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The tale of a tax accountant and mountaineer—and her long climb to the top of the world.
By 1:30 a.m. on May 23, Megan Delehanty MBA ’90 was out of her tent at Camp Four, climbing with her team toward the South Summit. As night turned to day, she could see dark clouds approaching. Am I doing something stupid? she wondered. But the New Zealander leading the expedition knew the mountain, knew the forecast; he was watching her team's ascent via live video feed and would radio should they need to turn back. Clouds rolled in, visibility was poor. But on they pushed, Delehanty followed by her Sherpa guide, Lhakpa Nuru.
|Delehanty below an icefall.
Photo: Hiro Kuraoka
After eight hours of climbing, Lhakpa Nuru shouted, “Summit!” Lost in the one-foot-after-the-other monotony that sets in deep into a climb, Delehanty had no idea they were so close to the top. Once more, Lhakpa Nuru shouted. “Summit!”
Visibility was so poor they could barely make out a group of climbers just 70 feet away. They unclipped from the rope holding them to the mountain and walked around three climbers to join their teammates on the summit. They were in a whiteout, with no view. “I was so happy to be there,” Delehanty said. “But the top of Everest is not a place you want to be for very long.”
That, and once you've reached the summit, there follows the dizzying descent.
Climbing Mt. Everest is not something you do on a whim; it's more akin to a military campaign than a weekend sprint up California's Mt. Whitney. It takes months of planning and physical preparation. Even so, the best-laid plans of would-be summiters often go astray. Delehanty summited Everest on her second attempt, but she'd begun the climb years before.
In 1987, one of her classmates at the Leavey School of Business, Mark Murrell MBA ’90, completed a two-year trip around the world. Delehanty was captivated by the black and white photos Murrell shared from his travels. Wanderlust really took hold after Murrell insisted that she attend a seminar on trekking in Nepal at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. Eight years later, after saving money and summoning the chutzpah to ask for the time off from Arthur Andersen LLP, Delehanty was at Everest base camp, 17,590 feet. She fell in love—with the place, the people, the culture. But she didn't think of herself as a mountaineer.
At a glance, one might not think so either. Delehanty stands 5 feet 5 inches. She has delicate fingers and she speaks with precise intonation; she seems well suited to play the part of, well, a tax accountant. But her diminutive frame disguises a formidable will, and a physiological gift that is a mountaineer's secret weapon.
On her first trip to Everest base camp, Delehanty discovered that she could function well at high altitude. This was not a trivial concern. Many a world-class athlete, even a marathoner or triathlete with the endurance to run or cycle dozens of miles, would not make it beyond Everest base camp if not able to acclimatize at that altitude. She now knew that, for her, scaling the highest mountains, even Everest, was possible.
|Toward base camp: Trekking from Dingboche to Lobuche.
Photo: Megan Delehanty
Delehanty spent the next decade making that possibility real. In December 2000, she climbed Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,341 feet, the highest point in Africa. She took mountaineering classes. An international corporate tax accountant, she matched her schedule to the tax and trekking seasons. She started a rigorous weekly training regimen she maintains today: two days of strength training, three days of running or cycling, and one day devoted to a long hike—up Castle Peak, near Lake Tahoe, or Mt. Diablo, closer to her home in Fairfield, Calif.—with a 50-pound pack strapped to her back.
She climbed mountains in the United States, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and the Alps. In June 2005, she reached the summit of Denali (20,320 feet), the highest mountain in North America. In July 2005, she reached the top of Mt. Elbrus (18,510 feet), in Russia, Europe's highest peak. Six months later, in January 2006, she summitted Aconcagua (22,841 feet), in Argentina, the highest peak in South America. The next year, she was ready for Everest.
In mid-January 2007, Delehanty received an email from a friend. “I'm writing to see what your level of interest might be in a 2007 Everest north side expedition,” it read. Her answer: Very. She joined her friend's team, and two months later was in Kathmandu, Nepal, ready for the drive across the border to attempt the mountain from the north side, in Tibet. The team included just four climbers, three Sherpas, and two cooks. Though tantalizingly close—she reached the Second Step (28,230 feet)—she did not make the summit. The near miss stung. Traveling so far and getting so close, only to fail, “gets under your skin,” Delehanty says. Getting to the top of Everest “became an obsession.”
In 2008, she tried again, this time planning to climb the north side with a guided expedition led by Russell Brice, a Kiwi mountaineer with two Everest summits to his credit. The expedition was booked, airline tickets purchased, but two weeks before departure, the Chinese government, which controls access to the north approach to the summit, closed the mountain. She would have to wait another year. The wait, Delehanty says, was agonizing. On Everest, she wrote in her blog, “Emotions run as high as the mountain.” She was overcome by a stress-inducing, insidious anticipation for the next climbing season.
|Acclimatize: The body needs to adjust to the altitude.
Rest and sun come with the bargain.
Photo: Megan Delehanty
Getting to the top
On March 27, 2009, Delehanty arrived in Kathmandu, ready to attempt Everest from the south side. The expedition would again be led by Brice, who moved his operations to Nepal from Tibet after the canceled 2008 expedition. The expedition cost Delehanty $50,000, three times more than her 2007 summit bid. But she was paying for Brice's experience and good judgment—an investment that paid off during her summit push six weeks later.
On Everest, two months' provisions are mobilized, a forward operating base (base camp) is established, members of the local population (Sherpas) are enlisted, and elevated ground is gained only to be lost. Brice acclimated Delehanty and her teammates for Everest's lofty summit by scheduling ascents to the neighboring Lobuche East (20,075 feet) and to Everest Camp Three (24,000 feet) followed by retreats to base camp.
As for recovering once she was home, that was something she had to do on her own. For most of June, she was a wreck. The climb and descent had exhausted her. She had lost 15 pounds. She nursed painful torn muscles in her ribcage and back, the legacy of a debilitating cold and cough picked up during the expedition. Her mind reeled. Night and day, for weeks, her thoughts returned to Nepal. “Post Traumatic Everest Disorder,” she calls it. All penance, perhaps, for daring to climb to 29,035 feet.
Only 37 women from the United States preceded Delehanty in climbing Everest. Once home, she received a congratulatory e-mail from Mark Murrell, her SCU classmate, whom she hadn't seen or heard from in 15 years. “You inspired me to go to Nepal years ago,” she replied.
Much later, Delehanty received another email, this one an apology from a producer with the company hired by the Discovery Channel to film her team's expedition. The producers interviewed Delehanty at length during the two months she was in Nepal. (She was told that with so few women on the expedition—just 3 of 28 team members were female—the Discovery Channel wanted an American woman star for its U.S. broadcast, which aired in December 2009.) The apology blunted the blow: She did not make the final cut. Her story lacked drama. “We tried very hard to keep your storyline in, but ultimately you reached the summit too efficiently and without incident,” the note read.
That, of course, is the kind of thing that parent likes to hear. Megan's proud father, Jim Delehanty '43—who attended SCU for two years before World War II intervened—sent along a note to this magazine about her most recent climb. He'd already sent three children to the Mission Campus: Megan's brother, Brian Delehanty '76, and sister, Paula Delehanty '74; sister-in-law Mary Lee Delehanty '77 also completed her undergraduate studies at SCU. A nephew, Colin Delehanty '09, graduated from SCU in 2009.
|Summit! Lhakpa Nuru and Megan
Delehanty atop Mt. Everest—
9:44 a.m., May 23, 2009
Photo: Megan Delehanty
A vacation from her vacation
Delehanty is as candid about what her mountain exploits have cost her as she is magnanimous with those who have facilitated her ascents. Mountaineering has not helped her career or her finances, she admits. She has been able to climb mountains only because of flexible employers and her generous parents. (They provided her a free place to live as caretaker for the family home while she prepared for her Everest expeditions.) Colleagues haven't always understood how spending eight weeks on grueling Himalayan expeditions each spring can reasonably be described as a “vacation.” The joke in the office when she worked at Clorox, she says, was “Megan needs a vacation from her vacation.”
Delehanty also acknowledges the ever-present existential realities of high-altitude mountaineering: the implications for family (existing or planned), and the real possibility of death. She and her female teammates last year on Everest were single, without children. When asked if she thought about the dangers on Everest, she instantly knew how many lives had been claimed by the mountain—223, including 64 deaths from falls and 64 from collapsed or calving ice falls or seracs—but about her own mortality, she says, “I don't think about it.” Though she has lost friends to mountains, including one who died recently while climbing Mt. St. Helens, she insists, “Don't think about what you can't control.” You can only make good decisions, learn from others' mistakes, as well as your own, and trust in good fortune.
The Seven Summits
Summiting Everest is a career capstone for any mountaineer. But Delehanty is not finished. This fall, she is set to attempt an ascent up Carstensz Pyramid (16,023 feet), in Indonesia, the highest point in Oceania. In fall of 2011, she plans to complete the so-called Seven Summits by scaling Vinson Massif (16,050 feet), the highest point on Antarctica. She wants to reach the top of the Matterhorn (after twice traveling to the mountain only to be told conditions made it unsafe to climb). There are some other 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal she'd like to climb, as well as the north side of Everest that eluded her in 2007.
“It's a really big list,” she says, and she smiles.