At the Teahouse just below Mount Everest’s base camp, Wendy Booker and Johnny Strange took respite from the cold and their boredom to play a game of hearts.
It was early April and Booker, 55, who has multiple sclerosis, was attempting to climb the tallest mountain on each continent. Everest, the tallest in the world, was last on her list.
Strange, a skinny 17-year-old from Malibu, Calif., was on the sixth of his seven summits.
Every spring, hundreds trek to Everest hoping to take advantage of a brief window when harsh conditions relent enough for climbers to reach the summit. Because of the high number of expeditions, interactions with other climbers are often transitory.
But as the two chatted, they realized that checking off the summit milestone had receded in importance. Strange explained that he was climbing to raise money for Parkinson’s disease and the Genocide Intervention Network, and trying to prove his doubters wrong.
“They said: ‘Who are you? You’re just some kid from Malibu. You can’t go do this stuff. You’re no tough guy,’” Strange said.
For Booker, a resident of Beverly Farms, Mass., who received her diagnosis in 1998, the attempt itself was the victory.
“The mountains came to represent what life with M.S. is just like,” Booker said. “It’s an incredible metaphor. We can’t always get to the top with M.S.; we have to try a little harder and take a little longer and dig a little deeper.”
Their card game ended and she and Strange went their separate ways not knowing their expeditions would have different endings.
Booker and Strange began acclimating themselves by making shorter climbs up and down the mountain. Each had to pass the dangerous Khumbu Icefall multiple times. This area, with perilous crevices, is prone to avalanches. Booker said that after she passed the icefall, an avalanche killed a Sherpa who was assisting another expedition.
Then came more bad news. Poor weather shortened the time window for reaching the summit. Climbers would have only a few days instead of two weeks.
But Strange was not about to turn back.
“I’ve been waiting five years for this opportunity,” said Strange, who had wanted to climb Everest since he stood atop his first summit, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, when he was 12. “Every day, I would think about it.”
On May 20, as his classmates at Malibu High School were dressing for the prom, Strange wore a puffy yellow suit as he neared the summit. Weary and slightly disoriented, Strange made it with his team.
“We luckily got a nice day,” Strange said.
Booker, however, will have to try again. She said she and her team did not strategize well enough for the weather, then numbness on her left side slowed her climb considerably. Not wanting to jeopardize the lives of her fellow climbers, Booker decided they should abandon the quest.
“I was really bummed when I didn’t summit, but when I look back at it, it’s like, how cool, I get to go again,” Booker said.
After Everest, Strange went straight to his seventh summit, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. According to Strange’s public-relations firm, Polaris, he is the youngest person to attain all seven summits, a record that could not be verified. He missed the prom, but he appeared as a guest on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”
Strange’s father, Brian, a lawyer, has paid for all his climbing expeditions.
Booker said the cost of her seven climbs so far, about $150,000, had been underwritten by a drug company, an oil company and other sponsors.
Strange said he was not sure what his next adventure would be. He said he planned to study business and political science in college.
Booker is training to climb Everest again in 2010. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, she would be the first person with an M.S. diagnosis to reach the seven summits.
But as Booker and Strange agreed when they met, it was never just about records.
“I talked with him about being the youngest, and he said, nah, that really wasn’t that important to him,” Booker said.
“And I said, I’m the exact same way.”