People & Places

University of Northern Iowa professor makes history in Everest summit

Climbing helps John 'Andy' Anderson remember what's important in life

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He’s an Iowa boy. Born and raised in the countryside.

“So it’s not like you just go out and start climbing,” John “Andy” Anderson, assistant professor of management at University of Northern Iowa, told The Gazette.

Still, as a teenager, Anderson got the itch. Absent mountains or technical ridges, Anderson and a buddy found the next best thing: a metal Morton building. And they built themselves a climbing wall inside the large shed.

“We were juniors in high school, and we climbed a lot,” Anderson, now 34, said. “We climbed every day.”

They got really strong and eventually made the exponential leap from metal sheds in Iowa to 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. Mount Elbert, west of Denver, was his first. His first technical peak was the Grand Teton in Wyoming.

He bagged nearly all the 14ers in Colorado in one summer, and eventually tackled Alaska’s Denali — North America’s tallest. Discontent with the challenges of this continent, Anderson has climbed his way across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

He and his wife summited the massive Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and last summer Anderson flew to Russia to scale the tallest mountain in Europe — Mount Elbrus. A few weeks later, he zipped down to Italy to summit the technical Matterhorn.

“I’ve climbed a lot of mountains,” he said.

But, as for many accomplished climbers, one peak continued to beckon: Everest.

In April, Anderson finally ticked that off his trekker to-do list. And, true to his Iowa-shed-climbing roots, Anderson took a non-traditional route to the highest summit on Earth — literally.

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Enlisting his cousin — also named John Anderson — to join him, Anderson proposed, “What do you think about doing the north side, which is slightly more difficult?”

“He said, ‘Sure, all right let’s do it. Let’s go be the first Iowans to climb up the north side.”

Instead of Kathmandu, where south-route trekkers start, Anderson and his cousin began their adventure in Lhasa, Tibet. They went unguided, with a couple of Sherpa’s, but shared logistics with a guided company — which helped take up gear and provided a cook tent.

Acclimation in such thin air is a long process, and Anderson and his cousin spent weeks moving between the about 17,000-foot base camp and the intermediate and advanced camps before making a summit push.

“You go there, and you’re miserable,” he said. “You have headaches. You have nausea. I was vomiting from the altitude.”

During the actual ascent, Anderson said, he felt confident and relatively strong until just before camp 3 — the last camp before the top.

“Between camp 2 and camp 3 on our summit push, we had to cross a pretty fresh dead body,” he said. “He had died a few hours before. And he was still on the rope.”

Anderson later learned the man’s name was Frank. And his position was such that Anderson and his cousin had to either step over him to keep going or unclip and go around. Forced to consider the stark reality of the thin veil between life and death, Anderson said he was shaken.

A question haunted him as he continued his climb.

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“What makes me different from Frank?” Anderson said. “We’re doing everything exactly the same. Why am I going to be successful and live while Frank died?”

It was a question he couldn’t reasonably answer in the barren, frozen Himalayas where the most basic of human needs — oxygen — cannot be met.

“You don’t know the answer to that until you either are successful or you die,” he said.

So he put one foot in front of the other on the belief “this was a calculated risk that my body was going to be able to handle.”

When arriving at camp 3 on summit day, sleep was elusive. It was more just waiting, eating and drinking. And thinking.

“I had nothing to do but lay there in my tent, thinking about this guy who died, for like eight hours,” Anderson said. “I had to figure out whether or not this was an acceptable risk to take. And I came to the conclusion that it was.”

He was right.

Heading toward the highest summit on Earth, Anderson said he and his cousin were really strong. And on May 22, the men became the first Iowans to successfully summit the mountain via the northeast ridge.

“We moved so fast on summit day we ended up with an extra bottle of oxygen each,” Anderson said. “So we just cranked it all the way up and had a good old time coming down.”

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They represented both Iowa and UNI on the summit — posing with flags and snapping photos. When they arrived back at base camp, euphoria mixed with exhaustion.

“We were just really, really, really happy that we were successful and achieved what we set out to do,” he said. “And really tired.”

But as historic as his Everest endeavor was, mountaineering for Anderson isn’t about the destination.

“For me, it’s a process of getting there,” he said. “When you’re actually doing the hiking to the top, or the climbing, everything else sort of melts away. ... It really gives you clarity about what is important in life. And that, inevitably, every time, ends up being relationships.”

That can be hard to remember in the daily grind.

“Getting into the mountains and nature is one way that I’m able to go back to figure out what is actually important in life.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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