The Other Guy on Top of the World

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JONATHAN CHESTER/EXTREME IMAGES

Dr. Sherman Bull: The oldest climber to reach the summit

There was another man who accompanied Erik Weihenmayer on the recent expedition to the top of the world. His name is Dr. Sherman Bull, and I've known him most of my life. He was a good friend and medical colleague of my fatherís, but since Dad died about fourteen years ago I donít see Sherman much any more. I had a chance to catch up with him the other night at a cocktail reception given in his honor at the New Canaan Country Club in Connecticut.

Sherman can see just fine, so he didnít receive quite the press that Erik did. The only reason Sherman gets mentioned at all, in fact, is that he also set a record with Erik that day. Sherman is 64, the oldest person to ever climb Mount Everest. He also stood on the summit with his son Brad, making them the second father-son team to do so. But thatís not the whole story.

Haven't I see you here before?

You see, Shermanís been there before — or almost there before. During the reception, he joked that when he walked through the streets of Kathmandu, strangers would walk up to him and say, "Sherman, are you trying again?" "Thatís not a good thing" he dead-panned.

Iím not too sure how many times Sherman has tried to climb Everest, and it became clear as I talked to him during the evening that he isn't either. This may have been his fourth attempt, maybe his fifth. But, to the great relief of his second wife Peggy, finally making it to the top means this was his last.

Climbing Everest obviously involves a lot of preparation, good physical conditioning, and incredible mental toughness. But it also eats up a lot of time. Sherman was over there for about 75 days. If youíre a successful physician with a second family, thatís quite a sacrifice. Multiply it by four attempts, and youíre talking obsession.

Everest takes its toll

At the reception, that obsession showed. Sherman was still sporting the beard that he grew during his expedition, which in his case was a good thing because that scruffy mess on his face filled him out. Heís a thin, wiry guy who runs marathons and enjoys "century" bike races. But after Everest, heís twenty pounds lighter than normal. At least those little tufts sticking out of his cheeks gave some definition to his gaunt features. His beautiful pale blue eyes sat deep inside hollow eye sockets that were rimmed with black cuts created when his goggles froze to his face. The skin on his face resembled bronze leather and bore the effects of sub-zero temperatures, 100-mile-an-hour winds, biting snow and glaring sun. His clothes hung too loosely off his frame and he still walked with the measured steps of a man at high altitude. He looked out of place among the soft, comfortable suburbanites that came to toast his accomplishment. And as he spoke he reassured the crowd that he was done with Everest. But he added that the climbersí mantra is "So many peaks, so little time."

Every climb has to start somewhere

Sherman graciously mentioned that it was my father that inspired him to start climbing. I was a bit taken aback since I couldnít remember my father ever climbing anything except a stepladder. But there was that time Dad went to climbing school with my brother in the Sierra Nevada. My brother was too young to go on his own, and in an effort to become closer to his son, my Dad agreed to accompany him. He came back with his hands sliced to ribbons and stories of how he fell off the mountain three times. But my brother had held the belay, and they came back closer. And while Dad told me that it was a miserable experience he never wished to repeat, he must have painted a different picture for his friends and colleagues. Sherman went to the same climbing school and has scaled mountains ever since, often taking his son with him.

Erik Weihenmayer is the most visible hero of this past Everest expedition and deservedly so. But there were others that made it to the top with him, and for them the accomplishment is equally as great. One of them was a driven doctor from New Canaan, CT who fulfilled a life-long dream to not only scale the highest mountain in the world, but to climb the seven highest peaks on the earthís seven continents. Climbers refer to this as conquering the "Seven Summits." For Dr. Sherman Bull, Everest was the final piece of a remarkable feat that few can imagine and even fewer accomplish.