By Matt Petrero
It’s said that when you stop learning, you stop living. Fortunately I am still alive and well because I learned some things about Sharon Wood, the first North American woman to summit Mount Everest. I learned about her journey, her peaks and valleys (pun intended), and even a few things about mountains and climbing (not that I’m going to try that any time soon). I was fortunate enough to conduct a phone interview with the remarkable Ms. Wood from her Alberta, Canada home last week and was enlightened, educated, and awestruck.
Raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Wood and her family moved clear across the country to Vancouver, British Columbia when she was 12 years old. It was during a hike with her parents, shortly after their relocation, in the terrain surrounding Lake Agnes where she fell in love with nature.
“I just really identified with the scent of the forest, the alpine, and the beautiful surrounding mountains,” Wood said. “That is when I first fell in love with the mountains, or recognized home I would say.”
She expounded on how this transitioned to her love of climbing.
“The first time I tied into a rope, I was twelve years old and there was no looking back,” Wood said.
It was not only home to Wood, but it was a refuge from what she described as “delinquent behavior” at a young age that city living sometimes presents. Bob Sandford, the Vice President of Mountain Culture for The Alpine Club of Canada said in the introduction to Wood’s biography, “Home is Where the Mountains Are…The Remarkable Life of Sharon Wood” that she was curious, self-willed, and independent with a fierce pursuit of individuality as an adolescent. It was these attributes that not only led her into said delinquency, but also led her out.
As you learn more about Wood, you understand this characterization is not only accurate, but it has been the catalyst throughout her life.
At age 16, Wood, also an avid skier was drawn more and more to life in the mountains, moved to Jasper, Alberta. Jasper, which can be seen in the distance from the relative hustle and bustle of Edmonton, is a small mountain town nestled in the Canadian Rockies. Resolute in her pursuit of “home” in the higher altitudes, she worked as a tour boat guide on Maligne Lake and a beer slinger in the winter just to afford her the opportunity to ski.
A year later, she signed on for a three-week course called, Outward Bound in an effort to advance her climbing skills. However, it was not all for which she had hoped. Only 17, she was too young to join the co-ed climbing group and was assigned to an all-woman’s group whose participants were not as experienced as Wood.
“There were very few schools back in the day where one could learn how to climb,” Wood said. “I thought I would gain some climbing skills at Outward Bound. But thus far in the course I was thrown into a group of beginners, basically. We were hiking through the mountains and I was very frustrated…I felt like I was being held back”
So Wood, independent as she was, left the group and returned to base camp. After an expected scolding, she was sent out with instructor, Laurie Skreslet, the first Canadian to reach the peak of Everest.
“A great blessing was to have Laurie Skreslet as a climbing instructor at Outward Bound and he took us in hand for a couple of days and welcomed us into the sport as if it was his home,” Wood said. “He remained a very good friend and mentor from then until today.”
He recognized quickly that Wood was special and was going to accomplish great things but needed for her to realize the importance of teamwork as it pertains to climbing. She found a compatibility with the Outward Bound atmosphere and requested a position as an instructor. A precocious request to be sure since Wood did not have the experience needed, she got her foot in the door and was hired as an assistant cook. Even though this was not the “glamorous” position Wood hoped for, it did afford her the opportunity to climb with the instructors and receive the invaluable experience of tapping into their respective knowledge bases.
Through various jobs and training, Wood became a professional ski patroller; which led to employment as a climbing instructor at Camp Chief Hector in the Canadian Rockies in 1976. It was there where she would meet other instructors – Dwayne Congdon (Wood’s summit partner on Everest), Chris Miller, Dave McNab, and Marnie Virtue – who would be eventual teammates of Wood’s in her pursuit of Everest. However, they ended up being much more than teammates.
“We evolved and developed together,” Wood said. “We essentially grew up together in terms of developing our climbing skills and going through our certification courses to become mountain guides. We learned together and we suffered together.”
They would also go on to form the Yamnuska Mountain School; which was a pilot program that taught adults mountain skills, ice climbing, and basic mountaineering, the first school of its kind in western Canada.
So if you’re keeping track at home, by the age of 20, Wood was a mountaineer, ski patroller, instructor and entrepreneur. But hold on, the best is yet to come.
Over the next several years, Wood would continue to advance her climbing skills, conquer many a mountain, and learn valuable lessons which would be the building blocks for her ascent of Mount Everest. She climbed the Rockies’ highest peak, Mount Robson with Miller in 1976 and Mount Logan with an all women’s expedition (the first of it’s kind) in 1977; which led to being accepted into the prestigious Calgary Mountain Club (CMC).
“Being accepted into the Calgary Mountain Club…was a group of British climbers and more experienced climbers than myself,” Wood said. “And so I found a lot of climbing partners in those people. What I found in this group was my tribe…a bunch of like-minded individuals; a little quirky, a little eccentric, and wayward.”
All of these accomplishments were not without trials and tragedy. Through the CMC, Sharon met John Lauchlan; a man who would eventually be considered Canada’s top climber and have a profound affect on her climbing endeavors and her life going forward.
With Lauchlan, Wood embarked on bi-annual trips to Yosemite National Park where they would scale The Nose on El Capitan. Wood’s resolve and perseverance would shine through as she completed this difficult climb with her hands wrapped in gauze. Earlier in the climb, she received a severe rope burn during a fall. She would also display a keen sense of when to say “When” as she was humbled by the big wall climb of The Nose. Although it was enough of those kinds of climbs for her, she said that she learned a lot on El Capitan which would serve her well going forward.
Tragedy hit the climbing community in February, 1982, when Lauchlan died while performing a solo climb of Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies. Lauchlan’s death caused Wood to look deep inside.
“His passing had a very significant affect on me,” Wood said. “He really was the first of our tribe, our generation to die climbing. And he was very talented, very intelligent. It made me realize that life is short and fleeting. And if I was to die tomorrow, would I be satisfied that I had done all that I’d wanted to do, in terms of the level of commitment that I put into the things that I did? The answer was clearly no.”
“I got off the fence and committed my all to climbing and to pursuing my certification as a professional mountain guide.”
Motivated by her friend’s passing and not succumbing to complacency, Wood began climbing harder, got certified with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and realized what it took to push her potential to the limit. She applied herself more so to alpine climbing; successfully tackling the Cassin ridge on Mount McKinley (North America’s highest peak) in April, 1983. She, along with her climbing partner, Gregg Cronn weathered a 36-hour storm, which included hurricane force winds, when they reached the19,000-foot mark of the 20,237-foot peak. It would be a great experience to prepare Wood for Everest (easy for me to say, right?). This would be a transformative climb per a quote from her website.
“[It] really changed my attitude. I didn’t see myself so much as a woman but as a climbing partner. I came back with a lot of confidence.”
Wood continued on about McKinley and how it changed her perspective.
“When we climbed Mount McKinley, the route was a respectable route, it was a more difficult route on the mountain and I just felt proud of the fact that my partner and myself climbed it. We were of similar abilities and a similar experience base. It was a big step for us. We encountered a number of challenges, we overcame those, and we did a good job of it. And that is what I was proud of.”
A quick aside: One of the things I learned from Wood is that Mount McKinley’s name has been changed to Denali.
A couple of months later, she became the first woman to earn the ACMG Alpine Guide’s badge and became an Assistant Ski Guide. Two summers later, she became the first woman to pass the Alpine Guide exam, becoming an ACMG Alpine Guide. These competencies put her on par with her peers and earned invaluable respect and trust as a potential partner going forward. While there is an overriding constant in Wood’s accomplishments as “The first woman to…”, that was never a catalyst for her pursuits.
“You have to realize that I grew up climbing with mostly male partners and I felt very much an equal; even though I realized that I was a woman,” Wood said. “I felt like I was just doing what I loved to do and the fact that I was a woman just happened to be a bi-product of that more than anything else. I never set out to be the first woman in anything. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I didn’t have any kind of political, gender agenda.”
Fast forward to March 26th, 1986, the first day of the over two month expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. Wood was part of a 13-person team which was the second from Canada to attempt, and eventually succeed in reaching the summit. Historically an extreme and difficult climb, Wood’s team chose the even more difficult route of the West Ridge and North Face.
I was curious about the decision behind choosing this route.
“Back in the day, when I was climbing in the 80’s, expedition climbing, there was a limited number of permits available on the mountain per year,” Wood said. “So we got one permit that was available for the West Ridge. The West Ridge was more technically difficult and more physically demanding those regular routes…the reason for that being that there is more skill involved. Another reason is that there is a little to no sign of anybody else having climbed those routes so there’s no pre-fixed ropes to climb. It takes more strategy and it takes very good teamwork to climb a route like that as a team with the number of resources that we had and the size of our team. We climbed it without Sherpas, which is not usually done.”
For novices like myself, a Sherpa is a native of the high altitude regions of Nepal that are recruited for western climbers. They act as guides and load carriers. They do most of the grunt work.
During the two-month climb of some of the roughest terrain on Earth, there are certainly unimaginable mental and physical obstacles to overcome. I asked Wood to explain her mental and physical challenges:
“One of the greatest mental challenges is to endure discomfort for a sustained period of time. Discomfort eventually wears somebody down. And there is a great deal of discomfort in living and climbing at high altitude…that requires a lot of patience and a lot of care in looking after yourself.”
Wood went on to explain more of a specific personal psychological challenge she faced:
“My greatest psychological challenge was our summit bid, which was a four-day climb from the bottom of the mountain to the top,” Wood said. “Then on the final day, we knew very little about the difficulties above us and it was a twelve-hour day to get from the bottom to reach the summit at 9:00 PM in the evening..and then keep it together for another six hours to get back down the mountain.”
She went on to explain the physical hurdles of such a grueling climb:
“I would say most of what is required in doing something physically difficult is not so much finding more strength or more resources,” Wood said. “It’s more about removing the obstacles. And I think that we have many, many self-imposed limitations that we must overcome. There’s fear, there’s the assumption that you can’t because you haven’t done that before, and for me on the summit day there were many firsts. I had never climbed above 8,000 meters (or 26,000 feet) and then to rock climb with a 25-pound pack on my back at a moderate level of difficulty, that was something that I had to tell myself that I could do. I knew that I had all of those skills. I just had not put them all together in this one place.”
However, with all of those challenges facing Wood and her team, they summited Mt. Everest on May 20, 1986. After which, they descended back to base camp and then it was back home to Canada. When she and her team returned to Alberta, hoards of media met them at the airport but pointed most of their cameras and mics at Wood, which made her very uncomfortable. True to form, she believed in the power of team. Throughout the interview she stressed the relationship with her teammates and her partners.
Wood provided some insight into the mentality of a climber that would prove prophetic over the subsequent 12 months to Everest.
“I think that a lot of climbers are quite introspective and quite thoughtful about what they do,” Wood said. “It can be quite a cerebral sport as well…I find that we constantly have to answer the question, ‘Why do we do it?'”
Ironically, a year after Everest, Wood experienced something that would turn “Why do we do it?” from a rhetorical question to the stark reality of her own mortality. Wood returned to a place where she had climbed previously — Peru. She headed back there to attempt the Paragot Route of the North Face of Huascaran Norte. That is when she experienced a warning sign from above which prompted her to realize that the days of these extreme, alpine climbs were over.
“Yeah, it was just that last rock,” Wood joked. “We were pushing hard, my partner and I, who I’d been on Mount Everest with. I trusted him and we did many climbs together. We were just on one more face, an alpine face which was one of my dream loops. He dislodge a rock that hit my head very hard, on top of my helmet and my shoulder. And I just said that’s enough!”
She then recited an old climbers’ adage:
“They say that there are bold climbers and old climbers but no bold, old climbers.”
Today, Wood still works as a guide, and climbs and instructs others on how to do so. Perhaps her greatest post-Everest challenge, however, was motherhood. She gave birth to two sons; Robin in 1989 and Daniel in 1992.
As her boys approached school age, Wood sought a better learning environment for not only her children, but for children in the community of Bow Valley. Wood and her consortium of parents in the community received the approval of the Alberta education ministry to open the Mountain Gate Community School; a non-denomination private school.
Mountain Gate’s mission is to provide an education by educators, partnered with the students’ parents to create a safe, intimate learning environment which fosters confidence and brings out the strengths in each child.
Sharon Wood did not just rest on the laurels of her prior accomplishments and ride off into the sunset. In fact, there was another mental peak to summit.
Wood and her team were sponsored by the Continental Bank of Canada for their Everest climb and still had some obligations to fulfill. As such, she had to come face-to-face with her fear of public speaking and go out on a speaking tour to talk about the climb and fulfill that obligation. She turned that fear into a passion and spoke before audiences as large as 6,000 people. Like everything else she had done to that point, and still does, she has put a high level of commitment into it and made it a huge success.
I asked Wood with everything she has on her plate; wife, mother, public speaker, educator, etc. where does she find time to climb. She has adapted her schedule to balance her passion with her livelihood.
“Well I speak less than I used to and I climb more,” Wood said.
She then spoke of how life comes full circle.
“It seems like the older I get, the closer I get back to my roots. I really enjoy working with people and the outdoors. Just in the last year I took up a new facet of the sport which is called indoor climbing. I actually work at a climbing wall part time.”
As I stated earlier, there is no such thing as complacency when it comes to Sharon Wood.
“I’m still refining my technique, my climbing technique…AT THIS AGE, MATT!”, she quipped.
She continued with the humor and spunk that I came to know in a very short period of time.
“The old girl’s still got some go in her, you know?”
However, she is spot on. She still has an amazing level of energy. She admits that the energy she has is relative to her age as it’s not what it was 26 years ago when she climbed Mount Everest; but who does have the energy one had a quarter of a century prior?
I will tell you this, I was probably more exhausted at the end of the interview, just learning about her exploits than she gets when engaging in a vigorous indoor climb. Additionally, I have a much better understanding of the definition of the word “remarkable.”