When Sharon Wood climbed to the summit of Mount Everest on May 20, 1986, she never imagined that single day of her life would be something people would still be talking about 25 years later.
The only woman alongside the nation's top climbers of the day on the expedition at 29 Wood had earned her spot on the team because she was a competent climber with the skill, experience, stamina and determination the mountain would demand.
Her team included Barry Blanchard, Dwayne Congdon, expedition leader Jim Elzinga and Laurie Skreslet, the first Canadian to stand on that coveted summit in 1982.
In the end, however, Wood made history not just as the first Canadian woman to climb Everest, but as the first female from North America. Since then she has made her living speaking to thousands of groups on themes such as personal leadership, thriving though change and adversity, accomplishing more with less and the power of passion and curiosity.
"Everest - it's turned out nothing like I would have imagined," Wood said recently over a cup of tea in her hometown of Canmore, Alberta. "It's permeated every aspect of my life. I'm still making my living from it; I'm still getting e-mails for school projects, or recently from a guy writing a book. Who would have thought it would be such a prominent part of my life? I thought we would have climbed it, there'd be a kafuffle for a few months, then it would be life as usual."
And while Wood readily admits Everest has provided her with a comfortable life, at times it has been a double-edged sword.
"It's been very good to me. I have a nice house in Canmore, and a nice [Volkswagen camper] van," she said. "At the same time, it's been isolating. It attracts people in superficial ways, and challenges other friends. It's no longer a climber's mountain. Over the years, I've become somewhat inured to people's reactions, whether they're over the top, impressed, disgusted or disdainful."
While serious climbers appreciate how Wood was not only the first North American woman, but also the first woman to climb Everest by a new, technically difficult and still unrepeated route, which they climbed without any Sherpa support, the general public rarely recognizes the distinction.
No matter. Wood credits her team for their success.
"Our expedition was very much a meritocracy, no one was slated," Wood said. "Of course, I wanted to get to the top, everyone had a dream, everyone was aiming. We all had a chance. What determined it were the people who were working most consistently, who were strong and healthy and functional. We just kept our heads down and our legs churning."
By the time all was in place for a summit bid, only Alibi Sole, Blanchard, Congdon and Wood were up to the task.
"It was a crap shoot, but then somebody suggested we might have a chance at coming first for a change," Wood recalled. Cognizant that an American woman was poised to attempt the summit via another route, the Canadians seized their chance.
"We snuck in the back door," Wood said.
Never one to rest on her laurels, after the births of her sons in 1989 and 1992 Wood led a different sort of team to found Mountain Gate Community School. Running the fully accredited, private school for seven years provided an equally challenging and rewarding experience.
"It was good for me to know I could be passionate about something else and discover it was just as easy to commit fully to something that was not climbing," Wood said. "It was difficult, rich, rewarding, surprising, educational. I think I learned more about the human condition running that school than I did on an expedition. Those were high stakes, that business of educating our children."
Smiling, she related how her sons spent this past winter "living the dream", spending their summer job savings to share a doublewide trailer in Revelstoke and shred deep powder.
"The best leg up kids can have is passion," Wood stated. "To experience passion first-hand, learn what it means to be willing to commit, put in some hard time and hard work to find that passion."
As for Wood, her current passions include guiding (she's an ACMG-accredited alpine and assistant ski guide), developing her writing talent and road tripping in her "fourth and nicest" VW van to rock climb in Yosemite and Joshua Tree.
"It's been a fascinating journey," she said. "Since I turned 50, I've learned not to take myself so seriously. This is it. I'm not getting stronger anymore; I'm not climbing harder or higher grades. It was a bit of a shock in my 40s, but I think now I'm accepting it with grace."
And a VW van helps too.
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