Thursday, May 29, 2003

City native still dreams of reaching the summit

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Twice in his lifetime Jean Ellis has looked at the roof of the world, but it was just beyond his reach.

In 1988 and 1991, the Cincinnati native climbed within about 2,700 feet of the summit of Mount Everest, the 29,035-foot Himalayan peak that was conquered for the first time 50 years ago today by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Some day, Ellis hopes, he will close that gap and stand where Hillary and Norgay stood, looking down from the highest point on the face of the earth.

"A day does not go by when Everest doesn't flash through my mind," said Ellis, who is now an emergency room physician in Billings, Mont.

The graduate of Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati is now 57 years old, an age when most have either put aside the rigorous outdoor life or are on the verge of doing so.

But Ellis looks at the fact that the oldest person to have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest was 69 and figures he has at least another 12 years to reach the ultimate climbers' goal.

Nearly every year for the past two decades, Ellis has taken off up to 100 days to pursue his passion for mountain-climbing, most often traveling to the Himalayas, where the peaks are the highest and the challenges the greatest.

Seven years ago, Ellis became the first African-American to reach the summit of Everest's neighbor on the Nepal-Tibet border - Cho Oyo at 26,750 feet.

Marathons to mountains

As a young man, Ellis qualified as a marathon runner in the 1980 Olympic trials. But his dream of a gold medal in marathon was dashed when President Jimmy Carter pulled the U.S. team out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

It was not long after that that the physician saw an ad in a medical journal seeking climbers for a Himalayan expedition. He answered the ad and fell in love with the sport.

Making the transition from marathon runner to mountain-climber was not as difficult as it might appear.

"You have to have the same kind of skills in both," said Ellis, who grew up in Sycamore Township. "The runner spends a lot of time alone, doing a lot of drudge work. So does a mountain climber."

Ellis climbs with people he knows well. Trust of the man or woman next to you on the face of a Himalayan mountain is of paramount importance, he said.

"Going out for 100 days on a mountain is not the time to discover that you have some kind of Jack Nicholson character in your group," Ellis said.

He has found that his day job as a physician has helped him get on to many Himalayan expeditions. A climber with medical skills is highly valued.

"I'm a physician who is also a climber - check that, I'm a climber who happens to be a physician," Ellis said.


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