Just another day on the world’s highest peak

Chip Popociciu climbing the Lhotse Face.

I was feeling pretty good about hiking 21 miles on the Falls Lake Trail yesterday. Then I went and listened to Chip Popociciu talk.

Chip, for those of you who didn’t tune in Monday or Tuesday, reached the summit of 29,029-foot Mt. Everest at 4:40 in the morning almost a year ago to the day, on May 22, 2008. Last night, he shared his adventure with 40 or so vertically vicarious explorers at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh. He was talking about climbing the highest peak in the world, something only about 2,000 others have done since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first in 1953. Had you only been able to make out his intonation and not his words, you might have thought Chip was talking about a leisurely hike on Falls Lake Trail.

For instance, when he talked about the Ice Fall that greets climbers first thing out of Base Camp, he showed a slide of a horrific glacier peppered with icy spires. “Now, at first it doesn’t look so bad ... .” He conceded on the next slide that you did need to pay attention on the Ice Fall, the next slide being of his metal crampons atop a skinny metal ladder spanning a deep crevasse. (My head got spinnie just looking at the slide; I closed my eyes for a several moments.) After a while, though, he said crossing the Ice Falls was like “Disneyland for Adults,” a lot of fun. (Among the insidery revelations he shared: Climbing the Ice Fall is done in part to acclimatize to the thin air. He and climbing partner Vance Cook climbed the Ice Fall 12 times.)

Moving on up to camps 2, 3 and 4 presented some challenges, but it wasn’t bad, he said. Summit day went almost too well: He and Vance left a little after 8 p.m. May 21 (they had planned to leave at 9, but didn’t want to get caught in the traffic jam forming out of Camp 4; about 70 climbers reached the summit on the 22nd, about 30 didn’t). They reached the top before sunrise, at 4:40 a.m. (or maybe 4:45), hung out for half an hour, went all the way down to Camp 2. He almost forgot to mention that he developed the dread Khumbu cough that forced him to curl in the fetal position when he felt the cough coming on. He also cracked a couple ribs along the way.

His story was remarkable. Even more so was that it was devoid of ego. It was all about the adventure. And one other thing.

Chip took along, virtually, the students and teachers at Martin Middle School. He provided them, via sat phone, with a front row seat to an Everest summit, they provided him with moral support. According to one teacher from Martin, the kids got something more. Added to their year-end superlatives last year: Most likely to climb Mt. Everest. And the teacher related that, more than once she heard a reluctant student say, “Well, if Chip can climb Mt. Everest, I guess I can do my homework.”

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