Conquering the Seven Summits

UPDATED: October 13, 2010
PUBLISHED: October 13, 2010

When Kay LeClaire, 61, talks about her extreme life experiences, she speaks as if she were relaying the weather—very matter-of-fact.

“I became the oldest woman to complete the Seven Summits by default, not by goal,” LeClaire says casually. “It took me weeks to even find out that I was the oldest.”

The Seven Summits are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents and a much sought-after achievement among climbers: Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Denali (Alaska), Elbrus (Russia), Aconcagua (Argentina), Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia), Vinson (Antarctica) and Everest (Nepal).

On May 23, 2009, LeClaire successfully conquered Mount Everest, the last and toughest of the climbs. The first woman over 60 to reach all seven summits, she was only the second woman of that age group from the United States to summit the 29,035-foot Mount Everest.

“When we got to the summit, the clouds were rolling in and we didn’t have a view. But we did have a view on the way up, and it was like, oh my God—I really knew I was going to be on top of the world,” LeClaire says. “It’s so magical I can hardly describe it.”

She never intended to make climbing history. In fact LeClaire, who lives in Spokane, Wash., with her husband, Jerry, didn’t climb at all until she was 51.

“My son Andrew and I climbed Mount Rainier, which is over 14,000 feet, and it was after that that one of my friends who was a mountaineer said, ‘Gosh, if you like climbing so much, you ought to learn more about it,’ ” LeClaire says.

So she joined the Spokane Mountaineers mountain school, and with the group’s help, she learned the technical idiosyncrasies of the sport. She also got over her fear of rock climbing. “I couldn’t imagine myself, over 50, clinging to the side of this vertical rock,” she says. “I didn’t like it all that much, but it’s all about overcoming fear. And I’ve gotten much better about that now.”

In 2001, she, her son and her husband took a family trip to Africa, where she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. After that, a friend suggested she might want to tackle the remaining six summits.

She climbed Mount Elbrus next, in August 2002; Aconcagua in January 2003; and Vinson and Denali in 2004. And then she got to Everest. The hardest summit by far, Everest took four tries over four years, as LeClaire battled with heart arrhythmia and intense storms, and nursed a torn ACL, before she finally made it to the top.

When a team finishes a tough climb like Everest, its members don’t get to plop down in a hot tub and drink cold beer. They have to teeter back to base camp and rest before descending another 14,000 feet. After successfully summiting Everest on her fourth try and returning to base camp, a blizzard grabbed hold of LeClaire’s camp, collapsing their small tents and forcing the team to dig its way out from beneath six feet of snow.

Some of LeClaire’s teammates were injured and needed to be helicoptered off the mountain. Others were simply too exhausted to make the 14,000-foot descent and paid for a helicopter ride out.

“I called my husband and I told him I’d really like to get out of there, and he said, ‘Kay, you can walk,’ ” LeClaire says with a laugh. “The helicopters cost about $3,000. We saved $3,000 and were just fine.”

In the climbing world, a $3,000 helicopter ride can be construed as inexpensive in comparison with the cost of a climb, which can range from $25,000 to more than $60,000. LeClaire acknowledges the staggering costs as part of the sport; it’s the commercialization of climbing that bothers her, not the personal financial challenge.

There is a “look at me” attitude among some climbers that runs counter to LeClaire’s way of thinking. She doesn’t call attention to her accomplishments. It’s not that she isn’t passionate about her efforts and goals; she just doesn’t use success to inflate her ego.

“Everyone’s definition of success is a little different, but it seems that when I talk to people, what they’re hoping to achieve is making a lot of money,” LeClaire says. “It saddens me to think that’s some people’s only goal in life. What makes me feel successful is just to inspire other people to have a goal.”

LeClaire’s family didn’t have much money when she was growing up. She lived in a small town in Iowa until she was 10, when her father got a job with the U.S. Aid Program, which took the family to Panama and Europe. Her parents placed a high value on experience and perseverance.

“When my sister and I were born, they placed us almost six years apart because they wanted to make sure both of us went to college, and they figured when one daughter finishes college, they would help pay for the second daughter. They wanted to make sure we strived for our goals,” LeClaire says.

Because she doesn’t view money as an end game, LeClaire’s goals have always coincided with her interests. She’s studied desert ecosystems and entomology; she took on climbing when it interested her; and when she became interested in law, she got a law degree.

“When my son was 6 months old, I took some time off and decided I was too house-bound, so I went to law school,” LeClaire says with a chuckle. “I graduated when Andrew was about 4 years old, and then I did some catering for a while.”

Once she was 7-0 with the summits, it was time for LeClaire to move on. Where does a tenacious person who loves the outdoors and revels in challenge go after climbing more than 140,000 feet up the world’s highest mountains? The Coeur d’Alene Ironman, of course.

The Coeur d’Alene Ironman is an extreme triathlon that includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. LeClaire volunteered at the Subaru Ironman Canada in 2008 and was greatly inspired by Sister Madonna Buder, a 78-year-old Roman Catholic nun who finished the race, and in 2006, achieved the honor as the oldest woman to complete the Hawaii Ironman.

“I think it’s so awesome that people have goals like that,” LeClaire says. “Not to mention the physical strength. I hope I’m that strong at 78.”

LeClaire spent mornings training for the competition—lifting weights, running, swimming and biking. “I also took a trip to New Zealand to build up my endurance,” she says.

On May 23, exactly one year after her amazing seventh summit and only five weeks away from competing in the Coeur d’Alene Ironman, LeClaire had a bike accident. She shattered her collarbone and broke several ribs. But it’s not in her nature to let a few injuries keep her from her goal.

She signed up for the 2011 Coeur d’Alene and started working out with the support of her husband, son and several friends. She’s already run a mini-triathlon and has her sights set on next year’s Ironman.

“I hope I’ll be in good enough shape,” she says. “Just like most goals, I want to finish. I’m not trying to break a record.”

Her goal is to complete the race in 17 hours. And after that? Who knows. “We’ll see,” LeClaire says.