Photo courtesy of Steve Cook

Photo courtesy of Steve Cook

By Kim Constantinesco

You don’t have to reach the summit to give a climb meaning.

In early October, Steve Cook learned just that as he took off on the ultimate ascent up Nepal’s Ama Dablam, a 22,349-foot mountain that’s considered more technical than Mt. Everest.

The 56-year-old golf course superintendent from Michigan, who we first spoke with in September, returned from his journey a richer person for having even set foot on the mountain. Cook embraced pain all to relieve a bit of suffering for others. He raised $36,500 for Make-A-Wish® Michigan, which will go toward granting the wishes of five children.

Here is how his oxygen-deprived, but poignantly-full trip went.

A Decision at 20,000 Feet

When Cook’s wife, Robin,  dropped him off at the airport, she left him with a small book. It was filled with touching messages from those who donated to the cause.

“You’re an inspiration,” “Thank you,” and “You’ve changed our lives” filled the pages.

“The things people were writing to me were unbelievable,” Cook said. “I read that book at least four times. I’d open it when things were tough on the mountain.”

Photo courtesy of Steve Cook

Photo courtesy of Steve Cook

And things were, in fact, tough. Cook, his two climbing partners, and their guide and Sherpas reached 20,000 feet after about 23 days of climbing. Another 18 hours or so, and they would hit the top.

Their lead guide, Brian, was at the top of a section called Grey Tower and called back down saying, “I’m not comfortable with you guys moving through this section.”

“For me, everything crystallized in a moment,” Cook said. “As soon as I heard the tone of his voice and he said ‘I’m not comfortable,’ I knew right then that the trip was over and we weren’t going to go up.”

The lack of snow on the mountain exposed rocks that were loose, which created a major potential hazard for the group. A 15-minute conversation laced with falling rocks in the background led everyone to agree: They wouldn’t proceed any further. It ended up being a wise move.

“On our descent, a huge rock fell in the section that we would have been climbing,” Cook said. “Later, we heard that one guy, from a Chinese team that had gone through there after us, got hit with a rock and broke his arm. He had to spend all night at Camp 2 waiting for rescue.”

A ‘True Summit’

Cook and his expedition team descended the mountain in a couple of days. They were far from the only ones who failed to summit Ama Dablam. Many try three or even five times and never reach the peak’s pinnacle.

“In high elevation mountaineering, there’s no guarantee that you’ll summit anyway. I reached so many other summits along the way,” Cook said referring to his Make-A-Wish efforts. “I exceeded my fundraising goal by $1,500. That was really my true summit.”

As for another attempt on this particular mountain, Cook can’t make that decision any time soon, but he does promise that he will climb again.

And one of the biggest lessons that he learned?

“It’s easy to pick up the newspaper or turn on CNN and be very cynical about the world, and think the world is going to hell in a handbasket,” Cook said. “At the end of the day, I think people are really generous and want to help others. I was just stunned that we raised this much money. I think the world is in a pretty good place.”

A little perspective from someone who has seen the world from 20,000 feet.