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Friday, September 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:26 A.M.
Mountaineer, 77, saved lives of six climbers on K2 in '53
By Ian Ith
Pete Schoening's name will forever be etched in the annals of mountaineering for his conquests of many of the highest and most treacherous peaks on Earth.
For being one of the first two Westerners to summit the remote Pakistani peak Gasherbrum I, a 26,470-foot monster also called "Hidden Peak," Mr. Schoening is listed among such luminaries as Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to scale Everest, as one of the world's renowned climbers.
But whether the famously humble man wanted it this way or not, climbers will forever associate the name Pete Schoening with a single heroic day in August 1953, when he alone held a rope that kept six climbers from plunging to their deaths from the icy crags of K2.
It's a moment climbers simply refer to, with reverence, as "The Belay."
"I'm sure we would have all gone down," recalls climber Dee Molenaar of Burley, Kitsap County, who is alive today because of a thin nylon rope that connected him that day to his dear friend, Mr. Schoening.
"He was a prince of a human being."
Mr. Schoening, a successful businessman and the father of six, died Wednesday (Sept. 22) at his home in Kenmore after a long fight with blood cancer. He was 77.
Mr. Schoening was born July 30, 1927, in Seattle and attended Roosevelt High School, said his son, Eric, of Seattle. He dropped out of school to join the Navy, and served about a year before World War II ended.
He then earned a chemical-engineering degree from the University of Washington and went on to work in various industries.
He also found himself among an elite group of pioneering mountain adventurers from the Northwest.
"He was a great guy to rope up with," said Jim Whittaker, of Port Townsend, the first American to summit Mount Everest.
In 1953, Mr. Schoening joined Molenaar and several others in an attempt to be the first to reach the top of K2 in the Himalayas, the world's second-highest peak.
On Aug. 10, the group was pinned down by a blizzard at about 25,000 feet. Climber Art Gilkey developed a deadly blood clot in his lungs, and the group launched a desperate attempt to lower him using a technique called a "belay," which simply means suspending a person from the end of a rope.
During the descent, another climber, George Bell, lost his footing and slid, pulling the others with him. Their ropes tangled, connecting them all to one line around Mr. Schoening's waist.
Mr. Schoening held fast with an ice ax. His grip kept all six climbers suspended by their ropes.
Gilkey later died when an avalanche carried him away, but the five others lived.
Mr. Schoening returned home, began a 51-year marriage to his wife, Mell, and continued climbing. His exploits included a record ascent of Hidden Peak in 1958, but he spent the rest of his life humbly downplaying the famous belay.
"When you get into something like mountain climbing, I'm sure you do your thing automatically," he told a Seattle Times reporter in 1978. "It's a mechanical function you've been trained to perform. You do it when necessary without giving it a thought of how or why."
And that, his friends and family said, epitomized the modesty that defined Mr. Schoening's life.
In the late 1960s he started a fiberglass-manufacturing business in Woodinville called ChemGrate. By the time he retired and sold it in 1995, he had operations here and in Tennessee and China.
Although he went all over the world to climb mountains he scaled five of the world's seven highest peaks he took time to take his large family on many trips and taught his children how to climb.
"Being roped to him gave me and all his kids tremendous confidence," said son Eric. "He was just a huge success in the broadest sense, in his climbing and his business and his commitment to his family."
After retirement, Mr. Schoening set his sights on the world's toughest climbs. In 1996, at age 68, he joined an expedition to Everest but turned back before he reached the summit because of oxygen deprivation. The expedition turned tragic and eight climbers died, a disaster chronicled in the Jon Krakauer book "Into Thin Air."
Years later, with cancer taking its toll, Mr. Schoening kept venturing into the mountains. His last hike was three weeks ago.
"Pete was breathing hard going up the trail," recalled longtime friend Thomas Hornbein, also a noted mountaineer and former chairman of the University of Washington's anesthesiology department. "But he was still enthusiastic."
In addition to his wife and son Eric, survivors include three daughters, Kim, of New York, Kristiann, of Seattle, and Lisa Schoening Jertz, of Germany; two other sons, Mark, of Kenmore, and Kurt, of Bellingham; and 12 grandchildren.
A memorial service has not yet been scheduled. Donations may be made to the Central Asia Institute, P.O. Box 7209, Bozeman, MT 59771; or the Schoening Memorial Outdoor Studies Endowment, c/o The Lakeside School, 14050 First Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98125.
Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or email@example.com
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