Last week, world-class climber and Steamboat resident Kim Hess spoke to grades 3-8 regarding her various adventures. Kim is one of the youngest people in the world to have completed the ‘Seven Summits’ – reaching the top of the highest peak on each continent – and she is currently pursuing the rest of the ‘Explorers Grand Slam’, for which she’ll strive to reach the north and south poles. Likewise, she now holds a world record as half of the only brother/sister duo to have accomplished the Seven Summits. Among various pinnacles, both literal and figurative, her incredible journey has included setback and turmoil, and much of her presentation to EMS students centered on the importance of endurance, perspective, and tenacity. Particularly within a field that has historically been dominated by men, and in the context of any challenge, she emphasized self-reliance and determination. She wasn’t even an experienced climber when she decided to pursue the Seven Summits. Rather, fresh out of college and wandering the world in search of adventure, Kim found a project that she knew would challenge her physical and mental aptitudes. In essence, she had an idea, and she went after it, a perspective applicable to any demanding task. And, in her brother, she found a partner who was willing to support her ambition. She said, “Never underestimate anything, because the difficulty of any mountain is always there, and I found on [Denali] that I am OK with it. I was cold, I was miserable, the weight was awful, I wanted to cry, I was yelling, so I had to dig deep to make it to the top.” It was also on Denali that Kim endured one of the hardest setbacks of her quest: a broken hand on the decent that cost her substantial time in recovering. “I had nine orthopedic doctors tell me that I needed surgery and that I wasn’t going anywhere.” But, in listening to Kim speak, one quickly realizes that she does not easily succumb to discouragement, nor to resigning her own aspirations. Following rehabilitation, she summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, and, she added, “At 19,000 ft, this is the mountain where I smiled the most, where I learned to be fully engaged, to be present, and to really enjoy this time with my brother.”
Kim headed to Everest in 2015. She regaled our student audience with incredible photography, accounts of the epic scenery and the physical demands: the Khumbu Icefall, the weeks of acclimatization, the need to travel up to various pitches only to hike back to Base Camp and reacclimatize, and the agony of waiting for a lucky break in the weather. Then, when she was at Camp 3, Nepal sustained a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that sent the climb, and the country, into disarray. Kim’s perspective changed from personal to national through the humanizing reality of emergency. She first needed to get herself down to Base Camp safely, accomplished by helicopter transport, then she began to sort out the debris and to help the injured, which were many in number. Her pursuit of the summit was over for the time being; the task of rebuilding and helping the local community was all that mattered. “Within the country of Nepal,” she told us, “over 10,000 people died in the earthquake, and another 17,000 were left homeless. I was devastated. I was heartbroken, and, in the blink of an eye, I began my longest trek back home. But I was happy to be alive.” A year later, Kim returned to Everest to try again, and this time she met with better fortune. The same route meant the same physical demands, though she spoke of her newfound perspective and her father’s single request: “Don’t lose your brother.” Yet, in the darkness above Camp 4 as she progressed toward the summit, she and her brother became separated and, rather than risk fatigue and the dangers of waiting alone in the cold, Kim pushed forward, on her own. She was one of the first people to summit that day, and on the top she took time to reflect on the difficulties she had faced, the numerous people who thought she could never succeed, the few people who believed in her, and the wondrous joy she now felt at knowing that she had sought and found her dream. On the way down, she saw her brother as he made his way to the top, and she reveled in each phase of the decent back to Base Camp, knowing this would be her last time on Everest.
Kim completed the Seven Summits in March of 2018 when she reached the top of Australia’s Mt. Kosciuszko with her parents. She states, “I’ve lived my motto: Don’t let your dreams be dreams. I set my eyes on the impossible and I’ve done the impossible to achieve it. Life sends you curveballs and people who will tell you that you are incapable of things. I welcome the curveballs and the disbelievers, because that makes the ending so much more satisfying.”