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There and back again: Mormons on Mount Everest

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 11:46 a.m. MDT

David Roskelley, left, and Steve Pearson hold up a Book of Mormon as they sit on the summit of Mount Everest on the morning of May 19. Both men are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Roskelley is a member of the Mountainville Third Ward (Alpine Utah Stake), and Pearson has been part of the Longfellow Park Second Ward (Cambridge Mass. Stake) before recently moving to Utah. (Provided by Steve Pearson) David Roskelley, left, and Steve Pearson hold up a Book of Mormon as they sit on the summit of Mount Everest on the morning of May 19. Both men are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Roskelley is a member of the Mountainville Third Ward (Alpine Utah Stake), and Pearson has been part of the Longfellow Park Second Ward (Cambridge Mass. Stake) before recently moving to Utah. (Provided by Steve Pearson)

Sitting atop the world at 29,029 feet elevation, two friends attempted to sing the LDS hymn "High on the Mountain Top" as it may have never been sung before.

Unfortunately, limited oxygen hindered their happy chorus.

"It wasn't on key ... and I broke down into a coughing fit after the first phrase," Steve Pearson said. The pair also put extra emphasis on the word "the" in the first line as they sang "High on THE Mountain Top."

Mount Everest rises up above the clouds. (Steve Pearson) Mount Everest rises up above the clouds. (Steve Pearson)

That's just one fun memory that Pearson and David Roskelley shared as they savored the victory of reaching the summit of Mount Everest on the morning of May 19. In a recent phone interview, the climbing partners said ascending to the highest peak on the planet was the result of setting a goal, preparation, hard work and sacrifice. Not only was it the adventure of a lifetime, but it helped them feel closer to the Lord.

"It's quite an experience and I don't know if I've completely digested it yet, but it's an incredible feeling," Roskelley said. "With all the sacrifice that goes into trying to reach a goal this huge, it was just incredible to have achieved that goal."

"(I was) standing in awe, not so much of the accomplishment, but to be able to look out over the world," said Pearson, who added they were fortunate to conquer the summit under clear blue skies. "Being able to look over the world in every direction, you really think to yourself, 'How Great Thou Art.' It was really a profound experience in that sense."

Steve Pearson, center, stands among other climbers on the summit of Mount Everest on May 19. (Provided by Steve Pearson) Steve Pearson, center, stands among other climbers on the summit of Mount Everest on May 19. (Provided by Steve Pearson)

Roskelley, 44, is a partner in an environmental engineering firm called R&R Environmental, Inc., and teaches public health at the University of Utah's Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health as an adjunct professor. The Alpine, Utah, resident is also an avid mountaineer.

More than a decade ago, Roskelley was inspired by Richard "Dick" Bass and his quest to be the first to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Bass, the owner of Snowbird Ski Resort, co-authored a book titled "Seven Summits," which Roskelley read. He resolved to reach the same summits that Bass did.

A few years later, Roskelley met the 30-year-old Pearson through Steve's sister. They discovered a common passion for outdoor adventures and became fast friends.

Dave Roskelley stands on the summit of Mount Everest and waves an American flag. (Provided by David Roskelley) Dave Roskelley stands on the summit of Mount Everest and waves an American flag. (Provided by David Roskelley)

In 2011, the duo scaled Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska and last summer they climbed Mount Rainier in Washington. Those experiences fueled their desire to attack another challenge — "the Ph.D. of climbing" — Everest.

For both men, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, long-distance running was their primary form of physical preparation. Roskelley said it helped to exercise in American Fork Canyon in dry wintery weather.

In addition to running marathons, Pearson, who then lived at sea level in Boston, rented a hypoxic generator and slept for two months in a little tent on top of his bed at a lowered oxygen level that would simulate 14,000 feet elevation, he said.

The price to climb Everest can range from $35,000 to $45,000, which includes travel expenses, permits to climb the mountain and guides who accompany the climbers, the men said.

Steve Pearson holds up an Steve Pearson holds up an "I love u Steph" message to his fiancÉe, Stephanie Ketchum. (Provided by Steve Pearson)

The entire trip lasted six weeks. Going from base camp to the summit and back down took seven days. Their journey up the mountain was accompanied by unusually good weather. For Roskelley, the biggest challenge was being apart from his wife and three sons for nearly two months.

Pearson, who recently graduated from Harvard Business School, missed his fianceé, Stephanie Ketchum. Their wedding day is July 11 and "it's hard to plan a wedding from 7,000 miles away," he said.

The biggest challenge in climbing the mountain was patience. There were times they had to wait for better weather conditions before pushing to a higher altitude. A high volume of climbers also made the going slow at times.

Thanks to modern advances in mountaineering equipment and the efforts of Sherpa guides, more climbers than ever are reaching the peak of Mount Everest, causing some congestion on the mountain. In the spring of 2012, 547 people successfully reached the summit.

Steve Pearson stands for a photo with a peak named Pumori looming in the background. Mount Everest is a short distance away. (Provided by Steve Pearson) Steve Pearson stands for a photo with a peak named Pumori looming in the background. Mount Everest is a short distance away. (Provided by Steve Pearson)

More than 6,000 have climbed the massive mountain since 1953, according to National Geographic.

"It's treacherous terrain. There's not really a way to pass or get around someone. And it just keeps going up and up and up," Pearson said. "You had to stay focused. Slow and steady wins the race."

As they worked their way up the mountain, sleeping on icy slopes, battling fatigue and a lack of oxygen, Roskelley said it was a blessing to be with someone who shared his faith. Both men are returned Mormon missionaries and Eagle Scouts.

"I've climbed with people who aren't members of the church. It's nice, especially when you are facing your mortality, to climb with someone who has the same religious affiliation and background," Roskelley said. "On Denali, we literally held each other's lives in one another's hands because we were roped together."

The front gates of the Tengboche Monastery. (David Roskelley) The front gates of the Tengboche Monastery. (David Roskelley)

"A lot of expeditions fall apart because of egos or team members not getting along," Pearson said. "It makes the trip more enjoyable to doing it with someone I get along with and trust."

The expedition was also a spiritual experience for the men. Praying daily was a high priority for both men. Roskelley set a goal to read a chapter from his pocketsize Book of Mormon each day. For every six verses, he tried to do 20 pushups.

"The spiritual aspect of this was huge for me," Roskelley said. "You can't deny your faith when you are trying to do something like this."

Many of Pearson's most spiritual experiences in life have come while in the mountains. Everest was no different.

"Mountains are symbolic of temples. It's you, your thoughts and the Lord ... as you are facing your limits, reaching points of exhaustion," Pearson said. "In those moments I feel greater dependence on the Lord and more open to the Spirit."

About a month before departing for Nepal, David Roskelley said he got his fortune: About a month before departing for Nepal, David Roskelley said he got his fortune: "Soon you will be sitting on the top of the world." (David Roskelley)

Roskelley and Pearson reached the summit early on May 19, which carried special meaning for Roskelley. His wife Lynda's birthday is May 18 and May 19 is their wedding anniversary.

"We were able to summit when it was her birthday in the U.S. and our anniversary in Nepal," he said. "We straddled both events."

Neither climber suffered frozen limbs or required medical treatment and both got used to crossing bottomless crevasses on aluminum ladders. The scariest part came as they descended the Lhotse Face after reaching the summit.

"Literally one misstep, even being attached to safety lines, and it would have been a big fall, possibly 100 to 150 feet," Roskelley said.

Eventually, both men safely reached the base camp and returned home without incident.

Steve Pearson and partner David Roskelley climbed to the summit of Mount Everest on May 19. (Provided by Steve Pearson) Steve Pearson and partner David Roskelley climbed to the summit of Mount Everest on May 19. (Provided by Steve Pearson)

When invited to share what he gained from the experience, Pearson said people are capable of more than they realize.

"I'm a normal guy," he said. "There are a lot of amazing things out there that normal people can achieve if they want to set the goal, do the preparation and go for it. You can get there."

Unlike other mountains, Everest can't be climbed from bottom to top. At times the ascent requires climbing and retreating downward before pushing up again as the body adjusts to the higher elevation, Pearson said.

"It's constant ups and downs, and that was difficult," he said. "Sometimes we expect life to have a constant direction, but that's not how it works. There are ups and downs, and the downs are an essential part of eventually reaching the top. You can’t be discouraged by the fact that you had to come down a little. That is part of the process to be able to go higher."

Climbing the Khumbu Ice Fall. David Roskelley is standing at the base of the ladder and Steve Pearson is taking the photo. (Provided by David Roskelley) Climbing the Khumbu Ice Fall. David Roskelley is standing at the base of the ladder and Steve Pearson is taking the photo. (Provided by David Roskelley)

For Roskelley, it's good for individuals, especially young people, to do hard things.

"I can't scream that loud enough," said the father of three sons. "Young people should do difficult things and challenge themselves. They’d be surprised what they can do if they set some goals, put down the electronics and get out in nature. ... For some reason our society has moved away from that."

Roskelley kept a blog of his Everest journey at roskelleyeverest2013.blogspot.com. His next expedition will be to Antarctica to climb Vinson Massif (Mount Vinson), completing his goal of scaling the seven summits on each continent. He also plans to enjoy Timpanogos or Lone Peak with his boys this summer.

Pearson plans to take a break. While he'll probably do some climbing at popular spots in Utah, the 30-year-old says he needs to catch up on sleep after scaling Everest, graduating from Harvard Business School, moving across the country from Boston to Utah, starting a new job and preparing for his July wedding.

Khumbu Ice Fall climbing. (Provided by David Roskelley) Khumbu Ice Fall climbing. (Provided by David Roskelley)

"It's been a busy couple of weeks," he said, "but very exciting."

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