VOLUME 7, NUMBER 1
M. Cross '65 Reaches Ultimate Goal:
BY LAURA PURDOM
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."
climbing team, including Midge Cross '65, in training in
Colorado with the aluminum ladders that climbers use to
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."
M. "Midge" Cross '65.
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.
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
Hobnail Boots to Mechanical Ascenders:
Mount Holyoke Mountaineers
1990, Catherine J. Gibson '77, shown here atop Everest,
became the fourteenth woman to reach the summit.
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.
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."
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.