Marietta resident Mike Grigsby has conquered the seven summits of the world and now eyes another adventure.
The thunk of ax into ice. The snick of crampon into a frozen vertical wall. The five climbers looked up where a saucer of blue sky shone beyond the glistening expanse.
The big peak was done, but still: There was this mountain, this challenge. And they’d answered it — here, at the world’s roof, where the dead turn frozen eyes to those who have followed in their footsteps.
Michael Grigsby felt the tug of the line — felt, too, that inexplicable something that had put him on the ice wall of Lhotse. At nearly 28,000 feet, it is the fourth highest peak in the world. If Everest has a little brother, it is Lhotse, adjacent to the tallest mountain on the planet.
They’d finished climbing Everest the day before. That was the culmination of two months of travel, of hiking and overnights in Sherpa huts, of moving food and supplies and bottled oxygen ever higher into land that God never intended humans to inhabit. The Marietta resident had stood at heaven’s threshold, opening a door to a sight few see.
And then he’d cast a glance at Lhotse. How many people had climbed Everest and then ascended Lhotse? Maybe enough to field a baseball team?
They’d set out hours before daylight. And they’d nearly made the pinnacle. All that remained was the vertical struggle up a frozen chute. Get through that, and they’d pop out atop the mount where they could take another look at the Himalayas’ spine.
Of course, they had to get past him. That frozen hiker.
Ax into ice. They inched toward the nameless someone who’d challenged Lhotse and lost. He had wearied, sat down and never gotten up. It’s too deadly and expensive to remove the scores of corpses that litter this land, and so they remain.
As Grigsby passed the frozen hiker, he cast a glance his way, pausing only a moment. Then: ax into ice.
They made the summit — made, too, a footnote in mountaineering history. Grigsby was only the fourth to reach both summits in 24 hours. Since then, perhaps another dozen have accomplished that.
Grigsby is accustomed to being in rare, exclusive groups. Not many have made the seven summits, the term climbers use for that small club of hikers who have ascended the tallest peaks on the earth’s seven continents. Grigsby has.
What kind of guy does such a thing? No matter how many times he hears that query, Grigsby still cannot offer a firm answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Local boy, world traveler
If someone lined up six middle-aged guys and asked you to pick out the mountain-climber, you’d probably pass him over. Grigsby is just shy of 6 feet, hair cut close, relatively lean. Like a lot of men, he prefers khaki pants, topped with a golf shirt. Nothing about him indicates he’s slept in windblown tents on nights so cold that exposed fingers can freeze.
He’s also about as local as you can get — graduate of Walton High (Class of 1989) Georgia Tech (BS, industrial engineering, 1993) and Kennesaw State (MBA 2004). He grew up in Cobb County, where he was the middle of John and Dot Grigsby’s three sons.
Now, 45, he lives not far from his childhood home. He and his wife, Yhaira, have two daughters, 6 and 4. They live in a comfortable house where sunlight splashes into an airy living room. A pool glistens in the backyard.
He’s president and CFO of North American Container Corp., which specializes in custom-made shipping packages that can take a pounding. His brother, John, is a co-owner.
None of these facts indicates the adventurer within.
But when he was a teen, Grigsby raced motocross cycles until a bike landed on him after he’d taken a spill. That was all the fun he could stand. But the love of adrenaline stuck.
So he embraced ultralights, those flying machines that resemble dragonflies with a human aboard. Dot Grigsby recalled getting a phone call from her middle son.
“Go look outside,” he said.
She trooped outdoors, looked up — and there he was, waving, astride a machine hardly larger than himself.
She understands her son’s drive to see the world, to test himself against it.
“Well, I’m a gypsy,” she said. “My idea of a vacation is 10 places in nine days.”
As a young man, Grigsby also embraced trans-oceanic sailboat racing. This is not a sport for anyone with a delicate stomach and a penchant for long naps.
He recalled a 2003 race through the surly crests of the Atlantic, from Southampton in the United Kingdom to Boston Harbor. They were approaching the Flemish Cap, an expanse of shallow water in the North Atlantic about 350 miles east of Newfoundland. Hurricane Gustav, the second most powerful storm of that hurricane season, caught up with Grigsby and fellow crew members there.
Their sailboat struggled up 35-foot waves, reaching their crests before pitching 35 feet into the lap of the sea. Then the process began again. In the bang and blow, in the pitching and poling, their boat heeled 60 degrees one way — then 60 the other. It was like a wet, cold carnival ride whose outcome wasn’t guaranteed. Roped to the boat, the deckhand from Atlanta was entranced. If life is appreciated most when it’s liable to end any moment, then Grigsby was enthralled with his.
“It was just amazing,” he said.
His love affair with racing lasted until 2010. Grigsby was participating in a three-week race across the Atlantic and had taken a temporary leave to go home for Christmas when pirates boarded a sailboat off Somalia and killed the four travelers on board. Appalled, Grigsby never finished that competition. Nor did his buddy, the owner of the vessel. That man sold his boat. Grigsby decided to focus on work.
At the time he was 39, closing fast on 40. By any reasonable measure, his life was halfway over.
And the world still beckoned.
Greatest peak of all
Kilimanjaro. The origins of the name aren’t clear. One theory is that it combines two Swahili words to create “white mountain.” Another holds that the name is a European bastardization of a Swahili word which means “we failed to climb it.” It may be the latter. At 19,000 feet, the Tanzanian mountain is the tallest in Africa.
Grigsby, casting about for something to replace the thrill of sailing, decided on Mount Kilimanjaro. Yes, he was afraid of heights; a college skydiving excursion left him nearly petrified with fright. But a boring life is a wasted one.
He turned to his wife, Yhaira, whom he’d met while attending Kennesaw State. A native of Venezuela, she prefers warm weather. Why would you travel to the other side of the world to shiver and shake on a snowy mount?
But she also understands something about her husband. On their first date, he took her to Road Atlanta, where he paid a guy to drive them fast, really fast, in a Porsche around a race track. Their next date took place in a sailboat on Lake Lanier. If she had any doubts about the guy beside her, they faded at that point.
“He didn’t just become an adventurous person overnight,” she said. “He was born that way, I think.”
The wife’s OK secured, Grigsby contacted Alpine Ascents International, a Seattle-based mountaineering organization. It was the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day.
He took two weeks. The January 2011 ascent encompassed eight days, the climbers rising at night and following the peak as it arched toward the heavens. They climbed in the dark because the air was colder and the glaciers were more stable in the frigid air.
Grigsby, who’d readied for the climb by ascending lesser mountains, remembers ice shining silver in the night. He came back simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated.
“It’s the same feeling you find out on the ocean,” he said. “Or clinging to a wall on Mount Everest.”
Acancagua was next. At nearly 23,000 feet, the Argentine mountain is the tallest peak in South America and the highest point in the western hemisphere. It’s tough to climb. In February 2012, Grigsby did.
Illinois businessman Joel Schauer remembers meeting Grigsby as they readied to conquer the Argentine mount.
“You deal with enough people in life, you see people who are posers. You get the folks with braggadocio. Then you find people who play up to their potential,” Schauer said. “That is what Mike’s about.”
When you’re hooked with a handful of climbers on a rocky wall, said Schauer, you want to be certain the people above and below you are capable of saving your life — literally, of having your back.
Posers do not. “Mike is completely the opposite of that,” Schauer said. “He basically worked to get it done.”
Their climb concluded, each man considered the next challenge. Denali, in Alaska, had long fascinated Schauer. Climbing that, he figured, would be the next logical step. More than 20,000 feet at its summit, Denali is the tallest peak in North America.
Grigsby? He turned his gaze to Everest, a 29,029-foot reminder that parts of the world cannot be tamed. Not only is it the tallest mountain on the planet, it may be the most challenging to ascend. It’s battered by winds, beset by snow and so high that climbers are forced to bring their own oxygen.
More than 200 people have died either trying to reach the summit or while returning to friendlier climes. One, nicknamed “Green Boots” for his colorful foot attire, is a landmark. So was Hannelore Schmatz, who sat down in 1979 and never arose. For years, climbers taking the southern route to the summit passed her body, her eyes open, her hair blowing in the wind. One day a gust finally pushed her remains off the trail.
But death is for others, or so some climbers think. Gordon Janow knows. Janow is director of operations for Alpine Ascents, which books mountaineering trips annually across the world. He hears it all the time: I want to climb Everest. I want to tackle the seven summits.
The best climbers, he said, combine physical stamina, mental toughness and a willingness to be flexible — to wait out a storm, to reverse course, or even to retreat to try again some other year. “That,” he said, “is a rare package.” He believes Grigsby is just such a package.
Oh, and they have one other characteristic: “Some people see the mountain,” Janow said, “and want to be on the top.”
Reaching that top isn’t cheap. Alpine Ascents charges more than $80,000 for hikers wanting to take on Everest and Lhotse. Grigsby declined to say what his summits have cost.
Roof of the world
Maybe it’s like setting sail. You cast your line from the dock, surrender your craft to the currents. The shore gets ever more distant. For better or worse, you are borne forward. In the end, the only thing you control is yourself.
Grigsby left Atlanta on the last day of March 2013 for what he figured would be a two-month trek to the top of Mt. Everest and back. When his plane landed in Nepal, it hit the ground on a runway that tilted 15 degrees.
His journey began on paths laden with rhododendrons. As the air grew thinner, the land grew arid, junipers replaced the flowers. Nights, he and fellow hikers stayed in huts where Sherpa hosts made them tea. They huddled over fires fueled by yak dung. The source of that fuel lived in paddocks below the elevated huts. The shaggy creatures snorted and shifted while the climbers slept.
The next day, it began again. “It’s just amazing, waking up in the morning and hitting the trails.”
After 10 days of trekking steadily upward, they reached the base camp. It was tremendous, a sprawling place where the rest of the mountain rose into the thin heights. The camp is 18,800 feet above sea level. The peak’s summit is two miles above that.
No one can make the hike in one outing. There are four additional camps on the southern slope. Each is higher than its predecessor, and each requires hikers to bring enough food and oxygen for the next leg of the journey.
Climbing Everest calls for good judgment — and, perhaps, a good dose of luck. The monsoons of winter and early spring abate for a few weeks in May to give climbers clear skies and still days and nights. The peak is accessible for only a few weeks a year.
Grigsby recalls walking up the Western Cwm, a natural glacial bowl where ice collects. He and fellow hikers strode past ice blocks the size of houses. They walked over ladders spread over crevasses where ice walls fell straight to undefined depths.
The first ladder may have been the worst obstacle of all. Grigsby came to it and stopped. All that money, all that time, all that training: The ladder stood between him and his goal.
You’ve got to cross that ladder, he told himself. Grigsby put an uncertain foot on it. Then another.
From the south side, hikers headed ever upward, sometimes on slopes that reached 45 degrees on blue ice. Around 25,000 feet above sea level, they put on oxygen bottles; the air, at that point, is too thin for most people to breathe. And they had nearly a mile to go.
The climb slowed to a crawl at that point. It wasn’t unusual for the crew to move at a pace that would embarrass a snail, gaining maybe 500 feet in an hour.
Garrett Madison, who led that Alpine Ascents trek up Everest, may have had doubts about some of his fellow hikers. Grigsby was not one of them.
Grigsby, he said, helped other climbers who began to display signs of fatigue. On Everest, people who get exhausted may wind up as landmarks for future climbers.
“If things get hairy on a mountain,” said Madison, who left Alpine Ascents to start his own Seattle mountaineering company, “Mike is the guy you want up there with you. He’s a team player.”
His team got the chance it sought on May 17. The weather cleared as Grigsby and fellow climbers slept in -40 degrees, in heavy clothing and bags designed for the worst weather on earth. A Sherpa shook him awake.
“We’re going to try,” the guide said. It was 10 p.m.
They stepped into a clear night, “the blackest sky I’ve ever seen,” Grigsby said. They turned toward the summit. His heart hammered. Each step seemed to require 10 breaths.
“That night was the longest night of my life.”
At 5:30 a.m., they reached the south summit. Sunlight is so brilliant at that height it can damage eyes. Grigsby had not donned his goggles because the sun wasn’t up yet. Or so he thought. As he stepped along the icy ridge, a ray of light shot through an opening in the ice and found his right eye. The sudden brilliance scorched his cornea, leaving that eye temporarily blinded. Grigsby stood on one of the most dangerous places on earth with one functioning eye.
But he had come this far. Grigsby made the final push up “Hillary Step,” a vertical rock that lay between the climbers and the summit. It’s named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the first human documented to have made the ascent. He and fellow climber Tenzing Norgay stood at its crest in 1953.
When Grigsby passed the step, he saw … heaven’s face? The earth’s shoulders? For 15 minutes, he stood between two worlds.
“At that point,” he said, “I don’t think my brain was functioning well enough to have any deep thoughts.”
The poles beckon
After Everest and Lhotse came the remaining peaks: Elbrus (18,510 feet) in Russia; Vinson (16,050) in Antarctica, Puncak Jaya (16,024 feet) in Indonesia; and Denali (20,322 feet) in Alaska. Grigsby made the last ascent, Denali, in June this year.
What now? He wanted to climb K2, the second highest summit on the planet. This time, his wife balked. The peak on the China-Pakistani border, she argued, is too hard to climb. Too many people have not returned from its frozen slopes.
“K2,” she said, “is a scary mountain.”
He listened to his wife and dropped that idea. That hardly means his rambles are over.
“He always has an adventure he’s planning,” his wife said. “He’ll always be doing something that has a risk to it.”
With seven summits in his past, Grigsby has turned his eye toward the poles, north and south. He wants to ski to each. With an 80-pound sled attached. Across ice floes and glacial basins.
It’s part of that something in him that searches for privation. Anyone who can emerge from such a struggle, he thinks, has accomplished something.
He’s leaving in December for Punta Arenas, a town perched on the southern edge of Chile. From there, he and others are flying on a Russian cargo plane that will deposit them at Union Glacier. It’s so far south and so cold that exposing your bare skin guarantees frostbite or worse. It’s easy to lose your fingers when a 70-mph wind pushes the temperature somewhere south of 40 below.
You can see the wind approaching, Grigsby said. It comes barreling across the wasteland, picking up ice and snow as it speeds along.
Union Glacier is on the 89th parallel; the South Pole, at the bottom of the earth, is on the 90th. Sixty-seven miles separate the two points. Grigsby plans on making that trip on skis.
He wants to try the North Pole next April. That trip is not guaranteed. There’s not as much ice at the polar ice cap as before, he said. The Russian military also is an issue; it has fortifications in that frozen part of the world.
Finally, there’s the issue of polar bears.
“Humans are easier to catch and eat than seals,” he said. He’ll make that trip with a shotgun and bear mace.
And then? Grigsby, sitting in the sunny quiet of his den, paused. His mind turned to his two daughters.
“Maybe I’ll coach softball.”
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Mark Davis has been a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2003. In that time, he’s written about heroes and bums and a lot of people in-between. He’s touched a panda, recoiled from a python and once tickled a tortoise.
ABOUT THE STORY
Mark Davis is a gifted storyteller. He likes stories that surprise him, ones that “zig when the rest zag,” as he says. When he got an email about a guy who had reached the summits of the highest peaks on every continent, he sensed a story that zigged. The result is a fascinating look into the psyche of a Marietta man who has looked to the clouds, and beyond.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
Read more of our Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.