By Daniel Ritz
Years ago, during a high-altitude fishing excursion in the Eastern Sierra’s, Dana Point resident Russell Kerr encountered an elderly mountaineer.
During that chance meeting, Kerr asked the older man what his secret to summiting the region’s abundant high peaks was. The man’s answer set a precedent for the remainder of Kerr’s life.
“You never stop, you can absolutely never stop moving,” the man responded.
Now 72, the New Zealand-born Kerr has followed that mantra to a number of the highest peaks in the Sierra’s, across Africa, and throughout his homeland of New Zealand.
Currently, Kerr is embarking on his largest, and lengthiest adventure yet as he attempts to reach Mt. Everest base camp, more than 17,500 feet in altitude, in honor of the 65th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s first summit.
Over eight days, Kerr and his group, supported by a team of Sherpa’s and yaks to carry a majority of their gear, look to reach base camp on Tuesday, May 29 after eight days of climbing 6-8 hours a day.
Despite being an experienced climber and outdoorsman, Kerr said he never imagined undertaking such a challenging journey.
“I’ve done some serious climbing, but nothing like this,” Kerr clarified through a smirk, explaining that the thing he expects to be most challenging is the duration of the climb.
Kerr’s shared that he was talked into this adventure by his sister and brother-in-law only a month ago, while on a trip visiting them in New Zealand. The couple were the last New Zealander’s to manage the hospital built by Hillary in the valley.
Hillary’s history of assisting the native Sherpa of the region dates back to the 1960s when Hillary asked a Sherpa, “If there was anything I could do for the Sherpa people, what do you think that would be?”
To which, the Sherpa replied: “Our children have eyes, but they are blind and cannot see. We would like you to open their eyes by building a school in our village.”
This touched Hillary’s heart and he immediately set about building the first school in Khumjung. He went on to build schools, hospitals and health clinics across the Solukhumbu region in the foothills of Everest.
Kerr and the approximately 30 other climbers taking part of the group climb honoring Hillary’s initial ascent will be continuing to support the hundreds of thousands of Sherpa that live along the valley where Everest ascents begin.
Kerr explained that before, and after their excursion, the group will be taking part in social and reconstruction efforts within the valley. In 2015, the valley region, including many of the schools built by Hillary and the Himalayan Trust, were ravaged by a catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake leading to towns being leveled and buried in landslides.
A former emergency relief worker for World Vision, Kerr has spent countless years abroad, and said the humanitarian aspects of this climb resonated with him.
“Hillary is a national hero in New Zealand,” Kerr shared. “He’s on the five-dollar note!”
Kerr shared that he remembers being seven years old when he first learned of Hillary’s ascent to Everest, but more recently had a serendipitous moment of connection with him, the only man to set foot at both of the earth’s poles as well as it’s tallest peak.
A few years ago, while sitting on the balcony of his hotel in Auckland, New Zealand, overlooking the pier, Kerr said he looked down and saw a boat spreading something into the waters of the Auckland harbor below.
Those “something” were ashes. Sir Hillary’s.
“That was such a special moment of connection for me,” Kerr said, reflecting.
Regarding his health, Kerr said since he is more than 70 years old, he had to be cleared by a World Expedition physician before embarking on this journey.
Kerr said that he has been training for the hike by spending extensive time in the mountains in addition to his regular active lifestyle routine.
“I have never had acute altitude sickness before,” Kerr said, voicing his gratitude for the team of Sherpa’s and physicians that will accompany the group.
“My best friend just died, 70 years old, and this is the sort of thing that you do when you can while you can for those that would be there to do it with you, but didn’t have the good fortune or good health,” Kerr remarked.
“I’ve lived a life full of challenges, and opportunities,” Kerr said, two days before leaving for Asia.”
Read more of our 2018 Spring Aging Well special section HERE: