How Hawthorn Woods businessman vanquished Mount Everest
Two years ago, Joel Schauer was about to scale Mount Everest when tragedy struck -- an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas, the native Nepali guides who help climbers up and down the world's tallest mountain.
Last year, his return was put on hold when he was needed to tend to his mother during her final days, sparing him being in Nepal when an earthquake killed thousands and effectively shut down the annual climbing season.
This year he left for Nepal on March 31, on what would have been his mom's birthday, and weeks later, finally accomplished his goal of making it to the top of the 29,029-foot mountain.
The 55-year-old Hawthorn Woods businessman is in elite company -- one of about 500 or so climbers per year to have reached the summit since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it in 1953.
It's not an easy trek by any means, and it's dangerous -- with subzero temperatures, gusting winds, diminishing oxygen and fear of 20-story icefalls. By some estimates, more than 250 people have died while trying to climb Mount Everest. Five have died this month alone.
Despite those numbers, Schauer was unfazed -- and perhaps even more determined -- since he couldn't climb the last two years.
"It's adventure. I think we all need a little something," said Schauer who returned from Nepal Wednesday. "No matter where you're at in life or what you're doing, if you persevere, something good is going to happen."
Schauer's mother was an inspiration during his eight-week journey to the summit, but it was during the final 12-hour stretch in the pre-sunrise darkness of May 19 that his thoughts especially turned to her.
Schauer began to have trouble with the regulator on his oxygen supply during the final ascent. His mom had died from complications of a lung disease.
"Immediately my mind went to the memory of my mom and how valiant she was with her struggle to breathe," he said. "It was a beautiful opportunity to remember her spirit and give thanks to her, and even in my own struggle to breathe, to be at peace with it."
He arrived at the summit at 6:46 a.m. with his group of six other hikers, led by the Seattle-based Madison Mountaineering company. They were joined by some 20 other people on group expeditions of their own, all of whom literally had to wait in line and make it through a narrow pass before reaching the summit.
Many groups methodically plan their ascent from Base Camp IV -- at 26,000 feet -- when there's a good "weather window" to do it, Schauer said. On the morning of the 19th, that meant calm winds of only 5 mph and bright sunny skies. Yet all climbers were still bundled from head-to-toe, exposing nary an inch of skin.
For some, reaching the top of Everest is a cause for celebration -- a time for "beating their chest," Schauer says.
But he was quieter, more reflective.
When he got there, he released a lock of his mother's hair he brought with him and distributed ashes of a niece who recently died.
"It was personal," he said. "I feel reverence toward the mountain. An incredible amount of respect."
As the oldest in his group, Schauer often brought up the rear on the exhausting uphill climbs and quickly developed into the underdog role. At one point between the second and third base camps, Schauer had to take six breaths with every step up the mountain.
"It reminded me of high school football practice," Schauer said of his days at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. "It kicked my (butt). It's grueling."
All this while Schauer was dealing with a lower gastrointestinal infection for most of the climb, and a cracked tooth. Three from his original group of 10 quit before it was over and some wondered whether he had what it took to keep going.
But with a three-hour head start on the final leg of the journey, Schauer was the first to get to the summit.
"You have to be incredibly focused and disciplined and willing to endure," he said.
With Everest, Schauer has made it to the top of four of the "Seven Summits" -- the highest peaks of the seven continents. He'd already conquered Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali. Now, his sights are on Vinson in Antarctica.
First, he's going to take a break, and go back to work at his business, Fairchild Industries, a Lake Zurich rubber and plastics company.
"When you're gone for a period of time and freezing your (butt) off in a tent and it's 20 degrees below zero, there's a part of me that says, 'What am I doing here?' But there's that drive toward accomplishment that kind of fuels this thing."