Joby Ogwyn '97 Joby Ogwyn '97 at Summit of Mt. Everest, May 1999

Centenary Alumnus Becomes Youngest American to Reach Summit of Mt. Everest; Joby Ogwyn, Class of '97, Stands at the Roof of the World

Reprinted from Centenary Today, Vol. 13, No. 1, Summer 1999

By Lynn Stewart
Centenary News Service

Years of training, weeks of acclimatization, untold hours of aching muscles and heaving lungs, scores of prayers for a few hours' respite from Mother Nature's relentless fury.

All that was in the past for Joby Ogwyn '97 on May 12, 1999, when he stood at the summit of Mount Everest and looked down at the rest of the world. He was 24 years old and, at that moment, he became the youngest American to conquer Everest.

At that moment, it was 9 in the morning and he enjoyed "as perfect a day as you could possibly hope for at that altitude." Above: blue skies and wispy white clouds. Below: a picture postcard view of the majestic Himalayas, straddling China and Nepal, so awesome a sight that their treacherous challenges might be pushed into the background, if only for a moment.

Though it was quite cold and he had been climbing since 10 the night before, Joby was warm inside his down suit. His emotions ran the gamut - exhilaration, gratitude, and relief, followed by concern for the even more difficult descent ahead.

How did he feel? It's the most-asked question he gets since his return to the flatlands and 90-degree days of late spring in North Louisiana. "Relieved more than anything," he replies. "You're relieved that after all that time and effort, you've made it there...You feel good."

"You also think about going back down. The climb down is much harder than the climb up. I was just grateful to God for letting me get up there and praying that he would give me the strength to get down."

For Joby and a friend from another expedition, their sojourn at the roof of the world was long by Everest standards. It lasted 40 minutes. And unlike many in the small, exclusive group of Everest conquerors, he had neither a headache nor an all-consuming urge to return to the relative safety of a base camp. "I didn't want to leave. I've never felt that good on a summit before."

Everest was the fifth of the so-called Seven Summits - the highest mountains on each of the seven continents - that Joby has climbed. All have been conquered on the first attempt. If he climbs the highest peaks in Australia and Anarctica on his first try, he will become the world's first to conquer all Seven Summits on the first attempt.

That would be nice but not critical. "I'm not in it for the gimmick," he notes. "I like to climb and I like to travel. I hope to be climbing into my '50s."

The Unexpected

Some of the things Joby didn't expect on Mount Everest:

  • to be climbing alone 99 percent of the time. "I've never climbed alone that much."

  • to lead up to the summit on Everest. "Only a handful of people have ever done that." (Because of heavy and deep snow, there were no fixed ropes to guide the way.)

  • to be as strong as he was. "I'm so much stronger now than I was at 20 or 21," he said, explaining that climbing is different than most sports because the climbers improve with age. "If I continue to do it . . . my best climb is yet to come." Speed ascents may be something to tackle in the future.

  • to be nicknamed "Sherpa Joby," because of his climbing either with or in front of the Sherpas, Nepalese natives hired to assist expeditions.

  • to identify with a 22-year-old Londoner who was seeking to become the youngest Briton to conquer Everest, to become good friends with him, and then to lose him to the mountain on the day after his own summit. No one knows what happened to him after he disappeared in an unexpected snow storm. "It was weird. It affected me. The idea that a friend of yours dies doing what you just finished doing. The thing about the mountain . . . It's hard to predict who will be successful and who won't. I am comforted in the fact that he made it to the top."

  • to travel through the Khumbu Icefall a total of 12 times, each time by a different route because of ice shifting and terrain tumbling during various acclimatization trips between base camps.

  • to experience mostly good weather, with "good" being a relative term. While trying to summit on May 5, Joby's group left the high camp too late, got caught in a storm and was forced to return to base camp to await more favorable conditions which finally came on May 12.

  • to be the only one from his expedition to make it to the summit. Originally designed to be a group of 10, the number had narrowed to five before the trip began March 20. A husband and wife departed after she got sick and he suffered from frostbite. Another member fell and pulled some ligaments. The leader didn't go up.

  • to receive the non-stop attention in the weeks after his return. He continues to speak and meet with various groups, including several lecturers and slide shows in connection with the opening of the IMAX film Everest at Shreveport's SciPort Discovery Center. The film, the most popular IMAX movie ever, will be shown throughout the summer.

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