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Traveling pair: ‘Together on Top of the World’

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Outwardly, Phil and Susan had little in common. Phil was a professional mountain guide while Susan was a corporate executive who, at the age of thirty-six, hadn’t hiked so much as a hill. But drawn together by their zest for challenge, Susan and Phil found a way to spend quality time together, which soon turned into an adventurous, historic and life altering goal. They set their sights on climbing the Seven Summits, but  their special union was soon  tested in unexpected ways, including colon cancer and  prostate cancer.

"Together on Top of the World: The Remarkable Story of the First Couple to Climb the Fabled Seven Summits" is the story of Phil and Susan's inspiring partnership.

Here’s an excerpt:

Dreams Break on Everest
At 26,000 feet, the wind howls like a freight train. I lay in the pitch black, willing the tent to hold its ground, trying not to think about the fact that by 10:00 tomorrow morning either we’d be standing on top of Everest, thumbing our noses at everything that had conspired against us, or we’d be back here in this frozen, wind-beaten sardine can of a tent listening to five years’ worth of hope and effort whip away. Which way? The wind taunted me with the question.

Earlier in the evening we’d learned that a climber from another team had not returned from the summit. Inside my sleeping bag, my hands and feet had gone numb; my desire to complete the climb had flickered. But Phil had talked me through it. “What’s changed?” he asked. “We knew yesterday that people die up here. Is the mountain less safe today? Are we less capable?” I rallied. I felt eager. I couldn’t wait for the alarm to go off at 9:00 p.m. so we could head up to the summit. The image I’d carried for so long—the two of us, arm in arm on top of the world—came back stronger, clearer than ever. But now, staring into the dark, feeling the cold penetrate the nylon walls, that clarity once again receded.

I heard the beep of Phil’s alarm, then the whoosh of gas as he lit the tiny stove. A professional mountain climber, Phil is conditioned to get up in seconds. It would be a matter of minutes before he prodded me to do the same. But I had no desire to get out of my bag. With two layers under my down suit, a hat on my head, gloves on my hands, and two pairs of socks on my feet, I was actually warm, and the churning that had roiled my stomach for much of the last two months had vehemently returned. We had already delayed our summit attempt by a day because of the weather. Shouldn’t we wait one more day? But that was impossible. It was May 21, the end of the season. After tomorrow, Sherpas would start dismantling the ropes that fix the route to the summit, and below us the already shifting Icefall would become impassable. Phil crawled out of the tent and a jet of cold air came through the tiny opening. Between the wind gusts I heard him talking with another climber and then, above their voices, a different sound, hypnotic and haunting. It took a moment to realize what it was: Ang Passang, leader of our climbing Sherpas, chanting. Ang Passang was praying for our safety! It must be even worse than I thought! Stop! Relax, Sue, a calmer voice told me. Ang Passang is a devout Buddhist. He probably prays every morning. You just heard him today because he’s right outside your tent. I closed my eyes and let his voice wash over me, and for one brief moment I was able to drift—fearless—in his steady, musical prayer. Then reluctantly I pulled my boot liners out of my sleeping bag where I kept them so they wouldn’t freeze.

The world above 8,000 meters—26,000 feet—is no place for the human body. Even if you wear an oxygen mask your brain gets too little oxygen, so your thinking is slow, your movements are labored, your circulation is impaired. The simplest tasks—just zipping your jacket or lacing your boot liner—take twice as long as normal. It was ninety minutes before I’d managed all the zippers and Velcro, forced down a little coffee and a cookie, and jammed my warm feet into my outer boots, which were cold as ice. When I emerged from the tent it was into a swirl of stinging snow. All around, under the muted glow of headlamps, our three climbing partners and five Sherpas were hunched against the wind, strapping on harnesses and crampons and checking each other’s equipment. I did the same and then, one by one, we fell into line and began the slow march toward the rope that would guide us to the summit.

The South Col of Everest, where climbers pitch Camp 4, is a flat expanse of ice and rock 3,000 feet below the summit. I’d thought the flatness would make the crossing easy, but within moments I realized I was mistaken. The surface was a corrugated sea of frozen shallow waves that I had to straddle with my crampons. It was riven every few yards by narrow, snow-covered crevasses. I couldn’t lift my eyes from the ground lest I step into one by accident. My muscles were sore from the day before, my pack felt heavier, my headlamp cord froze where it snaked against my neck. And no matter how I adjusted it, my ascender, swinging from my safety harness, hit my knee with every step. To take my mind off my misery, I experimented with different rhythms: step . . . breathe . . . step . . . breathe . . . breathe . . . I yearned for the moment when the hypnosis of climbing would take over.

We had been going for twenty minutes when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned just in time to see Charlie Peck righting himself after a stumble. Charlie and John Waechter were the two friends we’d invited to join us for the expedition. Charlie had been Phil’s client on Mt. McKinley in the 1980s and had since become a friend. He was a natural choice for a partner because he’s one of the few people you can imagine spending two and a half months with clinging to the side of a mountain. But Charlie had been having a hard time the last few weeks. He’d gotten the “Khumbu crud,” a deep high-altitude cough that’s almost impossible to shake and that makes climbing even harder. He’d been through more pain than the rest of us just to get to the Col. Phil came up behind him and in the merged light of their headlamps, I saw them talking. Phil said something, Charlie shook his head, Phil clapped Charlie on the back. Then Charlie turned around. Wait! I thought. Charlie’s going back! If he’s going, I should too!

Stop it! I told myself sharply. Don’t go there. Focus. But even as I argued with myself, Phil’s light began edging forward. Rhythmically, it shrank the ground between us until I was standing in its circle of light. Phil took my gloved hand in his and gave it three quick squeezes: I . . . love . . . you. Then, carried forward by his nimbus, I bent my head, resumed my breathing, and continued moving.

Phil can do that for me. He is my husband, my mentor . . . my hero.

I was thirty-five—already “old”—when I met him; I’d given up on getting married. But within hours of meeting him I knew that I was wrong. I was a high-heeled, high-powered sales executive and he was a fleece-and-jeans mountain guide; we couldn’t have been more different if we tried. But he was the most compassionate and genuine man I’d ever met. From the get-go I was as lustful as a teenager. Pretty quickly, though, the lust grew into deep, deep love, unlike anything I’d ever known. By that time he’d taught me to love the mountains the way he did, and I’d begun using every vacation to join him on his climbs. So it seemed only natural that before too long we would attempt what no couple had done before, to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on every continent, together.

What we couldn’t know was how close we would come to not making it. Not because of danger on the mountains, or because we lacked the skill or teamwork to pull it off, but because life had something else in store for us. In 1999, seven years after we met, three years after we married, six months after we made the sixth of our Seven Summits, while we were training for our millennium climb of Everest, Phil was hospitalized with cancer. On the day we met I couldn’t have imagined the degree to which I would allow my lifelong independence to soften into intimacy; the degree to which I would open up and take him in, make his life my life, his breath my breath. Nor could I imagine the depth of terror and pain I would feel when our life together was threatened. But Phil is as much a mountain as he is a climber: rock solid, undeterrable. And if there is one quality we share, it is the absolute refusal to let someone or something tell us no. We knew Phil might not survive. We knew he might never climb again. We still know the eventual outcome is uncertain. But we weren’t going to let cancer tell us no without giving it everything we had. So cancer thwarted us in ’99, but we took our five pounds of luck and six pounds of determination and made it here in 2001. Take that, cancer! Life is short, but for the moment it’s ours, and we’re living our dreams.

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