The Adventurers: The View from the Top


Everest 2013Kent Stewart climbs the world’s seven summits, one step at a time.

Written by Lindsey Lowe

 

“If you would have told me seven years ago that I’d either be president or climbing Mount Everest, I would have picked president.” Kent Stewart is serious about that. In 2006, Stewart and his wife, Julie, decided to go to Africa and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, just “for something interesting to do,” Stewart says.  That first climb took a week, and when they got back down the mountain, Stewart says he was sure that was the last time he’d ever do anything like that. “But then you get back home, and you look at the pictures,” he says. “You think, ‘Man, that was pretty cool,’ and you forget the miserable parts. It’s kind of like childbirth [according to his wife, he says].”

Stewart had read the book Seven Summits, which tells the story of two men who decided to climb the seven highest peaks on each continent. Stewart, 57, and Julie thought it would be fun to see how many they could climb; they never intended to climb them all. They had taken Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa; next, they went to Mount Elbrus in Europe. The couple hired local Russian guides and made it to the summit in about a week. It wasn’t fun—it was hard—but they kept going.

They spent nine days in Chile waiting on the weather to allow them entry into Antarctica; once there, it took them about a week to climb Mount Vinson. After that, Stewart says they decided to “take a break,” and they went to Australia to do Mount Kosciusko, which is usually just a three-hour hike. However, once there, they found a blizzard instead of the 60-degree temperatures they were expecting. It turned out to be a grueling climb. “We were the only two people on the mountain, because it was just brutal conditions,” Stewart says. “But it would have been embarrassing not to make that one, so we did. When we got to the top, there was nobody there to take our picture, so we had to take a picture of each other. What should have been a walk in the park turned into this big adventure.” These are the four “easy” mountains, Stewart explains, but he and Julie had decided to climb until they couldn’t anymore. They set their sights on the fifth, Mount Aconcagua, in South America.

That mountain took a little more out of them. The hike was 22,820 feet tall and 17 days long, and along the way, they encountered the body of a person who hadn’t made it, which made Julie question their devotion. The weather for that climb was pretty bad, and though many other hikers had decided to turn back, the Stewarts’ guide thought they could make it to the summit. As they neared the top, they found another body—this time, the man was alive, but barely. Along with their guide, they painstakingly walked him back down the mountain; when he said he could go on no farther, they situated him in a cave and called for rescue. “That was a little more adventure than we had bargained for,” Stewart says. “But it turned out to be the most rewarding day we had. We were the only three people to summit that day, so if we had not gone up, there’s no way that guy would have made it another 24 hours.” It may have been more than they bargained for, but they felt like they could still keep going. So they did.

In 2010, they went to Alaska to take their sixth mountain, Mount Denali. At 14,000 feet—the mountain stands 20,237 feet tall—they decided to turn back after encountering bad weather. After that, Julie decided that she had met her mountain-climbing quota, but Stewart felt that if he trained harder, he could make it to the top. So that’s what he did; in 2011, he went back by himself and made it. But that mountain had its own prowess. “Ten people died that year,” Stewart says. “It was a hard year. We just happened to get really lucky.” And just like that, Stewart had climbed six of the world’s seven summits; he notes that each mountain has its own personality, with its own quirks, and that it was fun to get to know them. “All that is left,” he says with a knowing smile, “is Everest.”

In March 2013, he went to Everest, but got sick along the way and had to make the decision to come down. The plan had always been to climb only until he wanted to stop, but once he got home and began to heal, he thought he might be able to return to the mountain and summit. In April, that’s exactly what he’s going to try to do. He’s been training with a team from Boulder, Co., for five months, and will continue until the climb; his plan involves five hours of workouts a day and sleeping in an elevation tent to acclimate his lungs to the altitude. (Some of his gear has been provided by Mountain High Outfitters.) “I never thought I would go back,” Stewart says. “But I just can’t let it go. It’s like an addiction.”

Denali 2011 AutobaunOne of the greatest parts, he says, has been the people he’s met along the way—he and Julie have friends all over the world. And they have made their mark on the places they’ve seen. While in Africa, the Stewarts met Honest Minja, a local Tanzanian who took them up Mount Kilimanjaro. When they visited Minja’s wife, Emma, a schoolteacher, they were wrecked by how few supplies her students had—she had 55 students and five pencils. When they got back to the U.S., they started the Kilimanjaro Children’s Foundation, and in 2008, they built a library for her students.

Of course, another perk is seeing the world from her far-up places, though Stewart says that the summit isn’t always the best part. “On the little mountains, you feel really good at the top,” he says. “On the bigger mountains, you’re so exhausted; it’s only halfway. You don’t really enjoy it until you’re home.” And he says that even if he doesn’t make it up Everest, he is still thankful for the transformative journey that’s led him here: “Even if I fail, I feel like I’ve pushed myself to a place where I never dreamed I could push myself to. To summit would just be everything.”

Climbing mountains has taught him a lot of things: he’s learned how to move forward when he doesn’t think he can; how to appreciate a good view; how to know when to turn back and try again. And he’s learned that if you lean into life, all bets are off. “You never know where life is going to take you. I wouldn’t trade the experiences we’ve had on these mountains for anything in the world,” he says. “It would have never even occurred to me that I would be here. Who knows what any of us will be doing 10 years from now. You just never know where life is going to take you.”

2 Responses to “The Adventurers: The View from the Top”

  1. Dona Bullock says:

    I know Kent and Julie personally and wish Kent the time of his life on Everest. If anyone can DO this …. You can because of your character ,determination& Dream! I have followed them on their journey up every mountain and I just want to say you are living what you love and God is blessing you both!! What an example you are making about Living life in it’s full potential ! See you when you return after summiting The 7th ! God’s PEACE be in your mind as you climb.

  2. Tyler says:

    Sounds like he has a great spirit. The pictures are amazing! Every time I read about climbing, in books and pieces like these, my own itch grows stronger.

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