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Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

SUMMER 2002 • VOLUME 7, NUMBER 1

Marjorie M. Cross '65 Reaches Ultimate Goal:
"To Inspire"

BY LAURA PURDOM

 
 
BOB WINSETT
 
The climbing team, including Midge Cross '65, in training in Colorado with the aluminum ladders that climbers use to traverse crevasses.
Ever since George Mallory quipped, "because it is there," every climber who has set his or her sights on Mount Everest has been asked: Why? Just prior to her March 29 departure for Nepal, Marjorie M. Cross ’65 explained her reasons for attempting to scale the world’s highest peak: "What I want is to not live a predictable life. My mom used to buy American cheese with every slice wrapped, and that to me epitomized the kind of life that I don’t want to have." For Cross, Everest wasn’t about risk taking, nor did the alumna go there in pursuit of glory. Diagnosed with diabetes eighteen months before the expedition and a five-year survivor of breast cancer, the fifty-eight-year-old had a loftier goal than tagging Everest’s summit: "If I can inspire and motivate older women, that would be success. I’m not asking them to climb Mount Everest, but to think about doing something outside their comfort zone. Being past forty, fifty, or sixty is no reason to give things up. In fact, it’s a good reason to take up new interests and challenges."

The dream of Everest began for Cross, a resident of Mazama, Washington, last winter during a ski outing in the nearby Northern Cascades. After returning home, Cross, called Midge, told her husband what she’d heard on the mountain: a group of women was organizing to climb Mount Everest with the financial backing of Ford Motor Company. The goal: to become the first American all-female team of climbers to reach the summit of Everest. Cross’s husband responded, "Midge, you have to apply!" Cross remembers her comeback: "Oh, don’t be crazy. Why would they want me? I’m a grandmother, for Pete’s sake!"

As it turned out, Cross was just the kind of person trek organizer Erin Simonson of International Mountain Guides was seeking for the Everest team. Adding Cross not only gave the group a fifth experienced high-altitude climber, but a shot at achieving another record. If Cross were to succeed, she would be the oldest woman ever to reach Everest’s summit. Cross, however, had few illusions about her chances of summiting. "It would be a wonderful accomplishment," she said before departing for Nepal, "but I have absolutely no guarantees."

 
Marjorie M. "Midge" Cross '65.  

Straddling Nepal’s border with Tibet, Mount Everest towers 29,035 feet above sea level--nearly five-and-a-half miles high. Along with hurricane force winds and near-vertical drops of 7,000 feet, acute mountain sickness, caused by low air pressure, can make Everest the climbers’ Waterloo. Beyond 25,000 feet above sea level, most climbers must breathe supplemental oxygen, which they carry on their backs in heavy tanks. This area, called the Death Zone, supports human life for a very short period of time, during which climbers haul themselves up the glacial slopes, "tag" the summit, and--in essence--run for their lives.

Before Everesters get to "summit day," they must spend many weeks acclimatizing for the marathon bid. The first leg of the journey for Cross and her companions was a nine-day trek across Nepal, bringing the five women, on April 10, to Everest Base Camp, at 17,700 feet. Here the team hunkered down for a week, after which they began their acclimatizing routine, moving up and down the mountain in a series of sorties to higher and higher elevations. Before beginning its summit bid, the team waited for the weather window that typically opens on Everest each May.

On April 17, Cross and the team entered, for the first of many times, one of Everest’s most brutal challenges, the Khumbu Icefall. This moving valley of ice--"a 2,000-foot, vertical jungle-gym on steroids" one guide called it--is shot through with ten-story crevasses and house-sized chunks of ice called seracs, known for toppling without warning. By April 30, the group had traversed the icefalls more than once and ascended as high as Camp II at 21,300 feet above sea level. Then, the news came that a British climber had fallen to his death on the Lhotse Face that day--Everest’s first fatality of the season.

Two days later the team began its ascent of the Lhotse, one of the steepest exposed sections on the mountain. Speaking on May 8, back at base camp where the team was resting, Cross spoke forthrightly about the looming summit bid. "I’ve had successful eighteen-hour days in the mountains, but never at this altitude and never with the insulin injection problems that I am experiencing or the blood-sugar testing in extreme cold. I think I am physically strong enough to be successful; I question my diabetes management … and have doubts that I will make the summit."

Five days later, the long-awaited weather window materialized, and the women’s team--along with three professional mountain guides and a large contingent of climbing Sherpas--began what it anticipated would be a five-day charge to the summit.

At 24,000 feet, about twenty minutes out of Camp III, on May 17, Cross turned back. She feared that her ongoing problems with monitoring and maintaining her blood sugar level might hold back the rest of the team. The following day, the four remaining members of the team were going strong. But things can change rapidly on Everest. As expedition leader Eric Simonson reported from base camp to Everestnews.com, "Everything was going great, and the summit was only a couple hours away! Then, in the space of about ten minutes, several things happened. First, Alison [Levine] collapsed below the South Summit.… Then Lisa [Rust, a guide] started having vision problems.… Finally, within a couple minutes… clouds started brewing around the summit. After a radio chat with Dave [Hahn, a guide], it was decided that the remainder of the team would continue on. Partway across the traverse to the Hillary Step, Ben [Marshall, a guide] radioed down that Jody [Thompson] was starting to wobble and that the wind and clouds were starting to come in more. He said they were pulling the plug on the climb." The window had slammed shut.

Everest often seems an arbiter, offering benevolence to some and denying it to others. For Cross and her climbing mates, the mountain had one final gambit. During the team’s return journey through the badly rotted Khumbu Icefall, an ice bridge gave way, nearly swallowing Marshall. After his safe return to base camp, Cross remarked, "The mountain is saying get out of here; the season is over."

Cross considers the climb a success. In recording the valedictory words of each of the climbers, the Discovery Channel Web site captured her in a characteristic mood. An inspiration to the end, Cross said matter-of-factly, "If you never try, how can you possibly know what your limits are?"

From Hobnail Boots to Mechanical Ascenders:
Mount Holyoke Mountaineers

 
  In 1990, Catherine J. Gibson '77, shown here atop Everest, became the fourteenth woman to reach the summit.

When Catherine J. Gibson ’77 drove her ice axe into the top of Mount Everest in 1990 at the age of thirty-five, she became, briefly, the oldest woman to have scaled the world’s highest peak. "At the time," says Gibson, reflecting on Cross’s adventure, "high-altitude climbing was still a young woman’s sport!" Gibson climbed Everest with "a little, low-budget team," the sole woman in a group of nine men. A resident of Seattle, Gibson began climbing not long after graduating from Mount Holyoke by joining weekend climbing groups in Colorado and California--early steps on the road to Everest. Says Gibson, "You make your first 12,000-foot climb, and you say, ‘This is good. I want to go higher.‘ " Gibson remains an avid climber and lectures on mountaineering.

Cross and Gibson are not the only Mount Holyoke women who have aspired to reach the top of the world. During her career as a mountain climber, Helen I. Buck (1884-1972), class of 1905, scaled dozens of peaks in Europe and the Americas. While Buck never climbed in Asia, her niece, Mary Buck Smith, recalls, "Aunt Helen never gave up hope of climbing Everest."

As a Mount Holyoke student, Buck broke a number of collegiate track records, including the 50-yard dash, the shot put, and the hurdle. After graduating, she traded in her track shoes for hobnail boots, becoming a renowned mountaineer. In 1929, at the age of forty-five, Buck was part of a team that made the first ascent of Mount Sir Alexander (elevation 10,720 feet) in British Columbia.

 

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