Seven Summits And The Last Degree

June 3, 2004

To read journal entries from Smith's journey to the North Pole, see the sidebar story titled North Pole Journal. For his photographs see North Pole Photos.

Last December, Stuart Smith completed a 16-year odyssey to ascend the highest peak on each of the continents, known by mountaineers as the Seven Summits. But instead of staying South for the winter, the Waco attorney already was planning his next trip -- nearly 70 miles of cross-country skiing. At the North Pole.

In April, Smith, BBA '82, skied the "last degree" to the North Pole -- the latitudinal distance between 89 and 90 degrees north -- in which he and his nine group members progressed only about 10 miles a day because of the 75-pound loads of supplies they dragged behind them on sleds. His motivation for this excursion? "It's such a remote area and it was intriguing to me," he says.

Not a flashy explanation, but it fits with Smith's rationale for his other adventures, including the mountain-climbing expeditions that he says made him the 41st American and 112th person in the world to conquer the Seven Summits: Africa's Kilimanjaro in 1987, South America's Aconcagua in 1995, North America's McKinley in 1996, Asia's Everest and Australia's Kosciuszko in 2002, and Europe's Elbrus and Antarctica's Vinson Massif in 2003.

"It's partly the mountains and pushing myself physically, but it's also an excuse to go to different parts of the world that you're not going to otherwise go to," he says.

He's not an adrenaline junkie, says his wife, Elizabeth Smith, MBA '85, who instead describes him as thorough, careful. "I don't think that it's that he gets a thrill out of doing dangerous things. He demands a lot from himself and has worked to identify unusual challenges that require him ... to push himself to develop talent and skills or abilities or stay in shape in ways that the rest of us are too lazy to do." Just for fun, he runs marathons and ultramarathons -- races that are 50 miles or longer. "It's just," she says, with a slight pause, "different."

The two, who met in a Waco elementary school -- "My maiden name is Smith, and he was alphabetized behind me in the sixth grade," Elizabeth says -- began dating in their 20s, have been married for 21 years and have no children. Both say Stuart's mountaineering ambitions developed over time and that it wasn't until he'd conquered Everest in 2002 that he decided to tackle the other summits. "Once you climb Mount Everest, you've sort of done the hard one," he says. "So then it was just a matter of finishing off the rest."

Still, Stuart says he's not simply "knocking off things on a list." For him, it wasn't even about making it to the summit. "I'm more interested in the whole journey. It's great if you get to the top. But even if you don't get to the top, it's still a fun trip."

Fun is relative. It is, after all, a sport that claims lives regularly. On Everest, climbers have a one in 30 chance of dying on the way down, says Stuart, who saw a man fall to his death on that mountain and has been on other climbs where people have died. "You never totally get used to it, but you know it's going to happen," he says. "It brings it home that you need to be careful."

Elizabeth, the executive director of a Waco nonprofit organization, shares her husband's pragmatic attitude about the potential dangers of mountain climbing, something she knows others find perplexing. "There are a lot of people who worry all the time when he's climbing, and I don't," she says. "There's nothing that I can do that's going to influence how he does. So, I don't fret a lot about it."

Communicating while they are separated by miles and mountaintops isn't easy, but the couple manages through e-mails or satellite phones when possible, she says. And Stuart, who often is gone on expeditions for weeks at a time, fully appreciates Elizabeth's support. "My wife is very patient and understanding."

She draws the line on accompanying him on major climbs, although they do share a love of adventurous vacations. They've made long-distance hikes (100 miles or more) in Great Britain, trekked in Nepal and South America, camped in the Andes and white-water rafted in Costa Rica.

"It's not like we go hang out at a Hilton when we're together," says Elizabeth, who also enjoys the occasional vacation where she can sunbathe and read books, something she says her husband "cannot imagine doing."

Lounging around just doesn't seem to suit Stuart. In May, just weeks after his return from the North Pole, he made his second journey to Everest. This time, though, he was only aiming for base camp, a mere 17,600 feet. "That," he said prior to the 15-day round-trip hike, "will just be taking it easy."