Spokane is having a senior moment on Mount Everest this week.
Kay LeClaire, 60, of Spokane, was on top of the world Friday night as she became the oldest U.S. woman to climb Mount Everest.
Late Friday, she was beginning the dangerous descent from the summit after climbing for more than 10 hours in cold, windy weather.
She’s the second Spokane-area resident to reach the summit this week. On Tuesday, Spokane’s Dawes Eddy, 66, reached the 29,035-foot summit and became the oldest U.S. man to climb the world’s highest mountain and return to base camp alive.
LeClaire departed Spokane on March 29 for her fourth attempt at Everest in five years. The achievement caps her quest to climb the “seven summits” – the highest point on each continent.
“I’m thrilled,” said her husband, Jerry LeClaire, who was monitoring the expedition’s progress Friday night over the Internet. “And I’ll be even more thrilled when she calls by satellite phone and tells me she’s safely back at base camp.”
One team member had to leave the mountain last week after suffering frostbite on eight fingers after briefly taking off his mittens, Jerry LeClaire said. “It’s been bitter cold up there,” he said.
Kay LeClaire was with a group of eight climbers and four guides with Alpine Ascents International, based in Seattle.
She slept the night before the summit bid at Camp 4 on the South Col, breathing a low flow of bottled oxygen at elevation 26,300 feet. Her previous high point was 23,600 feet, which she reached on Everest in 2006.
Jerry LeClaire talked to her briefly by satellite phone Thursday night.
“She was coughing but, she said, ‘feeling strong,’ ” said the Spokane physician, noting that she had been toughing out a cold earlier in the climb.
Her tent mate was suffering from snowblindness in one eye.
The group left camp for the summit about 10 p.m. Nepal time (10 a.m. PDT in Spokane). LeClaire was in the lead group that reached the summit about 8 1/2 hours later, with a long descent still to come.
Former Spokane resident David Coombs climbed Mount Hood with LeClaire two years ago as she was training for one of her Everest expeditions.
“As I remember, the Mountaineers had canceled a climb because of the weather, but Kay was determined to go, so she called me,” he said.
“Kay is very level-headed, and obviously determined,” Coombs said in a telephone interview from Boulder, Colo. “She’s very fit, both aerobically and strengthwise.
“I remember on that climb that we walked right past groups of college climbers. Kay has a steady pace, not the fastest, but she’s still going when a lot of other people have dropped.”
LeClaire got a taste of the Himalayas in 1970 on a trek while her family served in Nepal for the Agency for International Development.
“She has hiked and exercised all her life, but only took to mountaineering on a climb of Mount Rainier in 2000 at age 50,” her husband said.
She was “appalled by her own lack of technical climbing skills,” he said, so she enrolled herself – as well as her husband and son – in the Spokane Mountaineers Mountain School in 2001.
Later that year, the family climbed the first of her “seven summits,” Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
LeClaire’s climbing résumé since includes 30 significant peaks from Alaska’s Mount McKinley to Vinson Massif in Antarctica, as well as 10 ascents of Cascades volcanoes from Mount Baker to Mount Shasta.
“She had initially planned to do the Coeur d’Alene Ironman in June and talked of returning to Everest in 2010,” Jerry LeClaire said.
“She changed her mind when she found out that a good friend of hers from previous climbs, Lori Schneider, of Bayfield, Wis., planned to go to Everest this spring.
“She tried to keep her bid quiet until she was on the airplane, concealing it even from another good friend,” he added, noting that she didn’t want to detract from Eddy’s effort to make history on the world’s highest peak.
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