SUMMIT, N.J. — The idea of climbing Mount Everest is such a daunting task that most people don’t give it a fleeting thought, and there is a reason for that.
“The only things that are constant are change and adversity,” Sharon Wood, the first North American woman to reach Everest’s peak, told Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child students and staff during a speech Sept. 26. “Some things are always going sideways.”
Overcoming obstacles and accomplishing despite them was an overriding theme of Wood’s address at the Summit Catholic school, which is coeducational from kindergarten through sixth grade and all-girls from seventh to 12th grades.
“A very important aspect of becoming good at anything, is knowing how to become uncomfortable in very inhospitable environments,” Wood said.
The Canadian-born speaker said she exposed herself to inhospitable environments and became comfortable with them. She became a mountain guide in order to “help people accomplish things that they didn’t believe possible.”
Wood visited the school as part of a speaker series Oak Knoll’s parent association started a few years ago.
“The intention is to bring people who will be informative and inspirational,” Oak Knoll’s Head of School Tim Saburn said. “She was the first North American woman, which I think is significant, and that it’s an example that our girls should see and that our parents should see, too. It’s part of the never-ending quest for self knowledge.”
Wood, who made her climb in 1986, discussed the importance of persevering in the face of adversity. She said that much of her accomplishment was about removing her own self-imposed obstacles. When she began mountain climbing in the 1970s, the sport was not accessible to the masses and there were very few women climbers. She described an outward bound course she took when she began climbing.
“It was 26 days long,” Wood said. “Three days of that course was devoted to a rock climbing segment, and we had a male teaching us because there weren’t any female climbing teachers.”
Her climbing instructor, a man named Laurie, changed her life in those three days.
“The second thing he did, which is what any great teacher does, is he showed us — he showed me — that I was capable of doing more. I was more than I knew.”
Wood said she wanted to go to Everest because her peers were going there, and that the most difficult part of climbing Mount Everest, above everything else, was asking to join the team.
“Women didn’t go to the Himalayas then,” she said. “Even though I had been working as an equal with these men, some of them for up to 10 years, I had to apply three times.”
There were concerns that Wood would “compromise the dynamic of the group” and then she had to make a decision to either go home or persevere by becoming such a good climber that she would definitely be accepted.
Once on the mountain, there are other physical obstacles, like the many changes the body endures in a high-altitude environment. It goes through an acclimatization period, and adjusts to a lower oxygen level and the extreme cold. Several of her team members became sick during the ascent to the summit.
Many climbers lose a significant amount of weight because their bodies work so strenuously. Wood said that climbers typically do not sleep well on Mount Everest because of cold winds during the night. She joked that she may have lost a few brain cells while in the upper altitudes of Nepal.
Wood also described what climbers call “survival mode.” She found that she needed to push herself mentally out of survival mode if she wanted to reach the summit.
“It’s very easy to spiral into survival mode, which is when you’re just coping,” she said. “And you have the kind of attitude where you’re just bracing yourself for the next obstacle that’s going to hit you.
“You’re in this reactive mode, which really is going to take you down faster. Up here, on this mountain, we have to focus on not just surviving, but thriving. What does thriving look like? It’s not about working harder. You will never feel strong enough; you will never feel like you have enough time; you will never feel like you’ve got the resources; you will never feel like you’ve got the optimal conditions.
“What is your choice? Survive, and drop out of the game, because surviving won’t last long. Or, lean in and give it your best. And that’s what we did.”
Wood regaled the students about one of her team members, Kevin Doyle, who motivated the team to persevere to the summit. Doyle began as the fastest member of the team, then became the weakest. However, it was his determination that convinced the team not to turn back.
“Finally, Kevin reaches us. He looks at me and nobody else and says, ‘Well, what are we waiting for? I didn’t spend the last four years trying to get here and the last two months working my butt off to turn around now! Look at me, I’m worse than the lot of you and I’m going on.’ This guy, that day, made all the difference to us.”
Doyle told the team that if he and the rest turned back, they would have spent the entire rest of their lives wondering if they could have made it.
And when asked by a student if she would climb Mount Everest again, the 62-year-old Wood didn’t blink: “Are you kidding?”