A Kennewick nurse who Googled “How to climb Mount Everest” fulfilled her lifelong ambition when she summited the world’s highest peak last month.
Paula Leonard is one climb away from joining the elite club of those who have reached the tops of the Seven Summits — the highest mountain on each continent.
Antarctica’s Mount Vinson is all that’s left.
Leonard, 47, a nurse in the Trios Health labor and delivery unit, considered abandoning her Seven plan during the grueling Everest climb.
It wasn’t merely exhausting to scale the legendary mountain’s 29,029 icy feet. Bad weather, guides who abandoned her, oxygen bottles that went missing, insufficient food and multiple climber deaths marred the expedition. Three of seven climbers on Leonard’s team turned back early.
She was haunted, too, by memories of her two prior attempts. In 2011, she got up to 28,000 feet — just 1,000 feet below the summit — before illness forced her back. In 2014, she was at base camp when an ice avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides. The climb was canceled.
Photos taken at the summit May 19 show Leonard in front of a small crowd, both arms raised in victory. The moment didn’t register until she was trekking toward Kathmandu after a harrowing descent to base camp. She required assistance twice when her oxygen supply failed.
“I had left base camp before I even realized I summited,” she said.
Exhausted by the ordeal, she was determined to retire from climbing and to leave Vinson unclimbed.
I had left Base Camp before I even realized I summited.
Paula Leonard, climbed Mount Everest
But with a few weeks of rest behind her, Leonard changed her mind. She’s going to tackle the 16,067-foot summit, just not for a while.
“I have to recover first. I’ll probably take a year off,” she said.
A lifelong dream
Leonard grew up in Pensacola, Fla. dreaming of climbing Everest, a dream she can’t explain. Pensacola’s 52-foot elevation didn’t suggest “mountaineering.”
She spent her early adult life raising three children and nursing both of her parents through terminal illness.
At 36, she realized she’d spent half her life taking care of her parents and her children.
“I decided to do what I wanted,” she said.
With Everest still dominating her dreams, she began training with beach runs and working out on a treadmill.
She registered for a glacier climbing course and traveled to the North Cascades to begin mastering her new interest.
She climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 2006, her first Seven Summits conquest. Alaska’s Denali followed two years later. She’s since summited Elbrus (Europe), Aconcagua (South America) and Carstensz Pyramid (Australia/Oceana), each expedition costing tens of thousands of dollars.
“I have no idea how much I’ve spent,” she said.
The Denali climb inspired her to swap Florida’s flat terrain for Alaska’s rugged outdoors. She moved to Sitka and worked for seven years as a traveling nurse. Isolation, perpetual rain and the high cost of living drove her to Washington state.
She moved to the Tri-Cities in early 2015 because her grown children all live in Washington, including daughter Hailey, who recently moved in. She chose Trios Health because it agreed to hire her on the condition it give her the eight weeks she needed to travel to Nepal and complete the Everest expedition.
An unlikely partnership
For this year’s Everest attempt, Leonard trained at Gold’s Gym. She regularly hikes Badger Mountain and occasionally climbs in the Cascades. She’s been to the top of Mount Rainier twice.
A chance encounter at Gold’s Gym led to a hiking friendship with a Richland pastor, Grant Knowles.
Knowles, 62, is a dedicated walker and retired mechanic for the McCurley auto dealerships. He joined the gym at 61 to get in better shape. He’d spied Leonard’s Subaru in the Gold’s Gym parking lot. Intrigued by the “Mount This” and “Mount That” bumper stickers, he left a note on her windshield.
Leonard responded a few hours later.
“Why do mountain climbers climb?” he asked.
“I like pushing myself physically,” she answered.
The two became friends. Leonard invited Knowles to join her in Nepal.
The plan: She would leave first and make the trek from Kathmandu to Everest base camp. All climbers trek in and spend a week acclimating to the altitude before advancing up the ice falls for another extended stay.
Knowles would fly to Kathmandu a few weeks later and follow her up the 40-mile, 8,000-foot trek from the town of Lukla near Kathmandu to base camp. The two would descend together and travel home to Washington.
Knowles was skeptical. “My training is Badger Mountain,” he said.
He too turned to the Internet, scouring YouTube videos about the popular trek. A sense of adventure seized him.
My training is Badger Mountain.
Grant Knowles, Everest base camp trekker
“I really need to challenge myself mentally and physically,” he told his wife. “I need to do this.”
His first two Social Security checks helped pay for the trip.
A difficult climb
Leonard flew out on April 5 and began trekking to base camp four days later.
Knowles left weeks later. While he was making the weeklong trek toward base camp, Leonard and her six teammates were struggling with weather and other challenges, including poor coordination by the climb’s organizer.
One mid-climb meal consisted of a plate of canned mushrooms and a bit of flat bread.
They reached Camp Four, the last of the camps between base and summit. Bad weather forced them to stay there four days, two days beyond the usual 48-hour limit. They waited out the bad weather for their shot at the final 15-hour, 40-minute ascent.
The weather cleared and they set out.
At 28,000 feet, Leonard badly wanted to turn back. That’s where she’d been forced back five years earlier.
She was mentally and physically drained from the extended stay at high elevation, but she knew she’d regret it if her obsession with Everest forced her to attempt it a fourth time.
“You’re going to hate yourself,” she told her exhausted self. She pressed on.
You’re going to hate yourself.
What Paula Leonard told herself when deciding not to turn back from Mount Everest summit
Four from the group reached the summit. One fellow climber turned back to aid a female Indian climber in trouble. The woman survived. Her partner did not.
Another was unnerved after seeing another climber die, one of eight fatalities that occurred while Leonard was on the mountain. She didn’t witness any.
The summit was windy, snowy and very, very cold. But she remembers looking down on the towering peaks of the Himalayas.
A difficult descent
Her luck turned on the descent. She’d paid more than $50,000 to join a professional expedition, a bargain rate she darkly regrets.
Guides deserted climbers, including hers. Oxygen ran out or disappeared altogether, a possible death sentence if aid isn’t forthcoming.
Leonard’s oxygen ran out at Camp Four, the highest level. She passed out and had to be aided down by another climber who shared his oxygen, telling her she had to go on because she was breathing his air.
“He saved my life,” she said.
Between camps Three and Two, her oxygen was missing altogether. A passing Sherpa guide escorted her to the relative safety of base camp.
While Leonard making the dangerous descent, Knowles was trekking toward base camp. The route starts at an elevation of about 9,500 feet and rises to more than 17,500 feet above sea level, or nearly 3,000 feet higher than the 14,410-foot Mount Rainier.
He struggled with altitude sickness, cold, breathing issues and exhaustion, but pressed on after his guide told him he was “doing good” and “looking good.”
Walking into rocky, austere base camp was like approaching “a different planet,” he said.
It was a beautiful day. Knowles wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to spend the night. He stayed long enough to unfurl a Kennewick High School Class of 1972 banner and to spot Leonard’s tent, an impossible 45-minute walk away.
He retreated to a lower elevation, two hours before Leonard arrived.
Thanks to guides in contact via mobile phones, the duo met up later when Knowles found her in a hotel. It was a surprising development. Knowles knew Leonard hadn’t passed him on the narrow trekking path.
She’d been offered a helicopter ride down the mountain and happily paid the $300 fee.
“I flew right over him,” she said.
At the hotel, Knowles was shocked by her wane appearance.
“That mountain really beats climbers up,” he said.
Top of the world
For Knowles, the successful trek to the base of Everest had an indescribable impact.
“I feel like I can do pretty much anything,” he said.
Leonard is relieved to put Everest behind her. The accomplishment gives her a ready comeback for people who question her commitment to a vegan diet.
When people tell her she can’t be getting enough protein, she has a ready answer.
“I climbed Mount Everest.”