rotations intersect. It is another stormy day. The light is muted, the wind a constant. Snow patters and metal zipper tabs tick against the drum-taut tent walls. I find Dwayne, Albi, Barry and Jim in the cook tent, clustered around the radio for the morning call.

Jane bustles, cooking bacon, flipping pancakes and filling pots with snow and mugs with hot water. She stops to listen when Dave’s voice crackles over the radio. He is waiting at Camp Four for Dan and Laurie, who are coming up from Camp Three. Dave reports that he spent the night alone battling spindrift that kept blocking the entrance and trapping the poisonous off-gases from the stove. Jim grips the radio. By the end of the call, he tells us the meeting is postponed until the boys are down safely.

I sit amidst the others, yet lost in a dismal world of my own making. I stay in the cook shelter as long as it takes to force down a pancake before I slink out. Jim follows me and motions me to join him.

The 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, Sharon Wood, Chris Shank, Albi Sole and Dr. Bob Lee. Jane Fearing is missing from the photo. Photo: copyright The Continental Bank

Perhaps Jim has noticed my awkwardness in the cook shelter: he is perceptive and checks in with me periodically to ask after my well-being. I feel a flush of shame and wonder what to tell him as we huddle with our backs to the wind. But he has something altogether different in mind.

He holds out his package of throat lozenges. To suck on a candy whenever we have to breathe hard or talk has become necessity, especially for him. “There’s talk that Annie and Todd are ramping up for the summit,” he says. “I think you should go on the first bid— with Dwayne.”

I stagger backward as if he has just taken a swing at me. I cross my arms and blurt, “That’s not the plan! It’s been obvious for weeks now that Dwayne and Barry are a unit. They’re on their way to Basecamp for a rest and I’m slated for another shift up high with Albi. There’s no one else ready or in place to work with him. This isn’t a race, Jim. It’s a team effort. Just let it play out.”

“It has played out and you four have risen to the top. You’re the obvious ones for the summit bid.”

I wrap my arms around myself. “The timing isn’t right, Jim.”

Jim grasps my arm. “Just hear me out. Dwayne can still go down for a rest. Barry can rest here and replace you in two days—so you can rest.”

“Have you talked to anyone else about this?”

“Just Laurie. He agrees. He thinks you should go for it. But—I can’t be seen as favouring one person over another, particularly you.”

“Oh, that makes me feel special. So why team up with Dwayne rather than Albi for first bid?”

“Dwayne’s a different case.”

“What’s different?”

“You know the story. There’s an unpaid debt from when he gave up his turn for the summit on the ’82 trip and he’s got the most experience up high. Besides—” His voice fades into a whisper. My thoughts race to catch up to all that he has said. “This isn’t about Dwayne,” he continues, “it’s about you—and something way bigger.”

I think about Albi and all the conversations we’ve had to piece together our plan of going second—together. “No, I don’t feel right doing that,” I say.

He pulls me in. “Part of our vision is to make history. We can do that—by putting the first woman from North America on top of Everest. It’s been a part of the plan since you joined the team.”

“No, our vision was to climb a harder route in good style, and if I happen to be one of the climbers who is in the right place and right for the job, then so be it.”

“Well. Guess what? You are. Here’s our chance to realize the other part.”

I turn to face him. “‘The other part’”—I stab out quotation marks— “was just a way to attract a sponsor.” I have made sure to quash any special status since the beginning of the trip to avoid alienation. “None of us have given it any further thought or mention. Thank goodness.” My gaze drops to our feet, toe to toe in the same purple plastic boots—his twice as big as mine.

Jim grasps my arm. “This’s what I’m trying to tell you. I’ve been very careful to never single you out, to treat you as an equal, and to expect no more, and no less. And if we’re talking about seeing how things play out, you’ve earned this chance through merit. You’re strong and an obvious choice for a summit team.”

We stand in front of a cache of supplies covered by a tarp. An avalanche probe, strung with a Canadian flag, marks its location in a snowdrift. It leans as if tired, bowing and swaying as the flag whips in the wind. I say, “How would you propose the switch at the meeting?”

“That’s the tricky part. I can’t say anything at the meeting. You guys are going to have to work it out amongst yourselves.”

“Right,” I snort. “I can hear myself now: ‘The plan has changed, boys. It’s my turn to go to the top.’ Not happening!”

“What if Annie gets there first?”

“Then good on her. Like I said, it’s not a race. We’ll get there when we get there.”

Jim says, “We might not get a second chance, let alone a first one.” The flag snaps overhead. My gut leaps as the ground drops out from under me.

“I’ll think about it.” Now I really can’t face the others in the mess tent and plod back to my tent, heavy with conflicted thoughts. A man in this same position wouldn’t dither like I am.

I wake sometime later to Laurie, Dave and Dan’s voices and the crunch of snow as they pass my tent on their return from the upper camps. But I remain in the tent, staring up at the ceiling. Sometime later I hear someone approach and then Laurie’s voice.

“Hey, Sharon, you awake?”

“Yeah.”

“Open up. I just want to say hi before I head down to Camp One.” I sit up and unzip my door. His smile vanishes when he sees me. “You okay?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah, just tired is all. Sounds like you had a rough night.”

“Yeah, effing cold up there. For some reason”—he looks over his shoulder and then back at me, and lowers his voice—“Dan wouldn’t let me spoon with him like you did.” I can’t help but crack a smile. He squats down and keeps his voice low. “What’s with you? Jim told me to come over and talk some sense into you. He said something about you being too nice and that you’d tell me what that means.”

“Hmm, I’ve never been accused of that before. I don’t feel nice.”

“What’s wrong? You should be happy that you’re going to the summit with Dwayne.”

If I can’t understand, then how can he? “I think I’m just exhausted, and I don’t know how to handle this.”

“Handle what, saying yes to an opportunity of a lifetime?” His eyebrows shoot up, then he narrows his eyes and looks straight into mine. “Listen.” He sets his lips in a straight line across his broad face. “Remember what I told you about recognizing your turn when it comes around? Jim and I aren’t just telling you to go for it because you’re a woman, Sharon. These expeditions are a karmic playground and you’ve got a lot of allies here. This is as close as it gets for a turn to be handed to you on a platter. Hell, you and Dwayne have been through a lot together and I think you’d be the strongest team for the job.”

Dan shouts, “Hey, Laurie, we’re out of here. You coming?”

“Yeah, just give me a second!” He reaches in and puts both hands on my shoulders and plants a cold wet kiss on my cheek. Then he rocks back on his heels, springs up and shouts over his shoulder, “Take it!”

I arrive last to the meeting. Dwayne, Albi, Barry and Jim are sitting on the benches, chatting idly. Jane is there too, ostensibly to mind the stoves. Albi flashes a smile at me and pats the seat beside him in invitation. Everyone grows quiet. The air crackles with anticipation. Thoughts throng in my head. Laurie’s voice whispers, Take it! Another voice counters, Who said anything about it being your turn to take?

Jim says, “So, who’s going to start?” His eyes tick on each of us, ending with me, and gives me a barely perceptible nod.

In the instant I hesitate, Barry begins. “What have we got with the extended permit now, Jim? Until the twenty-fifth?” Jim nods. “That should be enough to get two teams of two to the top, maybe more. We’ve got what, four more days of fixing to reach Camp Six? So, Dwayne and I figure, given the higher altitude, there are two shifts left above Five.”

Albi says, “Providing this storm breaks, we’ll head up tomorrow. Then Dave, James and Kevin can replace us. Chris is going to give it a shot too, so that should set you and Dwayne up for the first bid, and give Woody and me a chance to rest before our turn. How many days do you think you’ll need for the first bid?”

“I figure four days,” Dwayne says. “One day to get to Camp Four, the second to reach Five, the third to Camp Six, which will hopefully be as high as 8,200 metres, and then on the fourth day we attempt the summit. Regardless of the outcome, we’ll be done by then. No rest to be had at 8,000 metres. We’ll need to get as low as possible that same day.”

“Do you think you’ll start using oxygen?” Albi asks.

Dwayne says, “We don’t know yet; it’ll depend on a bunch of unknowns.”

Jim remains passive, as he told me he would. I feel impotent and alone with my knowledge of our talk that morning. Jane’s eyes meet mine to say she is listening and with me. Just as I thought, the plan was already too well established to change now. We discuss what will be required to support two people at Camp Six: one bottle of oxygen per person per day, one tent, 150 metres of the lightest rope we can find to fix through the crux and six canisters of fuel at the minimum.

Jim interjects, “And there must be a team in place at Camp Five ready to help the summit team in case there’s trouble—or it’s no go.”

The meeting is over. Paralyzed with regret, I watch the others file out.

Jim is waiting for me outside. Mute with self-defeat, I watch my feet rearrange the snow. “Woody, what’s with you?” he says. “Do you know what you’re doing? I thought you had decided to step up! I told you I couldn’t do it for you.”

I stare at our boots and mumble, “When could I have said anything? Like I told you, there was already a plan.”

“What do you mean? I gave you the perfect cue!” I think back to the nod he gave me as I watch his fingers roll a lozenge. “Come on, Woody. Stop being so Canadian! So polite! What’s the difference between Americans and Canadians?” He doesn’t wait for me to respond. “Americans are always first! Here’s your chance to make history. For us—and for Canada!”

I glance over my shoulder and see Jane poke her head out of our tent and shoot me a look. I meet Jim’s eyes and say, “I need to go think about all this.”

The air whooshes out of my sleeping bag when I flop onto my back in the tent. Jane peers at me. “Well? What’s going on with you and Jim?”

I look up at the ceiling and sigh, “He told me to quit being so Canadian.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“He urged me to speak up and tell the guys I want to go on the first bid with Dwayne.” I pause, bracing myself for Jane’s shock over such an idea—her disapproval. But instead, she leans over me to pry my eyes off the ceiling. “Go on, I’m listening.”

I explain Jim’s rationale and Laurie’s pep talk about this being as close as is possible to being handed my turn on a platter. As I tell her, it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time—and clearly. “Oh, Jane, I guess what I’m really trying to say is, I think I blew it by not stepping up. I just didn’t think it would play out like this.”

 


Excerpted with permission from Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest (Mountaineers Books, October 2019) by Sharon Wood.


 

 

 

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Sharon Wood is an ACMG-certified guide living in Canmore, Alberta. She owns the guiding and speaking business Adventure Dynamics Inc. In 1997 Sharon received the Summit of Excellence Award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. You can learn more at http://www.sharonwood.net/.


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Heat, Height And False Teeth On The First Ascent Of The Steck-Salathe, By Allen Steck

 

My Old Man And The Mountain, By Leif Whittaker

 

Interview: Melissa Arnot On Climbing Everest Without Oxygen

 

Charlotte Fox, 1957-2018, High-Altitude Climber and Survivor of Everest ’96

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