Reaching the highest heights on the planet is something more than just a goal for Mary Poer.
A Minocqua resident and director of buildings and grounds at the Lac du Flambeau Public School in her daily life, Poer has taken her life’s travels to the limits – not only to scratch items off her bucket list, but because it’s become something more than that.
Her latest trip to Nepal’s Mount Everest base camp and Island Peak were completed for family and spiritual reasons.
A couple of years ago as she was turning 50 years old, she was going over bucket lists with her family – a task that included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
She scratched that trek off the list in February 2013.
Then her life took a tragic turn.
One month after returning to her life here in Wisconsin from her climb of Kilimanjaro she learned that her brother, who lived in Norway, had committed suicide.
She immediately scheduled a flight to Norway and flew to help her brother’s family while trying to grasp the full meaning of her grief.
While still carrying the weight of the loss of her brother, Mary decided to continue on with her goal of climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents.
Nepal was next.
“I did this for three reasons: One was for the children at the [Lac du Flambeau] school,” she said while sitting at her kitchen table reflecting on her past accomplishment and what lies ahead.
“It’s a big, small world out there and it’s not as dangerous as the news makes it out to be. These [climbs] are my marathons. They require stamina and mental toughness,” she said while describing the need to overcome and accomplish the task as her second reason.
“I hadn’t processed the grief [for the loss of her brother]. I asked, ‘what can I do?’ I figured I was going to go and climb in honor of my brother.”
And while the cost of scaling Mount Everest was cost prohibitive (between $75,000 to $100,000), Mary figured she could climb to the base of Everest and then make the climb of Island Peak – a climb that would take her to 20,305 feet above sea level.
Though it was well short of the 29,000 feet that Everest offered, the planned trek was well within her means and goals.
So the planning began.
Training wasn’t an issue. Because her most recent climb in Nepal came within a year after the Kilimanjaro trek, she didn’t need to push herself physically. Her training was more about keeping her edge and continuing to stay mentally focused and physically in tune with what would be required.
That meant the daily tuning of her body through regular physical activity – something she had already been doing.
“I was sort of riding on the heels of Kilimanjaro. But throughout the year I stayed on a running, hiking and walking regimen. I walk with a backpack with rocks in it. I stay fit year-round and continuing these activities helps me tone up.”
The logistics of the trip also had to be considered.
“When I emotionally decided that I was going to do this, I had to do a lot of research. I ended up [contracting] with a Nepalese trekking company. You do need a guide for certain parts of [the trip] ... the negotiating and such.”
In addition to hiring a guide and a porter for the trip, Mary said that because of the area in which she was headed she needed a sherpa guide – an experienced mountaineer who was familiar with the technical aspects of climbing across glacier fields and up rock walls. That type of climbing wasn’t within the venue of the guide and porter.
It was also important for Mary to hire people from the area in which she was headed.
“With anybody venturing to travel abroad – if they are doing mountaineering, to me it was right to go with a local company – first of all it’s much, much cheaper and all the money spent goes to the locals and directly helps the local economy.”
After the plans had been laid and all the logistics accounted for, it was time.
Mary flew out of Minneapolis April 1 on the 36-hour flight that would take her to Paris, Delhi and then on to Katmandu.
After staying a couple of days in Katmandu, Mary, her guide, Sanjay Rama and porter Dhan started out on what was to be a 50-mile, 17-day excursion.
The early days of the climb was through lush valleys and small farming villages.
That turned quickly to rock and ice as they continued. “Before long, we were way above the tree line.”
With average daily temperatures around 40 to 50 degrees when the sun was out, the nightly temperatures dropped at night when they stopped.
She said her guide and porter were friendly and talkative – a part of the trip that makes the time pass.
In fact, the human interaction with her fellow travelers was refreshing and even educational.
Grasping the basics of the language was important for Mary.
“With international travel, if you can learn a few words of their language it’s a blast,” she said.
In fact, she talked about the nights when she and her fellow travelers would sit writing and learning words that helped with communication.
“I kept a journal and practiced the words ... when we were moving I would practice my Nepalese on them and they would laugh.”
She also talked about the cultural differences that were evident.
When they stopped for the night, it was always the traveler who was allowed to eat first. Mary’s guide and porter would graciously wait until she had finished before they would enjoy their own meal.
“At the lower altitudes, we would stop at tea houses to eat and sleep. We would have our meal in a main room with a pot belly stove in middle burning yak dung.
“The guides and porters would usually eat in the back. At the higher altitudes they will eat with you, but only after the tourists are fed. They eat with their hands. They usually have a jug of hot water and they will drink without touching the bottle with their lips because they share.”
While their trip started with another tourist – a woman from Texas – she and her guide split off from the group to travel to Island Peak before Mary did. From there, they were traveling alone.
As for the challenges of traveling, this particular climb offered some unique to the area and situation.
“There’s times when you’re walking right on the edge of a cliff. One false move and you’re done,” Mary said.
However, it’s the physical unknowns that can result in the most dangerous challenges.
When climbing at these high altitudes, one never knows how it will affect the body.
“It’s the cerebral and pulmonary edema that can get you at any time,” Mary said.
With a cerebral edema, the brain swells; with pulmonary edema, fluid builds around the heart.
Either can be fatal if action is not taken immediately and there are few indications that either condition will occur, Mary said.
“The whole time in Nepal, the only mechanical sound I heard was the helicopter transporting sick people.
“There’s a prescription you can take to offset the effects [of high altitude illnesses]. I started taking it at 14,000 feet. Once we were on the way down, I stopped taking it.
“I ran into so many people ... that you meet back at lower altitudes ... and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, we had to take the helicopter back ...’
“The key is that you have to take your time when you’re doing this. You have to pace yourself and you have to stay hydrated. The key is to ‘climb high and stay low.’ That means climbing to a higher altitude to climatize and then climbing down a ways to sleep that night. It’s really about knowing your body.”
When Mary and her Nepalese guide and porter made it to Everest base camp, they then made their way to Island Peak base camp where she met up with her sherpa guide – the man with the mountaineering experience who would take her the rest of the way up to the top of Island Peak.
“When we got in to Island base camp we stayed a day for a refresher course on the ropes and left about 11 p.m. by headlamp on the way up to Island Peak.”
Moving through an area that was all boulders and rock, they eventually got to the point where the use of ropes was required to get out onto and across the glacier.
It is at this point that many who make the trek have second thoughts.
“Only 40 percent of the people who attempt this don’t make it [across the ice]. Many will look at the ice and say, ‘forget it.’
“It was way harder than I imagined. Before I left, I researched this and I thought for sure we would get across the glacier, climb a wall and then scale across a ridge to the peak. But we didn’t do that. We got across the glacier, got up the wall and when we got to the top, I looked over and the peak was literally just a few feet away,” she said.
The peak, as Mary described it, was just that – a very small area where “about five of us huddled ... we were at the peak about half an hour and it was wickedly cold. Because of the altitude it was a good 20 below.”
Making the peak about 6:30 a.m. it took Mary and the sherpa guide about seven hours to make the trek from base camp.
And it was there – near the top of the world – that Mary remembered why she had scaled the heights.
“I mentally carried his spirit with me and at Island Peak I released it. I was at peace ... now I’m at total peace.”
Then it was time to move, to descend.
The trip down the mountain took another three to four days.
While on the way down and since, Mary has had time to think about what she has done and what the future holds.
In addition to the task of heading back to Wisconsin and her daily duties, Mary also thought about what to tackle next.
With two summits conquered, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina is probably next on her list.
I would like to do that within two years,” she said.
“That will make it three of the seven summits ... At this point why not at least try? Antarctica doesn’t sound exciting, but so what?
“You know, I’ve had people ask me that because I do all this international travel, that I must be rich,” she said.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“With all the incidentals, and that includes boarding my dog and airfare, I spent $5,000. The air fare round trip was $2,400 total.
“You can’t be afraid to travel alone. You just have to keep your wherewithal. I figure out my way around pretty easily and I’ve seen some amazing things.
“This is a big, small world, so why not discover it?
“I did a tally before left, and I’ve been to 23 different countries over the years. When I was younger in my 20s I did a lot of traveling through Europe. It’s been great and I’ve been doing it my whole life.
“I’m a California transplant. I came here to visit in 1992 and moved here in 1993. I’ve been all across this country and this [the Lakeland area] is one of the most beautiful spots.
“I consider myself blessed to be able to do this. This is a [snowmobile] or ATV for someone else; it’s two days with two kids at Disney.
“Luckily, when we were kids we were free-range kids. If Mom wanted to find us, she would call the dog. That’s carried through my whole life. Instead of going to a mall or play video games, we would hop in a car and drive to the Sierras and take on a peak. It’s like running a marathon. It’s so easy to get sedentary. It’s so important to keep moving and keep living.
“For the kids out there – I really want to see them open their eyes. I want to let them know there’s an amazing world out there and not to be scared of it. You may get sick and you may die. I don’t want to end up at the end of my life and say, ‘I didn’t try.’ Right?”
Mary shouldn’t have to ask that question.
After all, there are five more peaks out there to conquer and what’s beyond that?
Well, it’s a “big, small world out there.”
Raymond T. Rivard may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org