WILD SWANS

Wild SwansHow is it possible I have been back in the US for three weeks now? Already I have been to Salt Lake City, completed the interview with CBS Sunday Morning (more to follow on that) and write this as I fly over the magnificence that is Alaska. To think three weeks ago I stood on Antarctica and today I am one hundred miles from the artic. Both cloaked in endless ice and snow which only a few years ago would have seemed inhospitable and deadly. Today I look down from my perch at 30,000 feet and can’t wait to get back to the mountains. Yesterday as I looked at Denali 350 miles in the distance, the sun coating it in a pale pink glow, I vowed to return. What a departure from nearly four years ago when I thought life would return to normal after touching her summit. Now when I return, after my seven summit mission is complete, it will be to challenge her from a more difficult and remote route.

But before I look too far into the future I want to share a piece of the recent past. The stories I have to share from Antarctica are still tumbling around in my head. I don’t even know how to bring them to the surface yet there are just so many. But one story touches me in a very different sense than climbing and living in the frozen tundra of Antarctica.

We arrived at Patriot Hills Antarctica from Punta Arenas ( Point of Sand) Chile. There we would spend the next three days awaiting a clear weather opportunity to fly to Vinson base camp. Tucked amongst my carabineers, harness and down clothes was the book I planned to read during the ‘down’ time that accompanies a mountaineering expedition. Wild Swans by Jung Chang. The true account of Jung’s history, her grandmother, mother and her life through three generations of life in China. Not a book normally taken on an expedition where the weight on your back can determine the outcome of your climb, Wild Swans was long, thick and heavy. How grateful for so many reasons that I decided to bring it.

I sat reading it in the communal tent at Patriot Hills. In order to fully appreciate this account I need to describe just what life is really like in Antarctica. Patriot Hills is a compound made up of a weather station, two twin otter airplanes, solar panels, several snow mobiles, a snow storage cave sixty feet under the ice, a doctor and nurse, chefs, mechanics, two flight engineers, two pilots, crew and staff, maybe two dozen tents and at least as many cultures. For a mere three months a year Patriot Hills emerges from the ice, a civilization like no other existing in the harshest of environments but offering a true respite from the wind, ice and real life. I loved it.

The communal tent was our hang out. Anytime day or night fresh hot gingerbread cookies were always available. I shudder to think how many I consumed. And how delighted I was when Paula, one of the girls working in the kitchen, presented me with a baggie of warm cookies the night I left for Vinson. I tucked those cookies safely into the inner pocket of my down suit and for days after our tent was filled with the aroma of gingersnaps…..pure heaven on a remote mountain. The ever present hum of people working, melting snow to provide us with hot tea or coffee, cooking meals to rival any five star restaurant and the community of man. Here at the bottom of the world countries from around the globe were represented, Korean, New Zealand, Great Britain, Dubai, Chile, France, Spain, Russia, Austria, Scotland, Taiwan, Canada, Japan, South Africa and Brooke and I, the only Americans at Patriot Hills.

The tent was pretty empty as I sat reading when a gentleman, Alexander, came over to me. Alexander was from Russia but currently living in London. He was part of the huge, boisterous team heading to “The Point of Inaccessibility”. Alexander asked if he could take a picture of me with the book, Wild Swans. I thought this a rather unusual request after all there were at least a million other interesting things to photograph than me reading a book. Alexander told me that Wild Swans had been translated into over thirty languages; it was more read than Mao’s Little Red Book and was banned in China. It had been to six of the seven continents and he believed I was the first to bring it to Antarctica and he would like a picture of me with the book to show his good friend, the author, Jung Chang!

I would like to impress upon you that Jung’s book is not an easy read in every aspect. Her life and the lives of her parents and grandmother are poignantly detailed and China, relatively unknown to those of us from the west, graphically exposed. For me the history of these three women overcoming incredible obstacles and maintaining their dignity, culture and integrity was amazing. Reading it in Antarctica which belongs to no nation but the world as a whole and being a woman on my own mission felt like I had completed reading a necessary history assignment and that Jung’s book would serve as my textbook to what women have overcome and are amazingly capable of. Now I understand the previously unknown reason I had decided to carry it to the ice of Antarctica and the slopes of Vinson.

No, it is never just about the mountain but as always it is about the metaphor that these, my mountains continue to represent.

Climb On

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2 Responses to “WILD SWANS”


  1. 1 Marienny February 12, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    hi wendy i’m marienny from mr cleers class when will you come to the class and talk to us stay in touch love marienny

  2. 2 Marni Berg July 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I love the book Wild Swans too! It is an amazing story of the lives of three Chinese women, and a wonderful look at Chinese modern history. I recommend it to all of my Comparative Politics students


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About Wendy Booker

In June of 1998, this 55 year old mother of three was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS after experiencing balance problems, blurred vision and numbness on her left side. When first diagnosed, Wendy was devastated. But it took very little time for her to transform anguish into inspiration. She immediately turned her hobby of casual running into a continuous pursuit and has now completed nine marathons.

Mountain climbing became the next conquest. Wendy learned about a team of mountain climbers with Multiple Sclerosis who were attempting to climb Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska. With no previous climbing experience, she dedicated a year to hard training and set off with them in 2002. Although weather conditions prohibited the team from completing, Wendy attempted the summit again in 2004 on her own and she succeeded!

The feeling of accomplishment she experienced propelled her next aspiration: to climb the highest mountain on each continent. Just five years later, Wendy Booker has successfully reached the top of six of The Seven Summits – Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. McKinley, Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Aconcagua, Mt. Vinson Massif and Mt. Kosciuszko. Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on earth, still awaits for 2010.


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