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C.H. Robinson’s Stenderup in rarified air with Mt. Everest climb

Seven years ago when John Stenderup ascended the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, marking the first major climb in his new hobby, the concept of scaling Mount Everest made it to his personal bucket list.

“I thought maybe 10 or 15 years down the road, I’d attempt it,” said the 31-year-old manager of the Western Growers Transportation Program for C.H. Robinson.  LaddersJohn Stenderup using a ladder to traverse a tricky spot during his ascent of Mt. Everest.

But the desire to share the experience with his father moved the timeline up a bit. And on May 21, 2017, at 10:45 a.m. local time in Nepal, Stenderup summited the tallest mountain in the world with his climbing partner, Geoff Schellens. Two days later, the pair stood together on the top of Lhotse after scaling that mountain, which is the fourth tallest in the world, in a rare double climb.

Along the way, Stenderup saw some unbelievable sights and reached some very high moments that he’ll never forget. And he also saw a few things that he’d like to forget.

When he retells the story, Stenderup starts 10 years ago when he began hiking with his dad, Kent, a Kern County, CA, grower who farms under the banner of Stenderup Ag Partners.

The two started hiking together and bonding over the shared experience. The younger Stenderup took his dad’s passion to greater heights, as he got involved in rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering. His first big accomplishment was the Grand Tetons, but over time he also scaled Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, the Andes and many other peaks.

Mount Everest stood off in the future but he and his dad agreed that when the time came, Kent would accompany John to Base Camp, which is no small feat considering base camp stands at almost 18,000 feet above sea level, which makes it higher than all but two mountain peaks in the United States.The-team-with-Dads-at-Base--CampJohn Stenderup with his team at Base Camp.

At 57, Kent Stenderup wanted to be part of the journey and didn’t want his son to wait until it was impossible for the more seasoned Stenderup to join him. In 2015, Kent started talking up the adventure more seriously and by March of 2016 the plan had taken shape.  

Stenderup asked for the time off, which would be at least two months, and it was graciously given by his bosses at CHR, who supported his effort to attempt this amazing feat.

The actual adventure began April 2, when a group of hikers joined forces in Nepal and soon began the climb to Base Camp. By mid-April they reached Base Camp and soon Kent Stenderup departed down the mountain and headed back to the farm in Arvin, CA. John and his sub-group of three other team members began the arduous and time-consuming process of acclimating body and mind for the eventual Everest summit.

The process includes climbing up and down a series of four camps ranging from 20,000 to 26,000 feet, doing multiple rotations to build the right blood cells and allow the body to adapt to the high altitude.

By early May, Stenderup’s team was ready to begin their summit attempt and were jockeying to get in position to be one of the first teams to make the ascent. They were waiting for a good weather window and also for some work to be completed on the rope lines by the experienced Sherpas. They thought they could be summiting by May 12-13 and could also attempt the rare double of summitting Lhotse less than 24 hours later. Bad weather prevented the rope work from getting completed and the team’s plans were temporarily dashed.  

A week later, Stenderup and his three partners were again in a position to try the ascent. Circumstances caused them to be the last group of 70 climbers who tried to summit Mount Everest on May 21. Because of a weather-related short climbing window this year, the number of climbers on this day rose to a record level. By the end of the day, the four deaths that occurred would also be a record.

The ascent begins the night before in order to allow the climbers enough time to summit and return to Camp 4 while it is still light.  Stenderup and his teammates took off at 11 p.m. and hiked in the darkness for several hours. “I noticed something to my left, a frozen body. I had come prepared to see death on the mountain but despite this anticipation, it gave me chills.”

Every year, many set out to climb Everest. About half succeed; others succumb to conditions and aren’t successful, and a handful die. To climb Everest, Stenderup said you have to be prepared to confront the elements, including death.

Stenderup continued climbing and a short while later, he and his team came across another climber suffering from hypothermia and near death. They administered first aid and medicine that all climbers carry.  Their efforts were futile.

Fifty feet farther up the hill another climber was struggling, also with hypothermia, but he had more life. Stenderup and his team administered drugs, secured him with rope and made a quick decision to abandon their summit and take the man back to Camp 4, where he could get better medical attention. As they descended, one of the Sherpas who was descending from a higher elevation took over the task and urged them to continue their quest. Team member Brent Bishop, who had summited Everest three times before, joined the Sherpa and the other three went on.

The ascent continued and so did the drama. By stopping and helping the two stricken climbers, Stenderup ran out of oxygen, but quick work by his teammates solved the issue, and as daylight dawned the move toward the 29,000-foot peak continued.

“When I reached the peak I had a full spectrum of emotions,” Stander up said. “I was elated and excited but I was also feeling down in the dumps.”

They spent five minutes at the peak and then started climbing back down. During the descent, he thought of the injured climber and the many climbers before his group that literally stepped over this man in need of help. The climber, in fact, died about 24 hours later at Camp 4.  

“What if someone would have stopped an hour earlier and helped him down? He might have lived. It is hard to believe that some people think summiting Everest was more important than a man’s life,” Stenderup opined a couple weeks later.

Personally, he was prepared for the physical part, but the psychological part took its toll.

Exhausted, both physically and mentally, Stenderup’s team spent an extra day at Camp 4 before trying to summit Lhotse. Schellens, Sherpa Siddhi Ghising and Stenderup attempted Lhotse. That trek, he said, was the highlight of the trip. “It is what climbing is supposed to be.”

Only the three of them were on that mountain that day and the winds blew hard, but the joy of climbing returned.

A couple of weeks later, Stenderup was back home reflecting on the journey and his future. “The beauty of climbing is there is always another peak to climb. I won’t do Everest again but I will climb other mountains.”

He remains ever grateful to the CHR team, not only for giving him the time off and covering for him, but for cheering him on every step of the way. Stenderup wore a GPS chip and wrote a personal online account allowing those who were interested to follow his progress. He had almost 400 followers and about 1,000 hits per day. Fellow CHR employees accounted for many of those followers and they were constantly giving him pep talks, through email, and rooting for his success.  

“When I was low, those notes kept me going,” he said

And like a “vacation” is supposed to do, Stenderup said he came back rejuvenated and excited to work for what he considers the best company in the business.