16 lives lost, but Everest still calls
Suburban man's climb canceled amid tragedy
The avalanche that snuffed out the lives of 16 Sherpas a short walk from Joel Schauer's tent sounded like every other avalanche he had experienced while waiting his turn to scale Mount Everest.
"I heard the avalanche on that morning. You hear constant avalanches," says the Hawthorn Woods businessman, adding that he had learned how to differentiate an ice avalanche from those with snow or rocks. "I didn't think much of it."
The April 18 rumble Schauer heard, sounding "like somebody dropping off a load of gravel in my driveway," was made by giant blocks of ice burying Sherpas who were inching their way across metal ladders as they prepared the climbing route through the precarious Khumbu Icefall. Sixteen Sherpas were crushed and buried. Seven others were injured and needed rescuing.
"Initially, I was in a degree of disbelief," says Schauer, 53, who realized the magnitude of the tragedy from the ominous conversations on portable radios and cellphones. "I had such a disbelief and shock."
The guides and Sherpas scheduled to lead later expeditions, including the 14 climbers in Schauer's group, attempted an immediate rescue.
"They acted like heroes," Schauer says, comparing the men to the first-responders who rushed into the doomed World Trade Centers on Sept. 11. "They were risking their own lives."
On the deadliest day in the recorded history of the world's tallest mountain, Schauer watched the helicopters coming to transport the survivors and haul away bodies.
"I had a sense of helplessness. I couldn't go in to help in the icefall," says Schauer, who had planned to spend that Friday training for his assault on Everest. "I was going to be in that icefall two days later."
Having bonded with other teams of Sherpas and guides during the 10-day trek to base camp, Schauer didn't know the doomed Sherpas. He had met them only on the afternoon before the avalanche during a puja -- the Sherpa ceremony to bless the climb.
"It was the Sherpas' way to relate to the mountain and the mountain's way to relate to the Sherpas," says Schauer, who described the joyous ceremony before an altar as similar to a wedding, with food, drink and even the throwing of rice. "The Sherpas wanted to dance at the close. We had a big ring, and you hold hands and look these guys in the face. It was a wonderful end to the ceremony."
A veteran climber, Schauer heard reports, such as a 2008 Massachusetts General Hospital study, noting he had a 1.6 percent chance of dying on Everest.
"I was OK with it," says Schauer, an entrepreneur who started his Fairchild Industries rubber and plastics company out of his home and grew it into a thriving business in Lake Zurich. "I don't play the lottery. I have no interest in gambling. But I don't mind risk."
His appreciation for nature started during his childhood in Long Grove, where he fondly recalls hunting pheasants with his twin brother, Jon. Married with three grown children, Schauer says he prefers activities that challenge him, no matter how difficult or risky.
"I can't discount the value of what I call good pain," says Schauer, who finds motivation in mountains. "It's an exercise in leadership, and I love to see leadership."
It was his volunteer work with the Juna Amagara Ministries, a charity that helps African children orphaned by AIDS, that led Schauer to his first climb. Uganda, where the charity has been operating for a decade, borders Tanzania, home to Mount Kilimanjaro. Schauer and his daughter Jennifer climbed Kilimanjaro in 2008. He went on to climb peaks in Mexico, Argentina, the United States and Canada, overcoming the natural instinct to quit.
"When that gets in my head, all mountains are difficult," Schauer says. "And that gets in my head on every mountain."
But even in the days after the Everest tragedy, Schauer says he would have ventured into that literal valley of death if the Sherpas working with Alpine Ascents, the Seattle-based company Schauer was climbing with, had wanted to climb.
"It's like a dream broken," says Schauer, who says he supports the Sherpas' decision not to venture up Everest, wiping out this year's climbing season and making the future uncertain.
"There is a sense of sadness for the Sherpas. They are husbands, brothers and sons," he says.
Then there's the personal disappointment of being on the cusp of a lifetime goal and losing the opportunity, a lifetime of savings (climbers usually spend between $70,000 and $100,000), and the chance to use all his training. Returning from climbing Denali in May of 2013, Schauer upped his daily training regimen with more weights, yoga, core exercises and four-hour hikes up Wisconsin ski hills while wearing a 45-pound backpack in anticipation of conquering Everest.
"We were a two-minute walk from the icefall," Schauer says. "We're champing at the bit. I spent two years training for this."
For now, though, his interests in Mount Everest will take a different direction. After the accident, he stayed at base camp another four days and attended a memorial service for the Sherpas killed. Schauer says he and other climbers are working on a program to match donations make to the Sherpas through Sherpaedfund.org or other charities.
Schauer and his wife, Kathy, are parents of three grown children -- Jennifer, 25, Melissa, 23, and Jake, 22.
Kathy says she supports her husband's adventures. On the day of the avalanche, Kathy says, she woke in the middle of the night, read the news on the climbers' website and discovered her husband had called her cellphone.
"His message was, 'There was a terrible accident, but I'm OK,'" she says.
"He has a goal, and I want him to achieve that. I root him on."
After all the training, the trek to the base camp at 17,500 feet and the anticipation of carrying his company flag to the summit, Schauer now is home and back to work.
"I need time to process. I'm still working it out," he says.
But if he gets another chance at Everest, he'll take it.
"I like to encourage people to live up to your full potential," Schauer says. "I'm not much of a quitter."