There’s a reason it’s called the “Death Zone.” At 29,029 feet, the lack of oxygen atop Mount Everest seriously limits how well a person can function. Risks of fatigue, frostbite and stress to the heart and brain skyrocket. It’s so dangerous at that altitude that climbers are cautioned to only linger for about 20 minutes before descending.
In that brief time at the top of the world, Bruce Terry, Scoutmaster of Troop 181 in Gladwyne, Pa., was able to unfurl three flags: a custom flag thanking his family, a troop flag and a National Eagle Scout Association World Explorers flag.
The 58-year-old’s ascent on May 23, 2019, completed his quest to climb the tallest mountains on every continent.
“It was by far the most technically and physically challenging peak I’ve done,” Terry says. “It was like a compilation of all the other climbs I’ve done in one.”
Terry, an Eagle Scout, began his mountaineering journey in 2004 when his wife, Susan, urged him to try after reading a magazine article about climbing Mount Rainier in Washington and thought he would love the challenge. After all, he loved to explore as a Scout.
“The best part was going backpacking every weekend,” he says. “We were hardcore; we got out of town and set up our tents on Friday night, and go backpacking Saturday and Sunday. That’s what I lived for — I loved it.”
Terry’s challenge would be a sacrifice for his wife and the couple’s two children, Caroline and Henry. Mountaineering requires intensive preparation. For Everest, Terry trained for more than a year, an hour-and-a-half every day before and after work, four to five hours on Saturdays and Sundays — weightlifting, cycling, running and hiking with a backpack.
“Training is not as easy at this age,” Terry says. “If I wasn’t prepared, I only have myself to blame for not being physically ready.”
The endodontist tried to involve his family in his training and adventures. Terry got involved in Scouting again when his son joined, and the two hiked at Philmont Scout Ranch. They also followed the Tour Du Mont Blanc, a 101-mile journey around the mountain in France together in 2011.
That was just one of many peaks Terry climbed leading up to Everest: Mount Rainier (2004), Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (2007), Mount Elbrus in Russia (2010), Aconcagua in Argentina (2012), Cotopaxi and Cayambe in Ecuador (2013), Denali in Alaska (2014), Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia (2015) and Vinson Massif in Antarctica (2016), Cho Oyu in China (2018) and Lobuche in Nepal (2019).
When the time came to tackle Everest, his family and friends were hesitant at first, knowing how many climbers have perished on the mountain.
“I’m not out there for the thrill of it; it wasn’t a death wish,” Terry says. “I just want to go to these beautiful places.”
After sitting down with his family, they got on board with him finishing his quest.
To scale the tallest mountain in the world, set on the border of China and Nepal, it takes time. You simply don’t go up the mountain. To acclimate to different elevations, climbers hike back and forth to camps on their route. The process took Terry about a month-and-a-half to finally make it to the third camp up the mountain.
It’s important to stay healthy, especially at camp when you’re around other people. One of Terry’s fellow climbers broke a rib from a bad cough, ending their trip. Hand sanitizer was very popular, and most teams kept to themselves to prevent the spreading of colds. Still, Terry met people from all over the world, from their mid-20s to their mid-60s with varying backgrounds and careers, all of them with the same goal.
Terry traveled with an expedition company, International Mountain Guides IMG, which led a group of 23 climbers, 11 of whom were able to reach the summit. Everyone had their own tents at base camp and shared tents higher on the mountain.
The trek took Terry across the Khumbu Ice Fall, a glacier that shifts and changes every day, often requiring ladders to cross crevasses.
“It’s a maze of ice and rock. It takes six to seven hours to get through it, and I had to do it four times,” Terry says.
The temperatures on Everest can drop to negative-30 degrees — and that’s with little wind.
“When it’s windy, the probability of getting frostbite goes up 1,000%,” Terry says.
After reaching the fourth camp, Terry planned the last push to the summit — a 10-hour overnight climb, arriving at the top around sunrise. The conditions were perfect: a light snow and no wind. His Sherpa guide, Pega Sherpa, monitored his bottled oxygen supply and radioed to others about their progress.
“All in all, I had a very easy summit day,” he says. “I never really felt in danger.”
Danger was still all around as he navigated across narrow paths next to 12,000-foot drops. In places where you’re going up and you encounter someone coming down, you literally have to hug and rotate, maneuvering to get around each other. But when he reached the top, it was pure elation.
“That feeling hits you like a wave, crying for joy and happiness,” Terry says.
High-fives and hugs all around, it was time to take photos, and then soak in the accomplishment while watching other climbers trek up both sides of the mountain. Terry isn’t the first Eagle Scout to climb Everest, nor is he the first Eagle to climb the tallest mountains on all seven continents. But, he’s pretty sure he’s the first American dentist to achieve the Seven Summits challenge. It’s estimated that fewer than 500 people can make the Seven Summits claim.
Climbing involves a lot of luck. The now-infamous photo taken by Nepalese climber Nirmal Purja that shows a long line of climbers stuck, waiting to reach the top, was captured just hours before Terry’s ascent. Weather conditions were so brutal that climbers only had two favorable days to get to the summit. About 1,000 people, including guides, tried to take advantage of the short window. Since he climbed overnight, Terry didn’t get caught in the traffic.
After returning home, he’s considering what his next challenge will be. When he’s not climbing, working or leading Scouts, he teaches at a dentistry school and organizes free dental clinics for underserved patients in Pennsylvania.
“I consider myself the luckiest man in the world,” Terry says. “Work is great, but you should also love what you do outside of work. Everest is an example of what people can do.”