With the summit of Mount Everest ahead, Steve Giesecke slowly walked across an ice bridge, stopping with each step to take long, deep breaths.
To his left loomed a steep, 7,000-foot drop-off into Nepal. To his right was a 10,000-foot sheer drop into Tibet.
Halfway across, Giesecke’s big, bulky boots slipped off, sending him tumbling headfirst. The rope he was attached to pulled taut, saving his life.
“Fortunately, the fixed line caught me,” said Giesecke, of Olympia. “At 29,000 feet, it gets your attention.”
Rather than return to base camp after his brush with death, Giesecke continued his climb, reaching the summit at 4:45 a.m. in May 2007.
It would be the hardest of his seven climbs of some of the world’s tallest peaks. A month ago, Giesecke climbed Antarctica’s 16,067-foot Mount Vinson, gaining him membership into a select club. He now has scaled the world’s “Seven Summits,” climbing the tallest peak on every continent.
Only 86 Americans and fewer than 280 people worldwide have climbed all seven peaks.
Tonight, Giesecke, who hiked in the Olympics with his father while growing up in Olympia, will be honored at a private party by The Mountaineers.
In June 1989, Giesecke, who will turn 57 in June, climbed Alaska’s Mount McKinley (also called Denali), making the first of his seven summits. Seven years earlier, he had climbed Mount Rainier for the first time, which hooked him on mountain climbing.
While in the Air Force and stationed in Alaska in the 1980s, Giesecke got a chance at that bigger challenge and climbed McKinley in 24 days, persuading his guide to stick out a storm to give them a shot at the summit. Giesecke was one of two in his eight-man party to reach the summit.
“I had my 35th birthday hunkered down on the higher part of the mountain in a storm,” Giesecke said. “At the time, I had no inkling I’d do the seven summits.”
It wasn’t until 2006, when he was watching a television documentary on the climbing of Everest, that Giesecke began thinking about climbing the seven summits. He also was spurred on by a friend who had climbed Everest.
“I thought I wasn’t getting any younger,” Giesecke said. “So, I said, Let’s see if I can get up Aconcagua in South America, then I’d head directly to Everest.”
Giesecke again was one of two climbers in his group to get to the summit of Aconcagua, in Argentina. Climbing wasn’t the only challenge. Some tribal porters on the Carstensz Pyramid climb threatened the climbing party’s guides, demanding more money.
“Apparently, that’s part of their negotiating strategy,” said Giesecke, who retired from the Air Force in January 2000 and now is a program manager for psychological health and technology for the military at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Climbing Everest was a two-month expedition. He spent about 25 minutes on the summit, snapping a few photos and resting briefly before beginning his long descent.
“I thought we’d be alone on the summit,” Giesecke said. “There were 14 other climbers and Sherpas there. It was an amazing experience.”
Giesecke’s reasons for risking his life to climb a mountain, for enduring minus-65-degree weather in Antarctica and nearly falling to his death on Everest, are simple.
“Because, for me, mountaineering is living,” he said. “It provides a sense of freedom that you seldom seem to get with your daily activities, unless you are lucky enough to have a dream job or a dream life. I also enjoy the bonds you form with other climbers when on expedition; these can last a lifetime. And, of course, there’s the challenge of doing something that is difficult and immensely rewarding at the same time.”
Gail Wood: 360-754-5443 firstname.lastname@example.org