The Highest Couple in the World

Susan and Phil Ershler were the first couple to ever climb the seven summits, the highest mountain on each continent.


24 January 202124 min read

The Seven Summits:

  1. Asia: Mount Everest - 29,029 feet
  2. Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro - 19,341 feet
  3. Antarctica: Vinson Massif - 16,050 feet
  4. Australia: Mount Kosciuszko - 7,310 feet
  5. Europe: Mount Elbrus - 18,510
  6. North America: Denali - 20,310 feet
  7. South America: Aconcagua - 22,837 feet

Women are rarely found atop the seven summits. Only 71 women have completed the challenge compared to 345 men. Susan was the 4th American woman to complete the challenge. She was also only the 12th American woman to reach Everest's summit.

About Phil

Phil Ershler grew up in Bellevue, WA, a suburb of Seattle. In high school, Phil had a bad health scare. The doctor thought it was Hodgkin's disease and gave him six months to live.

Phil didn't buy it. A couple of months later, he found out it was Crohn's disease. Crohn's is bad, but not a death sentence.

Phil was wrestling again as soon as the doctor gave him the green light. After an opponent ripped open Phil's belly, he quit for the season.

Phil and his best friend took mountaineering classes at the local community college. The other students were a decade older. Phil and Greg got hooked.

Wrestling started again, and Phil was back on the team. But the mountains called. He couldn't wait for the season to end.

In college, Phil worked as a guide on Mount Ranier for Jim and Lou Whittaker. Jim was the first American to summit Everest. Lou's climbed Ranier more than 250 times.

After college, Phil continued guiding on Rainier. He battled Crohn's flareups and worked odd jobs in the offseason.

Phil Climbs Everest

In 1982, Phil set out with a group of Ranier guides to climbing Everest. The trip was riddled with disaster. A year before departure, two crucial team members fell into a crevasse on Denali.

One died. The other broke his shoulder. One day before the Everest summit, Phil's team lost a woman named Marty. Phil and Marty met his first season on Rainier. They had been intimate on and off for years.

The team attempted the summit but failed due to weather.

10 months later, Phil was back on Everest with Frank Wells and Dick Bass. Wells was the president of Warner Brother studios. Bass started Snowbird ski resort in Utah.

This trip was a success. 10 people reached the summit, and nobody got hurt. Larry Nielsen became the first American to summit without oxygen. Phil tried without oxygen, too but had to turn around before the top.

Just a year later, Phil was back again. He was determined to stand on top of Everest. But the team leader put Phil on the second summit team.

Phil didn't buy it. His team was making it to the summit. They failed multiple times, spent the night in a squall, ran low on oxygen.

Phil and John Roskelley set out for one final attempt. Phil had oxygen, John did not. Eventually, John could go no further.

Phil said they were going back. John would have none of it. He forced Phil to go on alone.

3 hours later, Phil stood on top of the world. It was 1984.

For the rest of the eighties, Phil spent a part of every year in the Himalayas. He climbed the third highest mountain in the world and attempted the second.

Phil lost his father in 1989. In 1990, he turned back less than 1,000 feet from the top of K2 (the second-highest mountain in the world). Reaching the top was risky. Phil couldn't bear to make his mother bury him and his father in the same year.

His team became the first Americans to climb the three tallest mountains using the north routes. The North Face is almost always the most difficult route up a mountain.

About Susan

Susan is the youngest of four. And the only girl. When she couldn't win in basketball, she chucked the ball at her brother's head.

Susan moved from Portland, OR to Seattle after first grade. She struggled to adjust at school. Three years later, the family moved back to Portland.

Susan's oldest brother got married, and his wife moved into the house. Not long after, they had a baby. Susan loved the bustle of a full house. Through gymnastics, she learned to enjoy school.

Every summer, Susan went to the lake with her best friend, Rhea. That's where she found water skiing. After 4 years in Portland, it was back to Seattle.

Susan was unhappy. Two brothers stayed in Portland. Her new school was a third of the size of hers in Portland. In her words, "The gymnastics program was a joke."

Susan checked out. She got a job at a department store and worked her way up the chain. Senior year, she worked 9-hour shifts. 2 PM - 11 PM.

She bought a used Camaro. The day after graduation, she loaded it up and drove three hours south to Portland. Susan was promoted to a department manager at a store there.

Things weren't good. Unlike her Seattle store, the Portland store was in a bad neighbourhood. She once saw a woman rip a dress, then bring it to the register and demand a discount.

The store was robbed many times. Once by armed men, once by a six-year-old whose, mom told her to steal jewelry.

Susan's parents came to visit and suggested they take a road trip to visit colleges. She fell in love with Washington State University and enrolled for the next semester.

Academic struggles continued, but Susan bore on. She had seen life without a degree. Susan studied business and met a man named Gary.

They dated for eight years. On their wedding day, Susan had some doubts. She ignored them. Two years later, they divorced.

Susan felt guilty. Gary was a great guy, and she felt like she had stolen years of his life.

Making a name for herself

Susan worked in operations at United Technologies. One day her boss Walt moved to sales at a company called GTE. You may know it by its current name, Verizon. He asked Susan to join him.

Though unsure of her sales ability, Susan went. Her new job was to sell $1 million of telecommunication equipment each year.

In her first year, Susan missed her quota. Walt demoted her to small accounts. Susan was crushed but convinced Walt to let her keep her current accounts.

She relentlessly pursued her biggest lead, a law firm called Bogle. Two months later, they bought. It was one of GTE's largest sales.

Walt moved Susan back to major accounts.

Within three years, Susan bought a top floor lake view condo and her own ski boat. She was killing it.

But she was lonely. Since she and Gary split up, she didn't have anyone to share her success with. Now 35, Susan felt empty. She always dreamed of children and could almost hear her biological clock ticking.

The Party Boat

In 1991, Susan closed a deal with Northland Communications. Through the deal, she became friends with John, Northland's CEO and Nan, John's assistant. John invited her to Northland's summer bash.

John told Susan he had someone for her to meet, a famous mountain climber and guide. Susan refused, saying their lives would never align.

John didn't quit. Five months later, Nan called Susan and invited her to the Northland Christmas party. She also informed Susan that Phil was going to be there. And he knew she was coming.

Susan and Phil clicked. A fan of Phil's cut their conversation short. That and his date's watching eyes.

Next Monday, Susan got coffee with a colleague named John. When she told him about Phil, John burst into the story of climbing Mount Rainier. Phil was his guide.

Phil sent a thank you note to Northland's CEO for the Christmas party. Nan intercepted it and sent it to Susan. It said, "GREAT PARTY. Tell Sue she can call me anytime."

Sue debated about calling Phil. One late night in the office, She called. Voicemail.

"Hi, this is Phil. I'm climbing in Ecuador. Leave a message."

All Sue said was, "This is Sue. Give me a call." She swore if he didn't return her call, she would never try again.

Two weeks later, Phil returned the call and arranged their first date. Two days after, Phil sent Valentine's day card and asked to see her again.

Their second date was at Sun Valley Ski Resort in Idaho. Phil was invited to the birthday party of Frank Wells, now president of Disney. The party was loaded with rockstars. Clint Eastwood, Lou Whittaker, and Skip Yowell. Skip founded Jansport.

On that trip, Sue decided she would marry Phil.

They began spending every weekend together. Spring rolled around, and Sue got excited about water skiing. When not working, that was all she did.

Phil knew Sue wanted him to join, but he had never skied in his life. In secret, he hired an instructor. The average April high temperature in Seattle is 57º. The average low is 45º. They were the only ones on the lake.

Lessons were at 7 am Sunday morning. Phile sleeping at Sue's, so sneaking out was a challenge. He managed to slip out and back into bed before she woke the first week.

The second week he wasn't so lucky. When Sue asked him why he was wet, he said he walked through a sprinkler. His final lesson was on ski season opening day. Sue and her friend Kathy were stoked to teach him how to ski.

On the way to the boat, Phil dropped his glove. Sue handed it back to him, wondering why it was wet.

Sue and Kathy went first to show Phil the ropes. When it was his turn, he acted nervous in the water. Sue and Kathy gave instructions.

When the boat took off, Phil popped right up. He even dropped one ski and slalomed. Sue jumped out of her skin. What a natural athlete she had found.

That night, Phil confessed to his secret lessons. Sue threw a couch cushion at him. He never fooled her again.

The Mountains

Phil's first trip while dating Sue was a three-week trek up Denali, the highest mountain in North America. A week later, Sue was watching the news. A reporter came on and said, "A 41-year-old American guide and several others have died on Mount McKinley."

Mt. McKinley was renamed Denali in 2015.

The next day, Sue found the article in the paper. The guide's name was Muggs Stump. Phil wasn't dead.

A few months later, Phil and Sue hiked up to 10,000 feet on Mt. Rainier and skied down. One month after that, they stood on the 14,441-foot summit.

One week later, Phil popped the question, "Do you want to climb Kilimanjaro?"

The Seven Summits

Sue hadn't taken a vacation in years. Work was her life. In 1992, she got her first stamp in the passport in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

Phil describes climbing Kilimanjaro as starting at the equator and walking to the Arctic. In five days. You start in a tropical forest. Three days later, you're above the clouds, and it's below freezing.

Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain. But the summit is hard to reach. Phil describes it as "a little physical."

Phil stayed at the back of the group to help slow hikers. Sue pressed on second behind the leader and "danced [her] way to the summit."

Back at the hotel, Sue realized there was life outside of work. She understood why Phil felt so connected to his clients. Sue began to fall in love with climbing.

Meanwhile, Phil fell more in love with Sue.

But things began to unravel. After the climb, Phil's Crohn's disease decided to stop in. Crohn's disease he hadn't told Sue about. Knowing he couldn't hide it, Phil came clean.

In 1994, Phil asked Sue to marry him at 13,000 feet. Sunrise gleamed off the East face of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Shortly after, they ticked off Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. It's one of the easiest of the seven summits. Phil and Sue made it up and down in one day.

In 1995, Phil and Sue flew to Alaska to climb Denali. A two-week expedition. The first four days are skiing uphill towing a 50-pound sled.

For the first time on a climb, Sue was afraid. Phil calmed her down. They pressed on.

At high camp, just before the summit, Sue's period started. Period cramps are bad enough at sea level. At 17,200 feet, they're pure torture.

Phil suggested to the team that they stay behind and summit tomorrow. It snowed that night. And didn't stop for two straight days.

The team summitted four days later. Three peaks down. Four to go.

Back at home, Sue was crushing it at work. She got promoted to regional sales manager after growing sales from $1 to $17 million in three years. There was just one problem.

Aconcagua.

Crushing It

Four months after her promotion, Sue was scheduled to climb Aconcagua with Phil. She had taken three weeks off to climb Denali. Now she needed three more to climb the highest mountain in South America.

She gave her boss a book about the seven summits by Dick Bass. One year after Dick went to Everest with Phil, he became the first person to reach all seven summits.

Two weeks later, he returned the book without a word. She waited a week, then set a meeting.

Sue told him about her plans for Aconcagua. He didn't talk about work. He only wanted to talk about climbing.

He learned that Phil was one of the guides in the book and couldn't believe it. Before Sue left, he said, "Before you go, you better have all your ducks in a row."

Sue promised him she would. He had one more request. "You better come back here safe."

Four months later, Sue and Phil woke up on Aconcagua. At 2 AM, the wind was gusting at 20 mph, and it was below 10ºF. They made the summit.

Fall of 1996 rolled around. Sue and Phil got married. Sue crushed her new $50 million quota, a long way from her first $1 million.

The only way to move up at GTE was to move to headquarters in Dallas. Sue was unwilling to give up her mountain lifestyle. Luckily, her brother Dave also worked in telecom sales.

Dave's company was tired of losing sales to Sue, so they recruited her. Sue moved to US West as regional sales manager of the northwest territory.

Six months later, US West invited Phil to speak. Sometimes Phil's clients would invite him to talk about his climbs. This was quite inspiring for those in the audience.

This time, Sue was in the audience.

She had been crushing it for 20 years in sales. But she wanted more. More time to climb, travel, and be with Phil. A sleeping monster awoke.

Speedbumps

In June of 1998, Phil took a team to Denali in Alaska. His assistant was a 21-year-old named Chris. He had never been on Denali.

At 17,000 feet, a client fell and couldn't get up. Phil couldn't go to help. He had just set a belay.

Chris went to help but fell. Phil wasn't worried; he had the belay. But Chris had unroped himself to help.

Phil and two other guides searched for Chris, but bad weather rolled in. Phil searched again in the morning but found nothing.

He had no choice but to take the clients down. Back in Seattle, Phil struggled. He met with Chris's family, who placed no blame on him. He led climbs up, Rainier. But something wasn't right.

In November, Sue and Phil were scheduled to climb Mount Vinson, the tallest mountain in Antarctica. In the fall, Phil was visited by his old nemesis, Crohn's.

Phil struggled for several weeks. His doctor put him on iron. Things got better.

They left for Antarctica on schedule.

Getting to Antarctica is a mountain itself. Tou have to get to Punta Arenas, Chile. That's 7,500 miles south of Seattle. Then you fly 2,000 miles south in a C-130 cargo plane.

Vinson was summit #5 for Sue and Phil. When Sue brought up all seven, Phil was dismissive. After Sue conquered Aconcagua, Phil had some thinking to do.

Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia, is "a walk in the park," according to Phil. He's not wrong. It's 12 miles roundtrip and only gains 3,000 feet of elevation.

If Phil and Sue could top Vinson, Everest and Kosciuszko would be the last two.

A week after leaving Seattle, Phil and Sue landed at Vinson base camp.

On the climb, Sue thought of her career. She couldn't forget Phil's presentation. Could she launch a speaking career?

They reached the summit 9 days after arriving. Phil hustled the group back down the mountain. A storm was on its way. The next group had to wait a week before the next flight got out.

One month after Vinson, Phil pulled some strings to get Sue on a trip to Kosciuszko. He still wasn't convinced she could do Everest. But if she could, he didn't want "walk in the park" Kosciuszko to be their seventh summit.

Back in the US, Sue hammered Phil about Everest. She got a former colleague to join. He had completed six of the seven summits and was gunning for Everest as hard as Sue.

Phil resolutely said no.

Little by little, Phil caved. He thought about how much Everest mattered to Sue. He thought about how he relentlessly pursued it in the eighties.

Gunning for Everest

In May of 1999, Phil began planning a trip to Everest.

For many of the months leading up to the Antarctica climb, Phil had felt lousy. He spent most of the day in bed, too weak to get up. He said it was due to a long season on Rainier and stress from Chris's death.

He had a sinking feeling there was more.

Phil went to the doctor. He had bloodwork, an endoscopy, and a colonoscopy. Phil didn't tell Sue.

The doctor told him he was anemic. No Antarctica. Phil took some medicine and two weeks later felt good enough to go. Sue still had no idea.

When they came back from Antarctica, the doctor told Phil there was dysplasia in his colon. Dysplasia commonly appears before a cancer diagnosis. The doc said he needed to remove a few feet of intestine.

Phil refused to go under the knife until after Everest. Marty, his doctor, fought back but knew he was no match for Phil's will.

For the next few months, Marty continued to press Phil about the surgery. Phil sought a second opinion. This doctor was even more concerned than Marty.

He wanted to remove Phil's entire colon. This would chain Phil to a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. Goodbye Everest, goodbye mountains, goodbye guiding.

Phil told Sue. She said, "We're going to Everest, but you're getting this done first." They scheduled the surgery seven months before the trip. Much more recovery time than the six weeks Marty estimated.

Recovery was not smooth. The day after the surgery, Phil could barely walk down the hospital hall. That night, Sue slept at the hospital. The second night, Phil forced her to go home for a better rest.

I have cancer

That's how Phil greeted Sue the next morning. The surgery had removed cancer, but they didn't know if it would stay away.

Sue didn't care about Everest. She just didn't want Phil to die.

9 days after surgery, Phil was rushed back to the hospital in unbearable pain. His intestines were blocked. The doctors needed to act quickly.

When Phil woke up, he felt normal surgery pain. He could walk. Things were going to be ok.

Even with things looking up, Sue knew the Everest trip was gone. She insisted they would go next year. But she didn't believe it.

Things went wrong again a few days later. Phil was hooked to a feeding tube for the next two months. Aside from Everest, things were going well for Sue.

She was now a director at US West leading the top sales team. At home, Phil was paying for 20 years of relatively good life with Crohn's all at once.

Six weeks after the second surgery, Phil asked his doctor if he could go to the gym. The training gave him strength. His condition began to improve.

It kept improving. In 2001, just one year after they originally planned, Phil and Sue headed for Everest.

In May, they were camped out at the South Col on Everest. The next day was summit day. The mood was tense. A team had gone up to the summit that morning. They returned one man down.

Phil and Sue set out for the summit, but things weren't going well. The weather was terrible. Two members of their team headed back. Phil was making silly mistakes.

On Everest, silly mistakes cost you your life.

As they climbed, visibility got worse and worse. Phil said it was like "looking at the world through wax paper." The rest of the team didn't struggle.

They reached the Balcony, a landmark about 1,500 below the summit. An experienced mountaineer, Phil knew what he had to do. He told Sue they could go no further.

On their descent, Phil asked Sue to check his eyes. He couldn't see anything. Phil had made a simple mistake on Everest.

It had been 15 years since Phil climbed with oxygen. He forgot to clear the exhale hole on his breathing apparatus. It iced over. His breath had nowhere to go but up through the top of his mask.

When warm breath met subzero temperature air, it froze instantly. Then wind blew the icy air into Phil's eyes. Over time, they froze. Phil was going blind.

Overnight, Phil's eyes improved. They weren't normal, but he could see clear enough to get back down without dying.

Back home, Sue worked long days, all the while living the trip over and over in her mind. Coming back home wasn't easy after three months on top of the world.

Phil returned from Ecuador then jetted off to Russia with more clients. On his way back, he called Sue from the Amsterdam airport. He told Sue, "You know, you better order that Suunto."

On their Everest trip, Phil told Sue she would need a Suunto altimeter watch if they ever went back to Everest. He too had been reliving the trip while climbing in Russia. He realized that no matter what, he and Sue were spending the Spring of 2002 on Everest.

Gunning for Everest...with a vengeance

There's a restaurant in Kathmandu called The Rum Doodle. It's named for the 1956 novel. After you summit Everest, they'll give you a free meal. And you sign the wall.

The names on the wall are legendary. Edmund Hilary, the first man to climb Everest. Tenzing Norgay, Hilary's sherpa. Jim Whittaker, the first American up the summit.

This time around, Sue had something to prove. She trained voraciously. She read every book she could find about endurance training and physiology.

She had blood tests done and took supplements. Her motto was "train like an Olympian."

Sue was crushing work even more now. She was a vice president and her team was responsible for hundreds of millions in revenue.

But Everest called. And Sue still longed to make a career of her own. She turned in her resignation, effective January 1, 2002.

For the next two months, Sue trained even harder. The summit was in her mind. She would not fail.

When they arrived in Kathmandu, Phil asked Sue where she wanted to go to dinner. There was only one choice, The Rum Doodle. In three months, Sue knew she would be back with a marker. Her name was going on that wall.

One month after arriving, Phil and Sue started through the Khumbu Icefall. Described as "a gamble for any human", the Icefall is an ever-shifting mess of crevasses. In 2014, an avalanche there killed 16 sherpas.

Walking through the Icefall is a wild experience. It's constantly moving. You hear creaks, groans, and crashes all around you.

Phil and Sue conquered the Icefall, though not without incident. They came to the Western Cwm (pronounced: koom).

The Cwm is a bowl 20,000 feet high. With snow-covered walls on three sides, the sun cooks the inside like an ant under a magnifying glass. Temperatures can reach over 100º F during the day. Overnight, they're back down to zero.

At one of their camps, a stranger walked in. His partner fell. Phil and three others set out. They lowered the stranger down to his partner. He grabbed the man's backpack for his family.

Over 300 people have died climbing Everest. Most bodies remain on the mountain because it's too difficult to get them down. About 1000 feet from the summit, a body known as green boots lies face down in the snow.

Sue and Phil went back down to base camp to acclimatize. Now they had to wait for their chance to summit. After eight days at base camp, the forecast cleared. It was time to go.

When they reached high camp, the weather was perfect. Too perfect, according to Phil. Loads of other teams were waiting to summit.

Sue's training and Phil actually having eyesight did wonders. Sue was wondering when the trek would start to feel impossible when they reached The Balcony.

27,500 feet. Less than 2,000 to go.

But there was a backup. Sherpas had not yet installed fixed ropes all the way up. 25 climbers were ahead of Phil and Sue. Nobody was moving.

After an hour in line, word travelled down. A sherpa and an Argentinian guide were setting fixed ropes to the top. Phil and Sue were going.

Phil and his sherpa fell behind. Sue and hers sped ahead. After the Hilary step, Sue stopped. She would not go any further without Phil.

The Hilary step was a 40-foot rock face 200 feet below Everest's summit. It was the last true challenge before the summit. It was destroyed, likely in 2015, by a massive earthquake.

Phil caught up. The couple continued on. Before long, Sue heard prayer flags in the wind.

They had done it. They were the first couple to climb all seven summits.

It took 2 months to rise to the summit but only two days to get back to base camp. Friends in Seattle had already heard about the summit via sat phone. They informed the press.

Their first night in Kathmandu, Phil and Sue headed for the Rum Doodle. They had to sign the wall. Though he had already signed, Phil signed again next to Sue.

A new dream

Back in the US, Phil and Sue had a month to readjust. Then Phil was off to guide another trip to Denali. They did lots of interviews. But the time passed.

Phil left. And Sue, for the first time in over 20 years, had no job. No purpose.

While puttering around the house, Sue received a call from a former boss. He wanted her to be vice president of western territory sales at his company.

Sue flew to San Francisco to interview. She turned down the job. There was a dream to pursue.

Sue began to work on building a speaking business. Soon, she had three paying gigs! She was over the moon.

Another former boss called and asked her to head up a new sales division at Kinko's. Sue declined. Speaking was her new dream.

Then Phil her he had prostate cancer.

Sue called her old boss at Kinko's and accepted the job on one condition: she wouldn't pursue speaking, but she wouldn't say no to opportunities. Her boss agreed.

Phil scheduled surgery. The doctor removed the cancer, and it hadn't spread. Phil: 2 Cancer: 0.

Final Thoughts

Sue fulfilled her dreams of public speaking. She now speaks all over the world. Her clients include Boeing, Microsoft, Fidelity, Verizon, and many more.

In 2007, Sue and Phil published a book about their epic journey to reach the seven summits. This is just a teaser compared to their writing. They are both funnier than I will ever be.

The book is incredible. It includes much more detail than this post. If you liked this, you'll love the book. I left out the good stuff on purpose.

Get it here.

Originally posted on www.thedailythread.co authored by Ryan Sneddon.

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