Climbing Everest: Despite rheumatoid arthritis, Los Altos resident scales summit

Photo Courtesy Of Jeff Gottfurcht

Los Altos resident Jeff Gottfurcht, above in orange, recently scaled Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, despite his rheumatoid arthritis.

Los Altos resident Jeff Gottfurcht can’t move mountains, but he’s determined to climb them – despite his rheumatoid arthritis.

At the young age of 28, the active hiker and mountain climber was diagnosed with the debilitating disease. Nine years later, Gottfurcht scaled the tallest mountain in the world – 29,035-foot Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Gottfurcht is believed to be the first person with rheumatoid arthritis to scale the massive peak. He concluded the nearly two-month journey in May.

The feat is just one of several goals Gottfurcht has set and met since his diagnosis. He refuses to let the disease stop him.

A few years back, while brainstorming with his father, Gottfurcht committed to start a foundation to help children with arthritis. Six years ago, when he and his wife, Emily, started their family, Gottfurcht committed to be the kind of husband and father who could inspire his family. He’s done both.

Scaling Everest may have been Gottfurcht’s biggest goal, but he didn’t do it alone. He had plenty of supporters. Six-year-old son Rawley and his entire Los Altos Christian School kindergarten class cheered Gottfurcht on. They hung a poster of Mount Everest on a classroom bulletin board, complete with markings of the five camps where he would stop along the way.

Gottfurcht left March 27 on a trip that would take him to Hong Kong, Kathmandu, and a 9,186-foot-level remote mountain airstrip in Lukla, Nepal. For nearly 60 days, he would hike and climb, battling the elements. Temperatures ranged from -40 F to 90 F. He endured shifting ice walls, steep climbs over rocks and snow, potential avalanches and the threat of illnesses caused by altitude (including cerebral or pulmonary edemas, frozen limbs and blindness).

Part of the expedition organized by Seattle’s Eric Simonson that included 15 Westerners and 30 local Sherpas, they hiked 40 miles to the 17,600-foot base camp. Then Gottfurcht, his climbing partner – a 33-year-old Sherpa named Danuru – and group members began a six-week regimen of strength training and acclimation climbing rotations.

They departed for the final assault May 11, hiking past Camp 1 (19,500 feet) to Camp 2 (21,300 feet); Camp 3 (24,000 feet), where they stayed overnight with supplemental oxygen; and then to Camp 4 (26,000). Arriving at noon, Gottfurcht and Danuru left that day at 8:30 p.m. for a moonlit climb through what climbers named “The Death Zone.”

Camp 4 to the summit is full of treacherous obstacles, including the Tenzing Step, a 300-foot steep, exhausting climb over large sections of smooth rock slabs; the Cornice Traverse, a 400-foot-long, 1.5-foot-wide traverse that Gottfurcht called “the most exposed and dangerous part of the summit attempt” with an 8,000-foot drop on one side and an 11,000-foot drop on the other; and the Hillary Step, a 40-foot vertical section of rock and ice close to the summit.

What looked like a calm, starry night turned out to be a windy one. Five hours into the 10-hour trek to the summit, Gottfurcht decided to wear his dark goggles (he’d left his clear ones in his Camp 4 tent), making it that much harder to see. He lost vision in his left eye due to a frozen cornea and had to climb the tough sections, including the Hillary Step, with limited vision.

At 6:18 a.m. May 14, Gottfurcht conquered his goal – and Mount Everest. He and Danuru reached the summit, celebrating happily in the 60- to 70-mph winds for approximately five minutes.

“It was absolutely fantastic,” Gottfurcht said.

He took video with his new iPhone, purchased for the occasion, and held up a small LACS flag in honor of his son’s school. And then, with his left eye blinded and sight in his right eye diminishing, they began their descent.

Gottfurcht said he told Danuru “we have to go down fast,” because “I needed to have my right eye as long as I could” to get past the tough areas.

“I knew I couldn’t climb the Hillary Step blind,” Gottfurcht said.

Fifteen hours later, after 25 continuous hours of climbing, Gottfurcht and Danuru made it safely back to Camp 2.

As he climbed, Gottfurcht said that “all these snippets of these books I read” about historic climbers came to life on the mountain.

“It was cool,” he said, recalling Dougal Haston and Doug Scott, climbers forced to find a place to sleep close to the summit. “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Where would Danuru and I (bivouac)?’ All these stories I read of my heroes – I’m there.”

Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the top of Mount Everest, summiting in 1953.

“It was like those guys were going to space,” Gottfurcht said, mentioning climbers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, Jim Whittaker and Willi Unsoeld. “I loved the adventures these guys went on. Epic adventures: man against himself, man against mountain, man against nature.”

The rigorous climb was no small feat for a man with rheumatoid arthritis. Knowing that he couldn’t mix medications and high altitude, he rubbed a cobra venom cream called Nyloxin on his weary joints. Nutra Pharma, the developer of the cream, sponsored a portion of his $40,000 trip.

Why take such a risk? A love of the mountain, to be a hero to his wife and children, to overcome a substantial hurdle and to bring attention to his foundation.

His doctors said the climb was “worse than a bad idea,” according to Gottfurcht, which only made him more determined.

“I wanted to say to my kids, ‘Hey, listen, I went for my dream, and did it against all odds,’” he said.

Gottfurcht returned to a hero’s welcome at Los Altos Christian. With his son, Rawley, by his side, he showed the children some items he brought on the trip: a small Bible (he said he read Matthew 5:16 nightly, and “that gave me lots of strength”), his oxygen mask and small rocks he’d collected between Camp 4 and the summit for them.

Gottfurcht does what he says he will do. Fourteen years ago, as Gottfurcht and Emily spent their first date watching an IMAX movie on Mount Everest at San Jose’s Tech Museum, he told her, “I’m going to climb that one day.” And now, “That is a high that will never go away. … It’s something we’ll celebrate in our family for generations.”

His first glimpse of Mount Everest was as a middle schooler, when he saw a picture of “this black rock” above a friend’s bed. He remembers thinking, “That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” A Los Angeles native, he hiked and climbed in local canyons and at summer camps. Eventually he tackled serious climbs, including Russia’s Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet, Europe’s highest mountain); Mexico’s highest peak, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet); and Mount Lobuche in the Himalayas (20,075 feet).

What’s the draw of climbing?

“It’s a definitive way of winning or losing – no questions,” Gottfurcht said. “You either make it to the top of the mountain or you don’t.”

He was determined to reach the summit on this, his second attempt. Gottfurcht attempted the climb a year ago but didn’t feel strong enough to make it all the way to the top.

“It translates to people’s lives,” he said of trying again. “We all get knocked down. … Victory the second time is so sweet.”

And his determination to reach the world’s highest peak, while battling a physically challenging disease, has attracted interest. Gottfurcht has already sold his story to a Hollywood producer and is in talks with major networks to share his adventure.

Refusing to give up has helped see him through his rheumatoid arthritis, the building of a foundation and climbing the world’s tallest mountain. So what’s next?

Asked if he plans to return to the Himalayas, Gottfurcht said, “Oh, absolutely,” then said he plans to climb the 20,000-foot Ama da Blam, a “formidable challenge,” in October 2012.

And he probably will.

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