Breaking Barriers: DesLauriers' descents from the tops of the world

EDITOR'S NOTE: ESPN and ESPN.com present a four-part series this week on sports pioneers, called "Breaking Barriers." The series continues Wednesday with a feature about Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski from the highest peaks of the earth's seven continents. Watch Tom Rinaldi's story on "First Take" and all "SportsCenter" shows.

To fall was to die.

Twenty-five thousand feet high, on Mount Everest's Lhotse Face -- a 5,000 foot, sharply descending portion of the mountain -- Kit DesLauriers gazed down at an impenetrable shell of blue and white ice. Then she looked at her skis.

Her husband, Rob, stood beside her and asked how she was doing. DesLauriers was blunt.

"I'm scared, and I don't want to die," she said.

The day before, she became the first person ever to ski from the highest peaks of the earth's seven continents -- to ski from the each of the Seven Summits.

She made history.

Now she needed to make it down alive.

"I'm just someone who follows her heart," DesLauriers says. "I do what makes my heart sing."

DesLauriers has heard that song often in her life. She hears it with beckoning clarity in the mountains, with adventure at nearly every turn.

Growing up in New England, where her grandfather built the first chairlift at Stowe Mountain in Vermont, DesLauriers didn't spend her winters on the expensive slopes. Instead she was in the woods on cross-country skis. By the time she graduated from the University of Arizona, she was a trail runner and rock climber as well.

Those experiences were perfect training for a pursuit then beyond her imagination.

After college, she moved to Telluride, Colo., where she worked as ski patrol, dreamed of traveling the world and nourished her love for backcountry skiing as well as her need to test her own limits. As a result, in her 30s, DesLauriers took up competitive skiing. She was an instant success, becoming the world free-skiing champion in 2004 and 2005.

The idea for the Seven Summits adventure was conceptualized during her time on that circuit. The initial notion came from a 2005 meeting with Dick Bass, the first person to climb all of the peaks. If they could be climbed, Kit wondered, why couldn't they be skied?

"It felt like another personal challenge," she says. "It felt like some place where I could take my skiing that would be a next step."

A quest was born, but quietly.

"I was careful not to tell anybody," DesLauriers says. "In fact, my parents didn't even know; and it was the summer before we went to Everest when my mom finally put it all together."

By then, she had already climbed and skied from the first six summits, beginning in May 2004 with Denali, the top of Alaska's Mount McKinley. Taking off from that 20,320-foot peak -- the highest in North America -- she did not know where the descent would lead.

A little more than two years later, she left her home in Teton Village, Wyo., for the final step in her dream: Nepal.


The supreme steeple.

In September 2006, Kit, Rob and an expedition team reached Everest base camp at 17,000 feet. The climb to the peak took more than five grueling weeks. It reached its first reckoning in the highest camp on the South Col, at 26,000 feet.

"The wind up high is like a freight train. Are we doing the right thing?" Rob DesLauriers remembers asking. "The exposure up there is life or death. If the winds come in and storm, that's when people have trouble."

Kit heard the same voice in her head.

"The wind was blowing so hard that I couldn't believe that we were there," she says. "I couldn't believe we just weren't turning tail to get out of there. ... I just thought, I had never been in a condition like that where you actually still choose to go higher."

They went higher, and as the winds mercifully died over the next several hours, the team knew it had its opening. They left in the darkness. By sunrise the next morning, beholding a scene more spectacular than any she'd ever glimpsed in nature, Kit DesLauriers and the others were well on their way to the top, one excruciating step at a time. Breathing with the help of oxygen masks and with their packs fastened tightly to their backs, they could see the summit drawing closer.

At 11 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2006, Kit stood atop the world and at the crest of her dream. The summit. Taking off her mask, her eyes welled, and she hugged Rob.

"I think I'm going to cry," she told him.

The moment was short, because it had to be. As she prepared to clip into her bindings and place her oxygen mask back on, she focused. Then, steadied, she pointed the tips of her skis over the summit's edge and then pushed off from the apex of the earth.

"Skiing off the summit of Everest," she says, "I don't know if I ever felt such joy in slipping on my skis and sliding on the snow."

She didn't go fast, and she didn't go far.

"The Hillary Step was where we had to stop," she says.

The Hillary Step is a 40 foot rock wall up to the sky, a few hundred feet below the summit. The expedition team originally planned to rappel down, using ropes, with their skis on. Rob went first, so he could be in position to film Kit. But halfway down the Step, he ran out of oxygen.

Long Way Down

Kit DesLauriers has skied down the highest peak on each of the globe's continents.

"The world [was] slowly closing in," Rob says, "and so I just started to try and relax, breathe more deeply, trying to calm myself and keep it together."

As he hung in the ropes, 28,000 feet in the air, Rob blacked out. From above him, Kit saw her husband struggle and was unable to help him.

"When I saw Rob like that, what really went through my mind was, 'How am I going to explain this to his mother?'" she says, and pauses. "My fear was that somebody, or more than one somebody, wouldn't make it down."

While Kit waited nearly two hours in her position, perched high on the Step, a Sherpa on the team reached Rob and shared his oxygen. The situation forced a change in plans. The full ski descent would have to be abandoned.

"What happened probably saved us from ourselves," Kit says of the decision. "My thought was there's no way from what I just saw happen to [Rob] that I am going to let him ski this next section. I don't think any of us should ski it, was what I thought. And it didn't need to be said, but we didn't ski down from the south summit."

The team climbed down, instead, and again camped at 26,000 feet. It was a miserable night; clothes and gear froze, and oxygen, food and water ran low. The next morning, Kit and Rob put on their skis again, preparing for the test that waited: descending the Lhotse Face.

Staring at the greatest skiing challenge of her life, a single line echoed through Kit's mind, over and over.

"I said it out loud, actually," she says. "I said, 'Like your life depends upon it.' And that would bring me into the most intense focus that I needed to make sure I executed the next turn to perfection and didn't slip. And then I would actually have to say out loud to myself, 'Turn!'"

It worked. Kit and the team made the rest of the descent safely, reaching base camp the next day. They celebrated with champagne.

"I have to say I've never really felt I deserved champagne more than right then," she says.

Not being able to make a complete ski descent of Everest still haunts Rob because of the qualifier it places on the feat.

"It's very difficult, actually, to this day," he says. "It was about six months before I would go to bed and not think about that day. And now, a year and four months later, it's probably once a week I think about [it.]"

Kit has a different view entirely.

"I guess he feels the most heaviness, because on the other six summits, I had complete descents," she says, "and so there's an asterisk there. I'm fine with that. There's no asterisk next to the first person to ski from the top of the highest mountain on each continent."

Kit DesLauriers' achievement is certainly historic; but to her, it has always been a personal statement. The pursuit carefully documented, she was inundated with attention; DesLauriers was the subject of countless interview requests, when news of her triumph broke across the world. At 38, she is comfortable in the spotlight when it shines but doesn't seek it out.

What she hopes others find in her accomplishment is the courage to conquer their own Everest, whatever the height, wherever the peak.

"I hope it gives people an idea, that little trickle," she says. "I hope it lights that light bulb for them ... to go after whatever it is they want to go after and to not be stymied by this idea that it might be impossible."

Tom Rinaldi is an ESPN correspondent based in the New York City Bureau, contributing to "SportsCenter," "Outside the Lines," "College GameDay" and "NFL Countdown."