Constable: Hawthorn Woods climber glad he beat the crowds at Everest
Last week's Associated Press photograph of Mount Everest shows a long line of hundreds of climbers in brightly colored gear inching their way to the peak as if they were waiting in line for Space Mountain at Disney World.
"How do they get down? There's an elevator, right?" quips Joel Schauer, 58, of Hawthorn Woods. Schauer didn't have to share his Everest moment with hundreds of fellow climbers when he scaled the peak in 2016. He and a guide left the South Col at 25,938 feet at 7 p.m. and arrived at the summit at 6:45 a.m. by themselves.
"There were two people who turned around in front of me when I was making it to the top," Schauer remembers.
Exhausted after the last 12-hour climb, his zipper frozen by the condensation from his breathing mask in the below-zero temperatures, and with a dwindling oxygen supply at 29,029 feet, Schauer didn't even remove his face mask for the photo of him displaying his "On The Top: Fairchild Automotive" flag from his Lake Zurich business.
"This is nice," Schauer remembers thinking during the hour he spent on top of the world before others arrived and safety became his top concern. "How long can I live here? Look around, enjoy it and get down."
More than 300 people have died climbing Everest since 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the top. So far this month, at least 11 climbers have died while scaling the world's tallest mountain, the latest a 62-year-old Colorado attorney who had reached the peak and was starting his descent, which can be just as dangerous.
"On the way down, I was trying to suck oxygen, and there wasn't enough there," remembers Schauer. At one point he slipped and found himself dangling from a rope. "I'm looking out at the Himalayas upside-down," he says. He somehow managed to get a grip with the crampons on his boots digging into the ice, pulled himself up and made it safely back to base camp.
A climber at crowded Everest last week told CNN about having to step over dead bodies on the path. Schauer, whose first Everest attempt in 2014 was canceled after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas, says he didn't see any bodies during his successful climb two years later. Some critics have blamed the deaths during this climbing season, which ended this week, on the growing number of climbers. Many are unprepared, and the crowding is caused by an increase in the number of companies leading the expeditions.
"Is it hubris? Might be. Is it bad preparation? Might be. Is it the line? Might be," Schauer says, adding that changing the protocol to call for more oxygen for the trip down from the summit might help. A story in The New York Times on Wednesday says Nepalese officials are considering changes that would bar inexperienced climbers and make it more difficult to get a permit.
Whether going up or down, the process is slow and tedious and climbers have to maneuver past each other. "You have to do the Everest dance," Schauer says, describing the process of moving along the guide rope. "You unclip, move, reclip, move. You're clipping and unclipping 10,000 times."
And when you are exhausted, dealing with the altitude, short on air, and numb from the cold, it's difficult to improvise.
"It's really hard to get off that line. There's nowhere to go," Schauer says. "You're limited to the slowest person in line."
Schauer and his wife, Kathy, parents of three grown children, Jennifer, Melissa and Jake, became grandparents a week ago with the birth of Addison Grace to Jake and Elizabeth Schauer. Earlier in the year, Joel Schauer reached another milestone when he climbed to the top of Aconcagua in Argentina, making him just the 48th person to climb the highest mountains in all seven continents and ski to both the North and South poles.
The lessons he learns from climbing about building strong teams, planning well and taking "intelligent risks" help him run his business, Schauer says. Everest will always be one of his major accomplishments, but he doesn't see the need to climb it again. His daughter Jennifer is going to run a not-for-profit for abused girls in Kathmandu, the Nepal city where most Everest climbers embark on their adventure. But Schauer says, "you can climb an equally beautiful mountain without so many people on it."
Considering all his world-famous climbs, ask him about what he is most proud of, and Schauer breaks into a big smile.
"That's easy," Schauer says. "My granddaughter."