The view from Mt. Everest

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming ... . As I've mentioned, I used to write about fitness and the outdoors for The News & Observer. I will soon again be writing about fitness and the outdoors, in a new venue. Until that venue is established — hopefully by month's end — this venue must do double duty. That said, today, MSCL switches to F&O mode ...

Last year, mountaineer Ciprian “Chip” Popoviciu of Raleigh took Martin Middle School to the top of the world. Wedensday, you can hear him talk about the experience at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh's Cameron Village. (His presentation begins at 7 p.m.; Opening for Chip will be Sheri and Randy Propster, of Backpacker magazine’s 2009 Get Out More Tour.

Last year, at 4:40 a.m. on May 22, Chip fulfilled a lifelong goal by summiting Mt. Everest, at 29,029 feet (and growing) the world’s highest and most celebrated peak. Chip, who by day is a technical leader at Cisco Systems in RTP, didn’t make the trip alone. In addition to climbing partner, Vance Cook, he virtually took along the kids and teachers at Raleigh’s Martin Middle School, making the climb not only a learning experience for him, but for hundreds more. He’ll discuss the climb at length Wednesday. He gives us a tease of what to expect, answering five questions today and five tomorrow.

1. Give us some quick insight on you as an explorer: When did your lust for getting out begin and how much do you typically get out now?

I owe my passion for exploration and the outdoors to my dad. Ever since I was a kid I went up and down the forests, hills and mountains of Transylvania [the region in Romania, not the county in North Carolina] to pick up wild mushrooms or just hike with my dad. He always had a few challenges along the way: “What kind of tree is that?”, “Why did the snow melt under that bush and not the other?”, “How much is sin2(x)+cos2(x)? (the last one came up way before I got to trigonometry in school). I did spelunking in the Apuseni, I climbed the Carpathians and found forests and mountains to be my source of inspiration, peace and enlightenment. If I had a dilemma, be it teenager worries or a difficult advanced math problem it seemed I always found the solution during or after a short trek.

I owe my interest in the larger World to my grandfather who was a history professor and who, when I was a kid, used to put me to sleep with these amazing stories of faraway lands and amazing civilizations. As soon as I had the freedom to travel I took every opportunity to discover the world. It is amazing how inexpensive it is to do this if you focus on the “what” and not the “how.”

Typically I make at least one international trip a year (I always take a few days off at the end of a business trip in an interesting place). I try to do a few good climbs and a few camping trips a year. My job keeps me pretty busy so the easiest thing for me is to head out in Umstead for a good loop (I love that park).

2. When did you get the idea to climb Everest and when did you summit?

Well, at one point or another, if you climb mountains this idea comes along. I must say, growing up back in Transylvania I never dreamt of being able to get close to it and took comfort in the fact that the Carpathians are part of the same family as the Alps and the Himalayas. Me and my climbing partner spoke about it as a potential plan but only in 2007 he gave me the nudge with: “My wife lets me go in 2008, can you convince Nicole?” (As you can see, there are other, less known challenges to mountain climbing than risks and hardships.) I am fortunate to have a very supportive wife who said yes to this expedition even though she did not quite believe we were going until I booked my flight.

Vance and I summited at 4:40 a.m. on May 22, 2008. We did a bit too good of a job and got there before the sunrise, not a great idea if you want to immortalize your summit with pictures so we “had” to wait until the sun came up.

3. Describe the program with Martin Middle School and how it came about.

Well, were it not for the students and teachers of Martin, this would have been for me another treasured but very personal experience and for the rest of the World just another of many Everest summits. The folks at Martin made this something much more than either of the two.

It started with a geeky idea to marry my work with my hobby and use communications technologies to share the experience. As it is always the case, a team of good people can always make an idea a lot better than it originally is. Kirsten Weeks who is responsible for PR of Cisco’s RTP site suggested we share this with a school and she contacted Gigi Karmanos-Edwards at MCNC for suggestions. Gigi in turn put us in touch with Martin middle school where, particularly due to the enthusiasm of Lisa Thompson, the support of principal Wade Martin and a truly amazing group of teachers we put this whole thing together in a very short time. I did very little actually. I shared the plans, worked on the communications solution, set up a sensor network at the school and fielded student questions. The teachers and the students are the real contributors here and as time passes I realize that this level of enthusiasm and passion is not the norm but … it should be and could be. These folks introduced the Everest theme into the curriculum, projects and activities.

I wanted to make this as realistic as possible for the students so we exchanged text, pictures, movies, sensors data, voice and video calls. Students blogged on their experience for WRAL and along the way amazed me with the creativity they applied to the project. In the process I discovered a new cause and passion, that of empowering and enabling our talented (and unfortunately by far not sufficiently rewarded) teachers to break the classroom walls and take their students into the larger World for good and true exploration.

4. How did you prepare for the climb, living in the Triangle, and how did you swing time off from work?

I observed a very strict training regimen. I would do 1 hour of aerobic exercise and 30+ minutess of weights in the morning and I would climb for 1-1:30 hours with 45 pounds on my back + 1 hour of weights in the evening. Wednesdays I would do just the morning session and during the weekends I would do long hikes or runs.

5. How hard was it to pull off the climb? Assuming you went with a guide, how did you pick the guide?

The Everest climb is not very technical but it is grinding. It took us a month and a half to acclimate for the 5 days we needed to get to the top and back. You really need to keep it together, execute on the things you control and be fortunate with the things you don’t control. As you approach the summit bid things get stressful as you do not know if the window will materialize. In 2008 things were stressful for longer than that because we were not allowed to complete our acclimatization rotation to Camp 3 until the Chinese made it to the summit with the Olympic torch and we were not allowed to communicate from the mountain during that time either. Precious days were passing by in a very painful way. But in the end all worked out. The Mountain was free to be climbed again on my birthday … quite a present.

Vance and I went unguided but we did pay logistics to International Mountain Guides so we were officially on their permit. We chose them because they offered this option and we knew some people who worked for them in the past.

Tomorrow: The climb, and beyond.

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