JESUP — There is a sense of peace that comes while balancing on a wind-whipped frozen ridge between hundred-foot drops where the air is too thin to support life.
Trivial concerns fall away. Concentration is focused on keeping moving and watching your footing with occasional glances at the snow-covered Himalayan peaks.
“It strips your life down to what really matters to you,” said Jen Loeb.
Last year, Loeb, a 40-year-old Jesup native, became the first Iowa woman to summit Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak at 29,029 feet above sea level.
Last week, she spoke to a packed room at the Jesup Public Library, guiding the audience of locals — including her father and her kindergarten teacher — through a slideshow of the journey, occasionally using an ice axe as a pointer as she explained the danger and beauty of her passion.
The climb drained her physically and financially —- without sponsors, she borrowed against her house to foot the bill. But the payoff came when she reached the summit May 19.
“The big thing for me was relief, relief that I invested my entire life into the expedition. … I put my heart and soul into it. I trained like a maniac. I risked financial ruin. I knew this was a one-shot deal. I never could afford it the first time. There was no way I could ever do it a second time,” said Loeb.
She now lives in Marengo and works for General Mills in Cedar Rapids making Cheerios.
The Everest expedition wasn’t Loeb’s last big mountain. She has set out to climb what is known as the Seven Summits, which are the seven — or eight — highest points on each continent. More on that later.
Growing up on a farm south of town, Loeb credits her rural upbringing with giving her the perseverance she needed to conquer the Earth’s tallest point.
“Growing up on the farm, both of my parents were super-hard workers, just growing up on the farm with the work ethic, and that carried over into everything else I did, whether it was school or athletics,” Loeb said.
She ran track and cross country at Jesup High School and continued the pursuits after she graduated in 1994 and moved on to Wartburg College in Waverly, where she earned a biology degree in 1998. She began hiking in college and developed a curiosity about mountaineering.
During a stint clearing and rebuilding trails at national parks in 2010, she signed up for a program that included a ranger-led climb up Mount Whitney, a 14,500-foot peak in California. From then on, she was hooked, but she really hadn’t set out to reach the top of the world.
Later, she signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa at 19,300 feet. The Kilimanjaro assent is more of a hike without any technical climbing, but it showed Loeb she could handle exertion at high altitudes.
From there, she worked on her skills, taking mountaineering classes — ropes, knots, equipment, health — at Mount Rainier in Washington.
After tackling other mountains, her guides, Alpine Assents, suggested she try out for Everest.
Loeb trains year-round, usually with a combination of weight lifting and cardio. Iowa presents a challenge because it lacks any serious hills, let alone mountains, so Loeb supplements her training with hikes and stair machine sessions carrying a weighted backpack.
After three years of preparation, Loeb, her guide and a Florida climber left for Kathmandu, Nepal, in March and then flew to the village of Lukwa in the foothills, where they started their two-week-long trek to Everest base camp at 17,600 feet. Climbers rested for a few days to get used to the altitude and then spent about five weeks going through “rotations,” preparatory climbs to a series of higher camps and back.
“You have to go slow to give your body time to adjust to the altitude. If you go up too high, too fast, that’s when altitude can actually be fatal,” Loeb said. “When you climb at first, there are lots of changes going on in your body. Your heart and your lungs will actually get bigger to compensate because they were working harder. The pH of your blood will change.”
While preparing for the summit, climbers are also working against the clock, looking for a chance of good weather at the mountain’s highest levels before the monsoon season puts an end to the climbing season.
Forecasters predicted a favorable three-day weather window in mid to late May, and climbers had to begin working their way up to the higher camps five days before that. For the first time, the climbers began using supplemental oxygen.
“Everything you do at this point is a ton of work. Even the slightest effort is going to make you out of breath,” Loeb said.
The third day brought bad weather as they headed for Camp IV at 26,000 feet, considered the death zone because of the scarcity of oxygen in the air.
“You have to be aware of what you are doing all the time. There is no margin for error,” Loeb said.
Following a day of rest, the team headed out at 9:30 p.m. for the final push, entering a stream of climbers all headed for the same goal.
“It’s so dark, and all you see is this line of headlights (climbers’ headlamps) … it looks like a trail of ants, and they are illuminating the entire path,” she said.
With temperatures around negative 40 degrees the trek was brutal, said Loeb. She recounted how she had to focus on where she was putting her feet and maintaining her energy as her lungs and throat burned.
“I’d take a step, wiggle my toes. Take a step, wiggle my toes, just to get the blood flowing through them,” she said. She said her feet hurt, but that was good because if she felt pain it meant her feet weren’t frozen. Her drinking water, kept in a bottle inside her coat, turned to slush.
Somewhere in there, the sun rose around 4:30 a.m. and after about 12 hours, at 9:30 a.m., they reached the top.
“Eventually, I looked up, and I could see people standing, and I could see prayer flags. And I thought, ‘There it is,’ ” Loeb said.
She sat down because she was exhausted, sipped some water and took photos.
“The big thing for me was to soak up this moment. I’m watching the other people and I’m trying to soak up this moment and etch it into my brain so I never forget, and I always carry it with me at all times. It’s part of my life now,” Loeb said.
Only 23 women from the United States have climbed the Seven Summits, and Mount Everest was Loeb’s penultimate climb on her quest to join the list. The summits include Denali in North America, Blanc in Europe, Elbrus in Asia, Aconcagua in South America, Kilimanjaro in Africa and Vinson in Antarctica.
That is six. The seventh is subject to debate. Kosciuszko is the highest point on the Australian mainland, but it’s only 7,300 feet above sea level and reaching it doesn’t involve any technical climbing. So some argue the Australian title should go to Puncak Jaya, also known as Carstensz Pyramid, a 16,000-foot mountain in Indonesia’s Papau New Guinea, which is on the same continental shelf as Australia.
Loeb didn’t take any chances in the debate. She has climbed both.
All that remains for the Jesup native is the 16,000-foot Vinson Massif on Antarctica. The climb presents its own unique challenges, Loeb said. Where Everest required a weather window to slog to the summit and back, Vinson requires two windows, because the jumping off point is in southern Chile. Climbers have to find favorable conditions to fly out of Chile and another set of clear skies to make the climb and return.
Still strapped with Everest debt, Loeb doesn’t have a timetable for her Antarctica climb and instead plans to return to the Nepal region in the near future to explore other mountains and continue to hone her skills.