Conquering life's lows has been the true test of climbing couple's mettle
My good friends, Phil & Sue Ershler, finally have their book hitting the shelves on April 2, 2007. Together on Top of the World, if it mirrors the stories of their lives, will be a great read.
I first met Phil in 1986 when I was 12 years old. My father and I were climbing Rainier with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., for whom Phil began guiding in 1971. I was a bit on the young side for the climb, and it was my first time climbing a big mountain. I struggled quite a bit, and was actually in tears on top of Disappointment Cleaver, a prominent feature on the mountain. Phil pulled me aside, shared some inspirational words and stories from his struggles on Everest in 1982 and 1984, and convinced me to keep on climbing. Two hours later, we were on the summit of Rainier...and I was hooked on climbing.
Seven years later, in 1993, I returned to Rainier, but this time as a guide for Rainier Mountaineering rather than a client. I worked with Phil quite a bit those early seasons, and he brought me to McKinley in 1994 as his assistant guide. That in turn opened the door for me to begin working for his company, International Mountain Guides, co-owned by Eric Simonson and George Dunn. I still guide for them today.
I was lucky enough to be on Everest with Phil and Sue in 2002; they were gunning for the top and I was shooting photographs for Discovery for the 2002 American Women's Expedition. Phil had always been an inspiration and friend to me, and to be able to climb on Everest in his company was an honor. And, Sue, too, is a trooper - high-level executive turned high-altitude climber with a great attitude.
It was wonderful to hear their elated voices from the 29,035 foot summit on May 16th as my teammates and I were making our way up the Lhotse Face. As the article below goes into, Phil and Sue have earned their summits, and are now sharing their inspirational stories with a greater audience. (Sue, like me, is a motivational speaker.)
I eagerly await my copy of Together on Top of the World...It will be a great read!
Conquering life's lows has been the true test of climbing couple's mettle
When Phil and Sue Ershler completed their grueling trek up Mount Everest in 2002, adding the final jewel to their Seven Summits crown, it seemed Sue was the one who had defied the greatest odds.
Phil, a professional climbing guide since his teens, already had scaled the world's major peaks and in 1984 became the first American to summit Everest's North Wall.
Phil and Sue Ershler of Kirkland stand on top of the world, 29,035-foot Mount Everest, on May 16, 2002.
Sue was a high-heeled executive who hadn't climbed much of anything, except the corporate ladder, before taking up with Phil in her mid-30s.
Yet here they were, 10 years later, standing together at the top of the world -- the first married couple known to have scaled the highest peaks on all seven continents.
What the world didn't know is that Phil Ershler was battling lifelong health problems that would culminate in multiple surgeries for two potentially life-threatening forms of cancer.
It's an incredible story, told in full for the first time in "Together on Top of the World" (Warner Books, $24.99), co-written with Bainbridge Island author Robin Simons and due in bookstores April 2.
The gripping narrative, told in alternating voices, is part love story and part mountaineering saga as it traces the Ershlers' 10-year quest to scale the highest peaks and overcome some of life's deepest valleys.
Unlike Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who publicly aired his battle against testicular cancer, Ershler has kept his health issues deeply buried until now.
"I didn't want to be perceived as the 'sick guy,' " Ershler said this week, sitting with Sue at the kitchen table of their Kirkland home.
He's a compact, muscular guy, standing 5-foot-6, but his body language conveyed the rocky stoicism of a mountain ridge. His Popeye arms were locked across his chest, his dark gaze direct and penetrating. Clearly, he doesn't relish talking about his health struggles.
"When life's all over," he said, "I'd like to be remembered as the guy who did in spite of, not the one who didn't do because of."
He's opening up now because there's more at stake than his own ego. He and Sue hope their life-on-the-edge saga will inspire others who are living in the shadow of illness.
"Now we can do some things that have a pretty good impact on people," said Sue Ershler, 51, who has parlayed her ability to scale heights -- in business and on icy peaks -- into a career as a motivational speaker.
Besides sharing their story in print, the Ershlers are honorary co-chairs of Sunday's 21st annual Big Climb for Leukemia, a major fundraiser for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
They will climb the 1,311 steps of the Columbia Center for their 10-year-old Ecuadorian goddaughter, Victoria, who is recovering from leukemia. They'll also carry thoughts of Phil's college roommate -- another leukemia survivor -- and of his one-time climbing partner, Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, who died of leukemia last summer.
Phil Ershler has no direct experience with this particular disease, but he does know what it's like to face an uncertain future.
He was only 16 when surgeons removed half his stomach and diagnosed him with Crohn's disease, a painful gastrointestinal disorder that will dog him the rest of his life.
Even then, he hated the idea that illness might limit his choices in life. The mountains, with their terrible and unforgiving beauty, offered a way to fight back, to live life fully.
In college, he began working as a Mount Rainier guide and was proud that older, less experienced climbers viewed him as a source of strength.
And so it went for years, through many climbs around the world, until Phil met Sue, a tiny, hard-driving dynamo who had built her life around 12-hour work days at Fortune 500 companies such as GTE/Verizon, General Dynamics and United Technologies.
He took up her passion -- water skiing -- and she began to accompany him on climbs. Without realizing it, they started racking up some of the tallest peaks in the world -- Kilimanjaro, McKinley, Elbrus and more. Eventually they'd hit six of the Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on the seven continents, leaving only Everest -- 29,035 feet high -- to complete the set.
They were deep into plans for an assault on the summit in 2000 when Phil Ershler experienced a flare-up of Crohn's symptoms. Surgery revealed a more frightening problem: He had colon cancer.
Doctors removed part of his lower intestine, but nine days later Ershler was back in the operating room with screamingly painful complications. More problems developed, and he spent two months on intravenous feeding, barred from taking any nourishment by mouth. Everest would have to wait, to Ershler's frustration.
"You're anxious -- you're anxious to get on with life," he said. "My life is physical, my job is physical. I was just very anxious to start healing."
Fifteen months later, the couple was finally on the wind-whipped slopes, struggling to summit the world's highest mountain -- and struggling to stay alive.
Sue had trained hard, using workday lunch hours to climb the stairs of a 35-story office building while carrying a 40-pound backpack. Aware of the risks of climbing, she had written letters to her family and left them with her will, with instruction to open the letters only upon her death.
"I remember closing the door of my house," Sue said, "thinking, 'I may never be back.' Something can happen to you in a car, too, but it's a thought process you go through."
On the perilous slopes, the danger grew more real as Phil slowly realized he was mentally off his form, low in confidence and brooding over a former girlfriend and a buddy who had died in climbing accidents some years earlier.
Their team was agonizingly close to the goal -- 1,400 feet from the summit -- when Phil pulled the plug. He had made an uncharacteristic error -- forgetting to clear the exhale hole of his oxygen mask -- and air-chilled vapor was blowing over his face. His corneas were freezing, leaving him temporarily blinded, as if he were seeing through a thick sheet of wax paper.
It was a crushing disappointment that created a rift between Sue and Phil for months, each one filled with self blame and at odds over whether to try again.
In the end, the never-say-die spirit prevailed, and the Ershlers made their triumphant summit a year later, on May 16, 2002.
As it turned out, they had one more mountain to climb. Two months after they came home, Phil went for a routine PSA check and found out he had prostate cancer. Instantly, their rocky-mountain high was shattered.
"Come home from Everest, you sort of think you've made a statement," he said. "I didn't even have time to enjoy it."
With his typical reserve he didn't tell Sue until he was sure of the diagnosis. By then, he already was weighing his options: surgery (his ultimate choice) versus brachytherapy, the insertion of radioactive seeds.
Sue sees his stoicism as part of his deep investment in the role of guide and leader.
"His thrill is getting other people to the top, helping others achieve," she said. "I've never seen anyone quite that private about his health issues. No one came to the hospital. He wouldn't let them."
Phil is 55 now and in peak condition. In the past few months he has led climbs in Ecuador and Mexico, and the company he co-owns, International Mountain Guides, recently won a contract to provide guide services at Mount Rainier. As far as he knows, the cancer is gone, but it's knock on wood.
After everything they've overcome, the Ershlers say their bond is stronger than ever. They're equals -- masters of their own domains.
"Above 10,000 feet, I'm the boss," Phil joked. "Below 10,000 feet, she's the boss."
So they're in a good place and ready to share their story. Because, somewhere, there might be a 16-year-old newly diagnosed with Crohn's and worried that life will pass him by.
"Between the two of us," Phil said, "we came to the conclusion that if there was something in any of these stories that some young kid might find and take from it, so much the better."
WHAT: Big Climb for Leukemia
WHEN: Sunday, staggered times
WHERE: Columbia Center,
701 Fifth Ave., Seattle.
DETAILS: About 4,000 people will climb the city's tallest building -- 69 flights, 1,311 steps -- to raise an estimated $500,000 for leukemia research. Racers and leisurely climbers will ascend separate stairwells. Unregistered latecomers should arrive no earlier than 1 p.m. Late-registration fee is $60.