It’s 2 a.m. and high above the clouds, three climbers have left base camp for an adventure-filled ascent up a snow-packed mountain face. “We started to trip out,” explains mountaineer Stephen Shobe.
Breathing thin, oxygen-depleted air, which causes blood to become energy-starved and thicken, the climbers face the very real dangers of frostbite, falling, or being blown away by an avalanche. But they also anticipate the moment of exhilaration as they reach one of the highest points on Earth. All this in a history-making attempt to conquer the world’s highest peaks by climbing the Seven Summits: Mounts Everest in Nepal, Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali or McKinley in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and Kosciusko in Australia. (There is a debate among mountaineering enthusiasts that Carstensz in Indonesia is the seventh.) The mountains peak at heights ranging from 7,310 feet to over 29,000 feet.
And Elliott Boston III, 33, Dr. Jean Ellis (not pictured above), 56, and Shobe, 46, known collectively as the Pioneer Climbers, are on a crusade to conquer each one. Boston, a stockbroker from Newport Beach, California, persuaded companies to sponsor the group’s expeditions and nationwide seminars in an attempt to encourage more African Americans to mountain climb.
“Whenever you see us in sport ads, we’re only seen playing basketball or football,” says Boston (standing on top). He got hooked on mountaineering 11 years ago after he saw the mountain movie K2. His team has visited more than 20 schools and colleges to recruit those interested.
That means sharing the excitement — and the danger. During a climb to Aconcagua last February, Shobe, who met Boston in October 2001, was left to climb the last 1,800 feet alone when Boston had to rescue a fellow climber suffering from cerebral edema. The condition, which causes the brain to fill with fluid at extreme altitudes, can cause delirium and death.
“I could see him deteriorating quickly, and the only help is to immediately decrease altitude. It was long and arduous [on the way down], but we made it.”
Shobe made it, too. “I got frostbite during that trip,” recalls the Pacific Bell technician who was introduced to climbing when his wife gave him a lesson as a gift. Shobe is more adept at warm-weather rock climbing. Nonetheless, once at the top, he took self-portraits and cried.
“It’s nerve-wrecking,” says Shobe. “Your heart rate gets rapid. Lie down and you can hear it beating through your chest. It doesn’t take a fall or a conk on the head to cause death up there. One guy we met died overnight from a heart attack.”
But getting to the summit is only half the trip, says Shobe. “The other half is getting home.” He explains that some climbers are so intent on reaching the top, they expend all their energy and end up having greater physical challenges descending a mountain.
Ellis, an emergency medical physician and former Olympic marathon contender living in Billings, Montana, is perhaps the most experienced of the group. He turned to climbing