WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Mountain Climbing a Passion for First Iowa Woman to Summit Mount Everest

Jul 25, 2017

Jen Loeb became the first woman from Iowa to climb Mount Everest, reaching the summit in the spring of 2016.  She said it was her love for the outdoors that led her to take up mountain climbing just six years earlier.

Loeb grew up on a small farm, spending her days climbing trees, fishing, camping, and playing in the creek. She said she was always looking for a reason to be outdoors, so she really enjoyed backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during a trip with some friends from college.

Loeb said  that trip planted the mountain climbing seed.

“For me, it was curiosity,” said Loeb. “I was just really intrigued. I knew nothing about climbing at all but it seemed like it would be something fun to do and I was excited to learn about it, just to see what it was all about. But I was not really sure how to get involved in it.”

Opportunity soon knocked for Loeb.

Loeb said she was volunteering with the National Park Service in California in 2010 when an off-day provided her with an opportunity to climb Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, with her friends and co-workers.

“I knew that I didn’t have any mountain climbing skills so I thought, who better to go with than a park ranger. If something goes wrong or I run into trouble, I am here with someone who can help me. So I went out and climbed Mount Whitney. It was fun but there were some parts that were scary,” said Loeb.

Loeb said when she returned to Iowa, she realized the fun strongly outweighed the fear so she decided to continue mountain climbing. But instead of purchasing new equipment and receiving professional training, Loeb signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the African continent.

“It’s a big jump in altitude, but I don’t need any technical gear, just my normal backpacking gear and some warm weather stuff,” said Loeb. “I wanted to see if I could tolerate the altitude, so I went over to Tanzania and did Kilimanjaro.”

Loeb said that showed her she could handle the altitude.

Jen Loeb atop Antisana in Ecuador, South America
Credit https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3981828996257&set=pb.1596679914.-2207520000.1501008301.&type=3&theater

So she said she spent hours online purchasing equipment because Iowa does not have a lot of stores specializing in mountain climbing gear.  She then signed up for a climbing class at Mount Rainier in Washington to teach her what she needed to know to summit taller mountains.

Loeb said after she completed the course, she signed up for expeditions all over the world, improving with each climb.

“It’s given me an opportunity to travel the globe and visit different cultures, just very remote, beautiful areas of the world,” said Loeb. “Each peak was progressively more difficult and with each successful expedition, it was, ‘I can do this,’ so I would take it up a notch.”

Loeb said her decision to take it up a few notches and attempt to climb Mount Everest started in 2013 when she was climbing Denali in Alaska. She said several climbing guides told her that they thought she had what it took to summit the tallest mountain on the planet.

“I never got into mountain climbing with the idea of climbing Mount Everest,” said Loeb. “It was never in my head to do it, so when they suggested it, I thought that if the professionals think I am ready to go, maybe I should consider it.”

Loeb said when she returned to Iowa after climbing Denali, she weighed the pros and cons of attempting to climb Mount Everest. She said she eventually decided she needed to try it so that she would not look back with regret later in life.

Jen Loeb at the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador, South America
Credit https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3981853916880&set=pb.1596679914.-2207520000.1501008301.&type=3&theater

Loeb spent three years planning the expedition, even borrowing more than $50,000 to fund the trip. Her training included climbing a Stairmaster while carrying a 50 pound sandbag.

“I invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that expedition knowing full well that there was no guarantee you were going to summit. You take a gamble, you take a risk and you try to manage that risk as best you can and make good decisions and keep working. When all the pieces come together, you have success,” said Loeb.

Loeb’s successful climb began with her flight to Nepal in the spring of 2016.

Loeb said it took her ten days to reach the Mount Everest base camp, where hundreds of other climbers were preparing for their own attempts. Base camp is 17,000 feet above sea level.

“You have to go slowly to give your body a chance to acclimatize so you do not get sick,” said Loeb.

That concept also applies to climbing Everest.

Loeb said climbers do not simply start one morning and go straight up the mountain. She said instead, they do “rotations” up and down the mountain.

Loeb said a rotation, for example, is climbing a couple thousand feet from base camp to camp 1, which is on the mountain, and then back down to base camp. She said next, climbers would go from base camp to camp 1 and then camp 2 before returning to base camp.

“Each rotation, you go higher,” said Loeb. “You are going up the mountain to trigger your body to start adjusting to that particular altitude, but you don’t recover at that high altitude, so you have to go back down either that day or the next day.”

Jen Loeb atop Aconcagua in Argentina
Credit https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4136515223316&set=pb.1596679914.-2207520000.1501008301.&type=3&theater

Loeb said once your body is ready, the push to the summit begins, which means no more returning to a lower altitude.

“If you have made it that far and you are still healthy enough to actually go on the summit push, you have already been on the mountain for 5-6 weeks at that point, it is a long haul,” said Loeb.

Loeb said it was a feeling of relief and satisfaction when she finally reached the summit of Everest.

“But you don’t really let your guard down because the summit is only halfway. It’s not over, you can’t stay there because the clock is always ticking because you will eventually run out of oxygen,” said Loeb. “So you can only stay there for a little bit. I took some pictures and then I just sat there for a little bit and kind of etch it into my memory forever. I am on the top of the world, this is as high as it gets.”

Loeb said it felt like a race to get down the mountain and return to base camp after the summit. She said it took her about a month to feel normal after her expedition.

Loeb said she has now scaled the tallest peak on six of the seven continents, with only Antarctica to finish the “Seven Summits” challenge. She said that is her next goal, in the hopes of becoming the first woman from Iowa to accomplish that as well.