Pupils learn how to reach for the top

Everest: A mountain climber's tale grabs the attention of Elkridge Elementary third-graders.

June 16, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Chris Warner did not reach the top of the world, but the third-graders who greeted him at Elkridge Elementary School yesterday seemed no less impressed with stories of blizzards, avalanches and survival on Mount Everest.

The children, who had followed the Oella climber's progress through e-mail dispatches during the past several months, cheered his return. Sitting cross-legged in the school's library, they watched Warner's video of the exhausted climbers staggering up a snow-covered slope, eagerly tried on his gear and listened intently as Warner told of the heartbreak of failing to reach his goal.

Warner, 35, and his partners were forced to abandon their climb about 3,000 feet from the summit. This year, about 300 climbers attempted to reach the summit of Everest; about 60 succeeded. Two died trying.

"I learned it's very, very hard to climb a mountain," said Lia Paciotti, 8, one of the third-graders who participated in the Shared Summits program that made them virtual climbers with Warner.

In the program, the children learned not only about the effort required to climb the world's tallest peak, but about the life of the Tibetan nomads who live in the mountain's shadow. The children e-mailed questions to Warner, who sent his replies, stories and photographs from a solar-powered laptop hooked to a satellite phone.

"Climbing just has so much to teach you," said Warner, who discovered his life's vocation when his high school sent him and other troublemakers on an outdoor learning experience.

"It was definitely a `hoods in the woods' kind of program," Warner said.

When he got back, he and his friends bought ropes at the local hardware store and starting climbing.

In 1990, he started his own company, teaching climbing and leading expeditions. Last year, he developed the Shared Summits program to take the adventures into the classroom.

Third-grade teacher Kathleen Reinke, herself a climber, used the Shared Summits program in her social studies lessons to teach children the differences between the way people live at home and in other countries.

"He was able to show us present-day people living in Nepal and how they meet their needs," Reinke said.

The children drew pictures of yak herders and made up tall tales about Warner. Reinke also hopes the children learned something about setting goals and working toward them.

"It's not so much about getting to the end goal as enjoying it all along the way," she said.

Warner, who has been climbing 20 years, told the students he was disappointed that he was not able to reach the top of the 29,035-foot peak.

"I knew intellectually we couldn't go on, but in my heart I was so sad," Warner told the children.

Yet the adventure wasn't over with the decision to descend. Warner and the six other climbers had to wait out a blizzard with 85-mph winds that hurled chunks of snow the size of manhole covers. For hours, they huddled in their tents, venturing out occasionally to shovel the mounting snow.

After 10 hours, when the winds subsided, the climbers started down the mountain. Warner, an expert in avalanches, led the way.

The winds shifted, sparing the team from further avalanches, but the climbers still had one more obstacle - a growing glacial lake 20 feet deep that blocked the route down.

The climbers had to fashion rafts from drums and boards to cross the water. Their journey ended June 4. They were the last climbers off the mountain this season.

Warner isn't done with Everest. Before he left, he and his team made plans to return next year.

"You think that's a good idea?" Warner asked the children yesterday.

"Yeah!" the group exclaimed.

"This," Warner said, "is what our motto should be: `If at first you don't succeed, climb Everest again.'"

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