Scaling Mental, Physical Peaks
First US woman to conquer world's highest mountain says climbing re-energizes her life
BOSTON — TO climber Stacy Allison, mountains are metaphors. Like challenges in life, they present new heights to be scaled. They push her to set goals, work hard, overcome obstacles, and adjust to new environments - one step at a time.In 1988, Ms. Allison became the first American woman to reach the top of Mt. Everest, the world's tallest peak (29,028 feet). Three years from now, she plans to scale another giant: K2, on the border of Pakistan and Tibet, the world's second-tallest mountain (28,250 feet). Spending time at the top of the world has made Allison somewhat of a celebrity. When she's not on a real mountain, she's often on a metaphorical one serving as an inspirational speaker. "Public speaking is like climbing a mountain that's twice the size of Mt. Everest," she said with a laugh during an interview in Boston. "It's a lot more challenging." Schools, businesses, and other organizations call her to speak on such topics as teamwork, leadership, the importance of setting goals, and how failure can lead to success. The petite mountaineer from Portland, Ore., says she's not surprised that people still marvel over her Everest climb: m amazed when other people climb Mt. Everest!" she proclaims. Allison's climbing career started in 1976 when she was a freshman at Oregon State University. The head resident of her dormitory, who had been climbing for 10 years, took her and a friend to Zion National Park and gave them some climbing pointers. What attracted her to the sport then holds true today: "First of all, I love the environment that I'm in. The mountains are for me a real helpful situation. It's where I'm re-energized, and it's a real spiritual place for me." Her decision to attempt Mt. Everest surfaced in 1982 when she was atop another mountain in Nepal, Ama Dablam. "I looked up at Everest and I was just awed by its enormity. I just spent 21 days climbing Ama Dablam, which is only two-thirds [Everest's] size. It was like: 'Do I have what it takes to climb all the way to the top of the world?' " The opportunity came in 1985, when she was invited to join the North Face American Mt. Everest Expedition in a climb to take place in 1987. During the two years of preparation for that climb, Allison got divorced and "pretty much hit rock bottom." The thought of being the first American woman to reach the summit helped her build herself back up. "It was a false sense of self-esteem, but I didn't know it at that point," she recalls. "I didn't discover that until I failed in 1987." With only 3,000 feet to go, the team was forced to abort the climb because of a storm. That experience was "incredibly disappointing," says Allison. But it also proved to her that failure can be a great motivator. "I felt like I had unfinished business on the mountain," she says. "I felt like I had to go through that failure in order to realize that 'Hey, look: Your self-worth isn't built upon this accomplishment. It's through years of setting little goals and accomplishing those little goals. It's not just built on this one thing.' So there were some things that I had to learn." By the time the opportunity came around again a year later, Allison had remodeled her attitude: "I didn't care whether I was first, second, or third," she says. "It was that I had chosen this as my goal for the challenge of climbing itself, not for what rewards would come from reaching that goal." Not only was the 1988 climb successful, Allison claimed title to being the first American woman to reach the top. She also found that her goal-oriented attitude helped her "come down" off the success. "People have asked me 'Well, weren't you really let down and depressed after this climb?' John Glenn said he was really depressed after his accomplishment." Why was the early astronaut depressed, she asks. "I think that I wasn't depressed because I really believed in my purpose.... "You can't rest on your laurels," she continues. "Now Everest is a stepping stone, just like every other goal in my life. So it was easy for me to come off of that mountain, both literally and figuratively, and set new goals." Inspirational speaking seems to come naturally to Allison. Wearing a bright orange jacket, blue stretch tights, and earrings shaped like the world's continents, she is quick to smile and talks about her experiences with great ease. Often when she addresses school groups, students ask how her parents felt about her climbing. "I tell them that they were not pleased and weren't very supportive when I first started climbing. They thought it was very selfish and very dangerous." But then she explains: "You've got to decide sometime in your life when it's OK to not listen to what other people are saying.... If I'd listened to other people I wouldn't have climbed Mt. Everest." "Once [my parents] got used to the fact that I wasn't going to give up climbing they became very supportive," she says. As for the climbing dangers and disasters featured in the news media, Allison says they are exaggerated. "I think people want to hear about those things, so they're exploited," she says. "Our Everest climb was relatively boring disaster-wise, at least. "We all came back with our fingers and toes," she says, and laughs. "Climbing is a risky sport," she states. "There are objective dangers. But you have objective dangers when you walk across the street [or] ... get into your car." Being a woman and a climber hasn't been a problem, she says. "I look at myself as a person first; I don't concentrate or even focus on the fact that I'm a woman. Because I do that, men don't concentrate on my being a woman. It's my personal philosophy that if you focus on being a woman or being a minority of any kind, then you're going to set yourself up for other people focusing on that." What will she being doing at age 75? She hopes that she will "still be climbing mountains and doing my other outdoor activities.... I like to to kayak, mountain-bike ride, and run." Allison refutes the notion that she is a thrill-seeker. "That's not what interests me about climbing," she says. "What interests me is that it is mentally and physically challenging, and I would say more mentally than physically.... It's amazing how your mind can keep your body going when you think you've reached your physical limit. It's your mind that takes over and ultimately pushes you on."