When Cal Poly alumnus John Stenderup began an epic journey to the summit of Mt. Everest, he didn’t know that the climb would change his perspective on what it means to accomplish something big.

“If every climb was great, would any of them be great, or would they all just become normal? Without downs, can you have ups?”

— John Stenderup

The night sky over Camp 2

This spring, Cal Poly Magazine heard about an alumnus attempting to undertake the ultimate physical test of Mustang toughness and grit: climbing to the sister summits of Everest and Lhotse, the tallest and fourth-tallest mountains in the world — in one trip. We reached out to John Stenderup (Agricultural Business,’08) who kept us in the loop on his preparations and even proudly agreed to carry his alma mater’s flag to the highest point on the planet.

Over nearly two months, we followed Stenderup from the comfort of our desks as he documented his journey with a personal online journal, updated live from the Himalayas. Despite being an experienced alpinist, Stenderup could not have expected the challenges he faced on this journey, or the way the summit would change his outlook on life.

With his permission, we’ve condensed Stenderup’s posts from Everest here.

April 4
Epic flight into the world’s most dangerous commercial airport! We just had a great breakfast at a tea house. Our hike today will be leisurely and probably lots of fun before we spend several days hiking through mountain villages to Everest Base Camp (EBC).

April 8
Today we set out from Khumjung, hiked through Tengboche and finally make it to our next stop on our trek to Everest Base Camp, Pangboche. Now for your fun fact of the day: Himalayan villages that end in “boche” are named so because Buddha once spent time there, or at least that is what I’m told.

Hiking on the road to Everest Base Camp (EBC)

Anyway, after waking up at the teahouse in Khumjung, we had breakfast and the crew set out on a fast pace to our first destination, Tengboche. Our group consists of Anders Christofferson (son), Randy Christofferson (father), Brent Bishop (guide), Geoff Schellens (guide), and of course my Dad and I, with the dads planning to go only as far as EBC. Brent is a well-known and very accomplished alpinist, who has been to the region many times to climb mountains like Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. In fact, his father, Barry Bishop, was a member of the first American expedition to summit Everest in 1963 and the first person to ever climb Ama Dablam.

April 11
In the mountains, we often spend as many days resting as we do climbing, if not more. At this altitude, muscles don’t recover as quickly and your immune system is taxed, which can cause the body to crash if you push it too hard. For that reason, today was supposed to be a rest day but Geoff and Brent had different plans for Anders and I. Instead of a leisurely hike up the hill behind Dingboche with the rest of the team, they decided that we were going to push it a little harder and accelerate our acclimatization.

The father-son teams set off at around 9 a.m. with only a vague idea of what Brent had in mind. Dad and Randy held their own and our crew gained altitude at a very respectable rate. The best part of the climb was that every step that Dad took was a personal record for his highest altitude ever! He topped out at 16,500 and we all gave him high fives. He was pretty damn proud! After Dad headed back down to Dingboche, the rest of the squad pressed upward.

When I got back to camp, I realized that they had a shower and paid $5 to use it. What I didn’t realize was that it was a solar powered shower and since it was already past sunset, it was a nice ice-cold shower. Probably my last shower for a while…

Before I go… Mom, I have flossed every day and promise to do my best to not miss one.

April 12
Today was one of the proudest days of my life. We arrived in the village of Gorak Shep, which is the last stop before we arrive in EBC. We had a quick lunch and set off for an acclimatization hike on Kala Pattar, the peak behind Gorak Shep.

As Geoff, Dad and I reached the summit of Kala Pattar together, I reflected on my journey over the past nine years of my life. During this time, my Dad and I grew closer, I discovered climbing through our relationship, and I found one of my closest friends, someone that is like a brother to me. Life is a wild ride and an incredible adventure; one that might just find you in the middle of the Himalayas on a windy mountain top with amazing people.

It seems fitting that we arrive at EBC tomorrow, after an emotional day. We can see it from the hills overlooking Gorak Shep and it should only take about an hour or two to reach it. Once there, I’ll settle into my own little tent, which I will call “home” for the next five weeks… and I can’t wait!

April 14
We made it!!! Everest Base Camp, at 17,598 feet above sea level, is surreal in so many ways. Pictures and my description won’t do it justice. It consists of hundreds of tents strewn about a mile long from north to south with each of dozens of teams having their own territory.

Dad is all smiles and I even gave him some of my high altitude down clothing because he is always cold (I told you that I’d take care of him, Mom). Tomorrow, we have a true rest day at camp and will be focusing on napping and sport eating (this is a term that we use in the mountains to describe gorging on junk food for calories). I’m definitely looking forward to a low-key day to settle in and start planning our first rotation up towards Camp 1 and 2.

April 15
As I got out of bed, I was psyched to be feeling normal at this high altitude, but quickly realized that Dad was leaving today —EBC is as far as he goes on this trip. For anyone that knows my Dad and I, you know that we love each other but you also know that we butt heads often. Well, we didn’t on this trip, and we shared so many laughs and a few tears too. I’m truly proud of all that he has accomplished.

Dad walked into the middle of camp with his backpack and the team gathered around and they exchanged handshakes and hugs. Geoff and I were the last ones and he turned to me and said something that I will never forget: “I am so proud of you. You have worked so damn hard for this and I know that you will give it your all. I love you. ” There were a few tears.

The rest of the day was a little muted after my emotional morning. But one highlight that I have to mention is that we were joined by a special guest at lunch… Ueli Steck! I know that probably doesn’t mean much to the people that are reading this post, but Ueli Steck is one of the best alpine climbers in the world right now. He is staying at EBC and knows a few of the climbers on our team, so he decided to join us. I guess Ueli’s visit was a good consolation prize after Dad began his trek home.

John and his dad, Kent, on the hike to EBC

April 17
Today we had our Pujah. What is a Pujah, you ask? The Pujah is a traditional blessing that must occur before the expedition team can begin its foray up the mountain in earnest. It is frowned upon by the Sherpa people and considered bad luck if you begin moving up without this blessing.

The blessing included about an hour of chanting from the Lama, while several of the sherpas lit incense and candles, while another rhythmically beat a drum. It concluded with the team erecting a large flag over the offerings with five longs prayer flag strands reaching throughout camp. Once this was done, some of the Sherpas distributed blessed Nepali fried bread, which was quite tasty, and… wait for it… blessed beer! I was as shocked as you might be to hear that they blessed beer to drink during a ceremony, but who am I to shun the tradition of the local people? In fact, I was a good team player and had two beers because I was feeling extra reverent.

One last thing before I shut off my headlamp for the night… you are probably wondering when we will be moving up the mountain. Teams generally spend about a week at EBC before moving up because it’s important to allow your body to produce more red blood cells. Once this initial period is completed, the “rotations” begin. A rotation is a series of days that are spent above EBC — in the case of climbing Mount Everest, teams usually use a three-rotation schedule with the third rotation being the summit push. Brent, Geoff, Anders and I will begin our first rotation on the 19th. I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted with changes because they happen often up here.

April 23 — First Rotation
Over the last four days, we’ve climbed from 17,598 feet at EBC, up to Camp 2 at 21,000, and back. The first leg, ascending to Camp 1, crosses over the Khumbu Icefall. Describing it won’t do it justice, but an icefall is a glacier that has crumbled at the base of a slope, causing deep crevasses and overhanging ice pillars. It resembles a giant obstacle course… except that this obstacle course could kill you. We crossed and climbed over wobbly ladders, some of them strapped together with static rope. If Mom had seen it, she probably would have had a heart attack.

It was a hard climb and we were carrying a lot of weight on our packs, but we passed a lot of other teams and did not get passed once getting to Camp 1 at 11:30 a.m. We relaxed the rest of the day and took a rest day the following day. These are important at this altitude to allow the body to recover from high amounts of stress —and this was one of those days.

Teammates Geoff and Anders crossing the Khumbu Icefall

After two nights at Camp 1, 19,700 feet, we started for Camp 2 for two nights at a higher elevation. This stretch is protected from wind on three sides and turns into a giant solar oven, so none of us were looking forward to it, despite it being a very straightforward hike with an elevation gain of only 1,300 feet. But we felt great when we got into Camp 2, in time for a late lunch followed by a nice afternoon nap. One step closer to our goal, which now looks directly down on us from 8,000 feet above…

Camp 2 is situated in the middle of a giant mountain amphitheater, with the west ridge of Everest directly behind our tent, the Lhotse face to the left, and Nuptse directly in front of our tent. We rested the next day, watching other teams, looking like tiny black dots, take short acclimatization hikes around us. One dot moved faster than the others and we soon realized that it was Ueli Steck, who was checking out the Lhotse face. It was amazing how quickly he was moving for it only being a recon and acclimatization hike.

After one more night at Camp 2, we began our haul back down to EBC. Camp 2 is often referred to as Advanced Basecamp (ABC) because it is where teams stage their push to the higher portions of the mountain. Now that we’re getting acclimated to this altitude, we will move directly from EBC to ABC on our second Rotation and summit rotation. We left about two thirds of our gear as a cache for our final summit push, and headed back down to our “home” for a few days of rest.

April 30
I was first drawn to mountaineering and climbing because I was amazed by the human body’s ability to persevere and accomplish what some deemed as impossible. I’ve also witnessed the opposite end of the spectrum, the human body’s frailty when facing Mother Nature. These two seemingly counterintuitive thoughts and the spectrum that they run along is the reality that mountaineers face.

After a few days’ rest, we were back at Camp 2 planning to make a final acclimatization climb to Camp 3, before descending back to EBC. During our breakfast this morning, we heard a helicopter overhead and we each gave one another a nervous look. It is not normal for helicopters to be spending time in Camp 2 and the only reason that they would be in the area would be for an emergency. I brushed it off, though, and got to packing because we had a big day of climbing up to Camp 3 at 23,400 feet.

The grind up to the Lhotse face was tough. We had almost reached the bergshrund, a large crevasse that separates the lower glacier from the face of the mountain, when Brent yelled from behind, “Boys, hold up… I have some really bad news. ” I will never forget the moment that he said, “Ueli is dead. ”

Ueli Steck was the best alpinist in the world. He has made some of the most incredible ascents in recent memory, which have inspired me and many others to follow our dreams. This morning he was doing a preparatory climb on Nuptse, one of the mountains that he was planning to climb at a rapid ascent rate without oxygen, when for some unknown reason, he fell more than 3,000 feet.

John with Ueli Steck

I can’t believe that just 15 days ago, he was having lunch with us in our dining tent. He was very humble about his climbing achievements and plans, and far more comfortable talking about life and laughing.

Brent, Anders, Geoff and I were all in shock. Ueli was someone who bordered on superhero status in the climbing community. It was surreal. We eventually regained enough composure to push on to our objective, Camp 3, but no one was quite the same for the remainder of the day.

Many of you probably think that I am crazy because of what I do, but I can assure you that I am well aware of the danger and constantly feel fear. I know that Ueli did too. But you never know how your life will end, so you better make the most of it. Face your fears and follow your dreams, otherwise what is the point of living?

May 5
WARNING: Family members may want to sit down before they begin reading this post…

With our summit push departure set for tomorrow morning, there is something that I need to get off of my chest. I have secured a permit to climb Lhotse and plan to attempt to do so shortly after Everest, weather and health permitting. Lhotse is the fourth tallest mountain in the world and the sister peak to Mount Everest. Less than 700 people have ever summited Lhotse and only 20 individuals have summited both Everest and Lhotse in a 24-hour period.

Mom and Dad, I promise to be responsible in my decision to push for a summit of Lhotse and will pull the plug if the weather or my body are not cooperating. Geoff, Anders, Brent and I are in this together. We have a strong team but more importantly, we trust one another. I truly believe that this is one of the strongest teams on the mountain.

May 9
I know that everyone was anticipating a call from C3 today with an update on the move to C4. Unfortunately, that is not the case, as those of you who have been monitoring my GPS tracker have noticed. We are in fact back at EBC and we will be heading back up in a few days.

At 6:33 this morning Phurba Sherpa, our head Sherpa, told us he had some bad news. Due to extremely cold temps and whiteout snow conditions, the new rope lines on the steep sections of the climb haven’t been installed. Around 3 p.m., Phurba informed us that the earliest that the lines would be fixed would be the 15th. We knew what that meant: with recovery so much more difficult at this altitude, we were going down.

I’d like to tell you that we got over it and enjoyed our climb but we didn’t, except for Geoff. He is so damn optimistic all of the time. Despite the drama, we made it from C2 to EBC in a blazing time of 3:45 and only spent the last 1:30 in the dark.

It felt good to be back at EBC but it remains a very challenging day. From psyching myself up for the climb of a lifetime to realizing that I had to go back to the starting line, it’s been a roller coaster. With that, I’m heading to bed to rest up for my fourth rotation in a few days…

Yaks at EBC

May 17
The lines are now fixed and the most recent weather forecasts continue to show decreasing wind speeds, so the time has come for us to make a move. Our team of four is planning on moving on an accelerated scheduled because of the extra time that we have spent at C2 and our speed.

If all goes as planned, we will soon be standing on top of the world… and then the fourth highest point on earth. Although I know that I am physically and mentally prepared for this effort, I can’t help but be anxious. But I also can’t help but feel incredibly blessed to have the support of the three strong men on my team and all those who have sent so many prayers our way over the past six weeks. Regardless of the outcome of our effort, I will forever be changed by this experience and hold it in my heart, always. 

Thank you for all of your love and support. This opportunity stands before me because of your inspiration and for that, I will always be grateful.

May 21
Blog admin: According to GPS, at 10:45 a.m., John reached the Summit of Mount Everest!

Approaching the Everest Summit

May 23
Blog admin: At approximately 9:45 a.m. local time, John reached the summit of Lhotse. He has now begun his descent back to C2, then EBC.

May 26
John: It’s been a couple days since my descent from the upper mountain and I have yet to provide an account of my summit of Mount Everest. After a few days, I think I’ve been able to process what happened on the mountain.

It was 4:30 p.m. when we arrived at Camp 4. After checking weather reports, Bret, Anders, Geoff and I decided that we would need to make our attempt that evening, which left just enough time for us to eat some dehydrated food, melt snow drinking water for the ascent, prepare our packs and gear, and get just a bit of rest. It was impossible to sleep as the wind beat our tent and the sound of the winds passing over the saddle of the mountain sounded like a freight train. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when our alarms went off and we sprang into action.

We were the last team to break camp for a summit attempt and I looked up at a line of headlamps that stretched across the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest. It was all that I could see, outside of the few feet ahead of me that were illuminated by my headlamp. I felt as if I were an astronaut in space, alone.

Crawling through a chute of rocks, I noticed that the rest of the team had stopped. I will never forget what I saw next. Geoff was knelt down next to a man who was laying on his back. As I drew closer, I saw his face, frozen from exposure and his right hand naked and contorted with his fingers twisted in an unnatural manner. Judging by the rips in his down suit, he had fallen and been unable to recover. His eyes and mouth were frozen open and he moaned in pain. Geoff was scrambling for meds that are used to revive altitude victims as Anders, Brent and I did what we could to support, while also trying to get the man to regain consciousness. It was not enough — the man had been in the cold too long and it was clear that he would soon be dead. We did everything that we could but knew that it had been too little too late.

As we stood next to him, another climber came to us and told us of a disoriented man who was just 50 feet above. We turned our attention to this man, who lay on the steep snow bank and had similar shreds in his suit. He lay there, pleading for help to get down the mountain. His blonde mustache was frozen into an icicle but he was far more responsive than the man that we had just tried to help. We administered meds to him and urged him to get to his feet but he was unable. As he lay there, we discussed his condition and we knew what had to be done. Anders, Brent, Geoff and I decided that we had to take him down to C4, knowing full well that we would forego our summit of Everest.

Geoff and Anders rigged a rope off the main fixed line, while Brent and I began to drag the man down the mountain. It was exhausting as we pushed and pulled him down, while Geoff let rope out. Tashi, one of our Sherpa guides, had climbed back down from a couple hundred feet above us. He said that he would take the climber down with one person to assist, and Brent volunteered. Despite our apprehension, Brent encouraged Anders, Geoff and I to continue on to the summit and we eventually agreed, knowing that the two of them would be able to get him down to a tent.

It dawned on me that both men had probably climbed the previous day and descended late in the day, becoming disoriented from lack of oxygen and exhaustion. Being the last team to depart that evening, I knew that teams had begun ascending Everest at around 7 p.m. and that every single one of them had passed these men, fixated on the opportunity to summit. I felt nauseous knowing that so many had passed these men and had been unwilling to help them. Now one was too far gone to help, while the other was hanging onto his life by a thread. Perhaps, if we had arrived a couple hours earlier, we would have been able to save both of them. I have to admit, this was a moment in my life when I lost a little faith in humanity.

Many climbers have died on Everest and remain there to this day. I came prepared to see death in the frozen bodies that have become landmarks on the mountain. But to watch the life drain out of a fellow climber right before my eyes —that was something that shook me deeply.

The darkness of the night made for a lonely ascent and I eagerly awaited the sunrise. When it came, I wish I could say that the sunlight on the face of Everest brought me some happiness, but I was too exhausted from a lack of sleep and felt sickened by what we had just experienced.

At 10:45 a.m., Geoff and I walked onto the summit of Everest. I shed a few tears of happiness and relief as we looked at the prayer flags that adorned the highest point in the world. I thought of the struggles of the past 24 hours and the events in my life that had led up to this point. I thought of my Mom and her unwavering love and support. I thought of my Dad and his influence in helping me discover my passion for climbing. I knew that they were with me in spirit and my soul was warmed knowing that they were there with me, as well as a true friend who would risk his own life for me.

As we walked into C4 four hours later and the other members of our team surrounded us with hugs and congratulations, I once again found my mind wandering. While my summit of Mount Everest had included feelings of elation for accomplishing what I had worked so hard to do, I was disheartened. Life is far more valuable than a summit of a mountain. My summit of Mount Everest will forever be a bittersweet memory — one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, but a lesson that as you follow your dreams, you can never turn a blind eye to others in need.

May 30
If every climb was great, would any of them be great? Or would they all just become normal? Without downs, can you have ups?

Everest was a beautiful mountain that presented a great physical challenge to climb, but so much of that was diluted for me by what I had seen —people so hell-bent on summit success that they would not only put themselves at risk but also neglect to help those in need. It would be difficult to compartmentalize the events of the day and move on to our next objective, Lhotse, but that was the task that we faced.

The original plan had been to descend from Everest by late morning, rest for a few hours, then attempt Lhotse within a 24-hour period. As tired as we all were, we knew that this would not be a reality. Brent and Anders both decided that they would forego the attempt on Lhotse and descend to C2. Geoff and I, along with our guide Siddhi, decided to give ourselves a day to rest before making the push.

Representing Cal Poly

Not long after returning from Nepal, Stenderup met with Cal Poly Magazine to elaborate on his experiences on the mountain. We had to ask: Did his experience at Cal Poly play a part in getting him to the summit?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Cal Poly has a great way of pushing you outside of your comfort zone. It’s that sense of Learn by Doing — you’re always pushing your boundaries. That was part of my upbringing at Cal Poly: learning how to get out into industry, try new things, and not be afraid of failure. And that attitude made it possible for me.”

As to the fact that he carried a Cal Poly flag all the way to the top of Everest, he was justifably proud. “There are fewer than 2,500 people in the West that have been up there,” he said. “How many people can say that they’ve taken their university pennant with them?”

At 3:15 a.m. on the 23rd it was time to move. I opened the tent and was immediately greeted by a flurry of spindrift that bit at my cheeks and momentarily blinded me. Several tents in the camp had broken free and where tumbling in the wind. Others were wildly thrashing about, holding on by just one anchor.

We made great time as we cruised up the steep snowfield at the base of the route and took a quick break for water and a snack. Within minutes, we were being hammered by the wind. We knew that there was a potential for a strong jet stream, to hit but it wasn’t supposed to be until late in the afternoon. As we fought our way up the couloir, the wind slammed at our backs, frequently knocking us to the ground. Words were immediately lost in the wind and we resorted to hand signals to communicate. The skin on my cheeks that was not protected by my goggles or oxygen mask was left to windburn. I couldn’t help but think that it was only a matter of time before we succumbed to the wind retreated.

That’s about the moment that the sun broke over us and I vividly remember turning to Geoff, who was climbing behind me, and he gave me a big thumbs-up. It put a big smile on my face, which was hidden by my mask, but I’m pretty sure that he knew it was there based on my enthusiastic thumbs up that I returned his way. I knew that we were going to make it. I knew that it was going to be a fight with the elements, but I also knew damn well that I was a member of the best team on the range.

Over the next two hours, we fought the powerful winds howling through the couloir. Each one of us was knocked to our knees but each time that we did, we got back up and gave the others a thumbs-up. Even though we couldn’t hear each other over the winds, we were a cohesive unit, moving in unison and trusting each other with our lives. This was how climbing was supposed to feel, raw yet pure.

We soon hauled ourselves up the last rocky step of the summit, a small cone-shaped point that sat on a small mound, which was big enough for two people to sit on precariously. At the top, the winds had died to a tolerable level. It almost felt that the mountain was challenging us to put forth our best effort and once we did, she allowed us to sit on top in peace.

Three days later, during a team dinner in Kathmandu, someone asked me, “What was your favorite moment of the expedition?” It was an easy question as far as I was concerned. My favorite moment of the entire expedition was when Siddhi, Geoff and I were hunkered down on the Lhotse couloir, unable to communicate beyond hand signals, but entirely confident in our team’s ability to conquer. It was a moment that helped me regain my confidence in the ability of humans to care for and protect one another. Before this journey I wouldn’t have predicted it, but after summiting the tallest mountain in the world, it was Lhotse that gave me my reminder of why I love to climb.

Learn more about Stenderup and read his full blog at johnstenderup.com.

The view of Everest from the Lhotse summit

In addition to being an accomplished alpinist, John Stenderup is an executive with Robinson Fresh, a division of the global logistics company C.H. Robinson, who sponsored his trip. He is also deeply committed to his alma mater, serving on Cal Poly’s Agribusiness Advisory Board and frequently guest lecturing in agribusiness courses. Read more about his professional accomplishments and connections to Cal Poly in the new issue of Cultivate, the magazine of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, at cafes.calpoly.edu.

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