A Fall from Everest, and Strength to Carry On
As I walked up the driveway to meet the Hawthorn Woods resident who has summited the highest mountain on five continents and skied to both the North and South poles, ticking off seven of the nine “Explorer’s Grand Slam” conquests (accomplished by only 58 people in the world), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but was hopeful that I wouldn’t have my hand crushed in a man-mountain-like vice-grip handshake.
Quite the contrary. I was greeted by a courteous, welcoming, soft-spoken, gracious gentleman who warmly invited me in to hear stories of how he’s learned to trust his Guide, trust his rope, conquer his fears, and accept disappointment and failure as necessary for success. It’s not Joel Schauer’s physical presence that immediately grabs your attention, but his unmistakable inner strength and resolve.
Schauer has leveraged his quiet, calm confidence into running a successful local business; raising a family with his wife of 31 years, Kathy; and helping to make a difference in the lives of others at home, at work, and on his travels. His passion for climbing the highest heights began during a trip to Uganda to help start schools and orphanages there, when an invitation to go climbing initially sparked his desire for further climbing adventures.
After a year’s exhaustive training to scale Everest in 2014, an accident and loss of life in an icefall led to his expedition being cancelled. A disappointed Schauer planned to return to Everest in 2015, but called off his trip when his mother became gravely ill. That year, an earthquake triggered the fall of a huge chunk of ice into the base camp killing nineteen people, several of whom were in the very team Joel would have been with had he gone. Schauer remembers, “Except for my Mom’s illness, I would have been in that base camp. I remember Mom asking me before she passed if I would return to Everest; when I said yes, she replied, ‘I’ll see you there.’”
While justifiably proud of his exploratory achievements, Schauer seems even more proud when mentioning his daughter Jen, explaining how she is setting aside a successful consulting career in Seattle to go to graduate school with a goal to join a nonprofit for abused and orphan children. Asked what he considers the biggest risk he’s taken in his life, Schauer replied, “Getting married; having a family; raising our kids. A majority of marriages end in divorce these days… kids don’t always turn out to be who you wish they would be.” He’s learned to surround himself with people who are positive and have a sense of purpose: “I always yearned to be on a great team… and now it’s my privilege and opportunity and challenge to create that, as a family man, a husband, and a business owner.”
When the world turns upside down, as Schauer’s did (literally) while climbing down from the summit of Everest where wind gusts reach 100 mph (it’s so high it’s up in the jet stream), his faith-based resolve and inner calm were key to turning potential tragedy into triumph. “It’s tough for me to admit that in 2016 I fell off the summit ridge, and at twenty-eight thousand nine hundred seventy five feet was hanging upside down looking outward over the Khumbu Valley. A completely new perspective of reality. My worst fear was just realized. There was no one to help me, as my Sherpa had continued down and other climbers continued up. My reaction: no fear, no emotion, only an internal peace and a realization that I was made for exactly this moment and for this trial. My mental response was to consider if my carabiner would hold to the rope, and the rope to the summit ridge. My physical response was after several seconds I swung myself outwards, and dug my crampons into the rock and ice, obtaining enough leverage and purchase to right myself. Once uprighted and without another thought about what just occurred, I continued down to Camp 4.”
Schauer’s wife Kathy recently climbed her own metaphorical mountain, conquering that widely-considered #1 fear many people share (that of public speaking) to join her husband in a presentation at an Athletes in Action event, sharing her personal perspective on being “the wife of an adventurous, risk-taking, mountaineering man.”
As she retells: “The biggest part of it is that it can be an emotional roller coaster. Meeting extraordinary people from all walks of life, Joel’s challenging himself, seeing all of God’s creation all over the world, is wonderful. But there’s always the ‘what if’… what if there’s another avalanche… or he gets frostbite, loses fingers or toes or his nose… God tells us not to get anxious. Ultimately when he’s gone on a trip, I’m trusting God that he’ll come back to me.”