Local climber still hears 'upward calling' to Mount Everest
Last spring, Joel Schauer was in his tent at base camp when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas and ended his attempt to climb Mount Everest. This spring, his mom prevented him from being in Nepal for a far more-deadly earthquake on Saturday that devastated mountain villages and killed thousands.
"I had intended to go back to Everest this spring, but my mom had a medical condition," says Schauer, 54, a veteran mountain climber from Hawthorn Woods. "I would have been on that mountain except that I had to tend to her."
The youngest of 11 children, Janet Teresa Schauer had an insight into her son's passion for reaching for the heights and traveling the globe. A stewardess with United Airlines, she was the director of stewardess service aboard the first flight to land at O'Hare in 1955.
In a hospice facility near her home in Vero Beach, Florida, the 82-year-old former Long Grove resident talked with her son about his quest to climb Everest.
"You're not going back up there, are you?" the mom asked.
Not only would he climb that mountain, he'd take her along, Schauer joked.
"Well, I'm going to beat you there," she told him. She died on Feb. 26 of complications from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease in which tissue in the lungs becomes stiff and scarred, making it difficult for the lungs to get oxygen to the rest of the body.
"It's like being at high altitudes," Schauer says of the difficulty his mom had breathing. "Upon learning of mom's condition after returning from Everest last year, I made the decision that 2015 was a no-go."
The fate of the 2016 dream for Schauer and all Everest climbers remains uncertain after Saturday's massive earthquake that has left Nepal struggling to cope with the destruction and carnage.
Even before last year's avalanche, critics were lamenting the living conditions for Sherpas and their families. Environmentalists bemoaned the heap of oxygen canisters, broken climbing equipment, trash, human excrement and even bodies left along the climbing route.
Even the late Sir Edmund Hillary, who, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, was the first to climb Everest in 1953, marked the 50th anniversary of that event by suggesting Nepal "give the mountain a rest for a few years."
But as long as humans have a chance to climb Everest, Schauer says he will feel the pull.
"I have to go philosophical on you, but I think there's a thing within us," Schauer says of mountain climbers. "For me, I'm going to call it an 'Upward Calling.'"
Married with three grown children, Schauer didn't answer that call until he was an adult in Uganda, volunteering with the Juna Amagara Ministries, a charity that helps African children orphaned by AIDS. He and his daughter, Jennifer, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008. He went on to climb some of the highest peaks in Mexico, Argentina, the United States and Canada.
Last year, Schauer had completed the 10-day trek to base camp, partaken in the puja -- the Sherpa ceremony to bless the climb -- and was two days away from his assault on Everest when the avalanche snuffed out lives and ended the climbing season. He says he knows the risks, and the paradox of risking his life to feel more alive.
"There's a great deal of self-sacrifice and pain. It's arduous and there's sorrow," Schauer says. "But there's also a great deal of joy. It's essential to the core of who I am. All the clutter of your life vacates. Something in your heart longs for something more basic, more simple, that puts life in context."
All the uncertainty hanging over next year's climbing season doesn't matter to Schauer today.
"I've begun to pick up the pace of my training in anticipation," Schauer says. In the solitude of that climb, he envisions thinking about his mom and how he was thankful to spend more time with her.
"That time was limited and more precious," he says. "The hill will still be there next year, and I promised to meet her there. I've got a little lock of her hair, in case I get up there."