COUNTYWIDE : Everest Was Peak Time for Climber

Mark Tucker was determined to conquer Mt. Everest, and if it meant serving as a cook to do it, then so be it.

"I'd take whatever position was available, just to get on the team," he said.

So when the Chinese government whittled back the number of Mt. Everest permits it would issue Tucker's climbing team, he volunteered for kitchen duty--a minor inconvenience, he said, for a chance to scale the 29,028-foot mountain in windy, subfreezing weather.

And on May 9, after six weeks of slaving over canned beans, Tucker became the first Orange County resident to reach Everest's summit, joining an elite group of fewer than 300 people who have conquered the mountain.

It is a climber's ultimate dream.

"As a climber, you're always going, 'What's higher? What's higher?' " said Tucker, 33, who returned to Huntington Beach on Tuesday night. Nothing on Earth is higher than the Himalayan peak, wedged between the border of Nepal and Tibet.

Tucker undertook the climb with the International Peace Climb, a Seattle-based organization. Forty-seven expedition members representing the United States, the Soviet Union and China reached the summit in an effort led by Jim Whittaker, who in 1963 became the first American to achieve that feat.

Originally, they hoped to reach the summit on Earth Day, April 22, but weather conditions did not allow it. The team's mission, in part, was to clean up debris left by previous climbers.

The climb took six weeks, most of which was devoted to stocking seven way stations along the mountain with food and medical supplies.

Some days, the windchill factor pushed temperatures to minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit. "You couldn't have any skin exposed," Tucker said.

When at last all systems were go, the climbers returned to base camp and rested for a few days. Then they headed back toward the summit.

After six weeks of preparation for the momentous event, the climbers reached their prize in a mere six or seven days.

Back on level ground, the climbers were treated to a tour of China that featured banquets honoring their achievement.

Tucker's all-consuming avocation is likewise his profession. He works as a guide, mostly at Mt. Rainier in Washington, escorting less experienced climbers.

He is a wanderer who has no permanent residence, aside from the Huntington Beach house he grew up in. "I've got the greatest parents you could imagine--I couldn't do what I do without them," Tucker said. "I use their home as a base. When I'm low on money, I can come back here and hang out for a while."

Although he has managed to live life as he likes it--outdoors--Tucker said he sometimes yearns for stability, and even a bit of predictability.

"Quite often I get a little depressed, and envious of my brothers because they're settled down with families and routines. They have homes; I have a truck. I've just never been able to slow down."

Tucker figures he has another seven years of sportsmanship before he needs to worry about a mid-life career change. Until then, there are other mountains to climb, even though he has realized his most fantastic dream.

"Mt. Everest is the highest, but quite a few mountains are more technically difficult," Tucker said. "California has some of the greatest mountains in the world. I'll never run out of challenges."

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