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HIGH POINT FOR PAIR : First 2 U.S. Women to Climb Everest Honored on Return

Times Staff Writer

There were flowers, banners and balloons, mixed with rain, for Stacy Allison and Peggy Luce when they arrived home in the Pacific Northwest Wednesday.

The flowers, banners and balloons celebrated their new status as the first and second American women to climb Mt. Everest. The rain could have been tears for all the other climbers who died trying.

“It’s finally over and done with,” Allison said during a news conference at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. “American women climbers do not have to worry about who’s going to be the first one on Everest anymore. We can do some serious climbing without that.”

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Allison, 30, is regarded as a serious and skilled Himalayan climber. She planted her 5 feet 3 inches on the 29,108-foot summit of the world’s highest mountain on Sept. 29, just 3 days before Luce, who got there with Geoff Tabin, 32.

All were members of the 13-person 1988 Northwest American Everest Expedition led by Jim Frush, a 38-year-old Seattle attorney who made the point that all members were “amateurs,” as contrasted with people who do nothing but climb mountains all the time.

Allison, a building contractor in Portland, has made her living framing houses.

Luce, 29, has been a bicycle messenger in Seattle.

Tabin is a Chicago physician.

A third woman member, schoolteacher Diana Dailey, 45, of Edmonds, Wash., did not reach the summit when bad weather prevented additional attempts.

Nobody would question Allison’s credentials, but that hasn’t been said about some of the other American women who have attempted Everest, including Luce--admittedly, before this feat, a climber with limited experience.

Six other women have climbed Everest. The first was Junko Tabei of Japan in 1975.

As a result, the issue of placing the first American woman on the peak was considered no more than an over-hyped gimmick in some corners of the climbing community. Among laymen, it overshadowed the fact that climbing Everest is still a very difficult and dangerous thing to do, definitely not for dilettantes.

True, according to the latest information, a record 33 people reached the summit this season before the onslaught of the dreaded monsoon, bringing the total to 222.

But, according to Frush, nine others died--also a record, maintaining the sobering ratio of one death for every two to three successes over the years.

The Northwest group went up the South Col, used by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand in the first ascent of Everest in 1953. It was the 25th anniversary of the first ascent by an American, Jim Whitaker of Port Townsend, Wash.

There were six other expeditions on the south side of the mountain and at least two on the north, including another American group that didn’t reach the top.

The Northwest group was lucky. Deputy leader Don Goodman, 32, of Seattle, broke a finger when he was caught in an avalanche.

“This was the closest we came to any kind of disaster on the climb,” Frush said. “Nearly every expedition had some fatality.”

They were lucky--and wise. After the two successful ascents, the Northwest group sat out several days of high winds.

“Some teams went up at that point,” Frush said. “We decided we would not. We felt we’d wait a day or so and see what happened. I think that was probably pretty good judgment, because on the summit attempt by the French on the 13th, three men reached the summit but two died coming down.”

Frush added: “John Petroske had gone up with Steve Ruoss and they’d seen a body hurtling down the Lhotse face. They went to investigate, hoping to offer some aid. The body turned out to be one of the Sherpas (native guides) who’d died earlier.

“They gave up their own summit attempt to see if they could render aid, and it turned out to be a useless gesture.

“Their humanitarian gestures were not so useless in the following days. John and Steve also gave up their summit attempts at the end to help rescue an injured Spanish climber. Without them, he would not be alive today.”

Not so lucky, Frush said, were “four Czech climbers--friends of ours--who perished. One of them had reached the summit.”

Still, they keep going back.

Luce said: “Before we left, we signed a letter of what we wanted done with our remains. Every single one of us said we did not want anybody to rescue our bodies. We wanted the climb to go on. You go for the love of climbing.”

If people die, Luce said, “You put it in the back of your mind, and you climb.”

Allison said: “I don’t focus on the death aspect when I’m climbing, even if somebody else dies. It’ll mess your head up, and you won’t be able to climb.”

And the rewards?

In her case, Allison said, it opens doors for women. “It shows that women can do whatever they choose in life.”

But, she added, she wasn’t leading a feminist cause. Allison tried Everest last year and failed.

“When I didn’t reach the summit, I had to reassess why I really climbed,” she said. “It’s not to be the first American woman on Everest. It’s to fulfill my personal goal.”

For Luce, the effort was worth it. “The wind shear would hit the summit and go off in a plume (of snow),” she said of her approach to the summit. “Geoff and the Sherpa would just disappear ahead of me. I looked at the wind and the summit ridge and thought, ‘I’m going to be blown off.’ ”

And when she got there?

“It was a spectacular, gorgeous sight. It (also) was cold and windy, so I just took a quick look around and headed down.”

Luce might have beaten Allison. Frush maintains that the primary goal of the expedition was not to put an American woman on top, and there was a critical moment of decision on the day it happened.

Allison, Frush and Ruoss had been chosen as the first summit team. They left Camp 4 at 26,000 feet about midnight, but 7 hours later, at 28,000 feet, two of their three Sherpa equipment bearers turned back.

“I think they were afraid,” Allison said. “Not all Sherpas want to go to the top of Everest.”

That left them with only one bottle of oxygen.

“And we knew all three couldn’t do it,” Frush said. “So we told the remaining Sherpa to think of a number between 1 and 10.

“Steve said, ‘I’ll take 8,’ and Stacy said, ‘I’ll take 4.’ One of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, I said, ‘Well, I’ll take 6.’ The number was 3, and Stacy got the bottle.”

Allison, carrying a half pack of about 20 pounds, reached the top 3 1/2 hours later, about 15 minutes ahead of her Sherpa, Pasang Gyalzen, 26. She stayed there for about 45 minutes, taking pictures and planting memorabilia.

“I was quite happy but also was thinking that I was actually quite lonely because Jim and Steve turned back,” she said. “I wanted to share the experience with close friends.”

Luce said, “I’m really thrilled that Stacy was able to be the first American woman. Stacy’s been climbing a lot of years and she can represent the climbing community better than I could.”

Frush said: “This was quite a strong team. . . . Everybody here could have reached the summit. The first goal was to return everybody safely. We’re happiest about that.

“There was a lot of success on Everest this summer. There was also a lot of death. Through luck and good judgment, the support of our sponsors and friends, good planning, execution and teamwork, we came away with only the success, and we’re thankful for that.

“We didn’t add women to the team because they were women. We were looking for the best climbers, and some of them happened to be women. When we got up to the southeast ridge, I would have liked to have won the lottery.

“The women were given no particular favors or considered as anything else but another climber.”

Luce said, “There wasn’t really a gimmick to it. The reason I was put on the expedition is the Catch-22 in Himalayan climbing, where you have to have climbed (there) before you’re accepted.

“If that was the case, there are far more experienced women who would have been picked over me. They thought it was time to start opening the doors for new people.”

Tabin pointed out that all 13 members of the group plus the 40 Sherpas, who carried gear, established camps and fixed difficult routes with ropes and ladders, had a part in reaching the summit.

“For Stacy and Peggy and me, it was being in the right place at the right time. Everyone on the team contributed,” he said.

Luce, who is 5 feet 10 inches, lost 30 pounds in the effort, down to 135. Allison lost 2 pounds.

Her greatest setback might have been learning recently that geologists raised the official elevation of Everest from 29,028 feet to 29,108.

“It bummed me out when I found out I had to climb another 80 feet,” she said.


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