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Cunningham reaches top of Mount Everest, completes climbers' dream

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The challenge started with Richard Bass, an amateur mountaineer, who wanted to climb the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

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Bass achieved his goal reaching the summit of Mount Everest April 30, 1985.

Nic Cunningham of Hector completed the same feat 24 years later, watching the sunrise from atop Mount Everest May 21.

"I'm always a little sentimental and had a tear or two," the 26-year-old mountaineering guide said.

Mount Everest, part of the Himalayan Mountain range, straddles Nepal and Tibet in Asia. To climb it takes months of preparation, weeks of travel and more weeks of climbing.

Cunningham started his journey March 30, flying from Minneapolis. He didn't start any hiking until April 8, beginning the trek to Mount Everest base camp with a group of 13 others, including guides or 'sherpas' from Asian Trekking.

The real climbing didn't start until April 24, when he started his "rotation", which means he climbed from Base Camp to Camp I to Camp II and then back in three days. Doing a rotation helps climbers get acclimatized to the higher elevations safely.

About a week later, during his second rotation Cunningham and his group ran into some trouble. They had finished a night at Camp III -- almost 26,000 feet above sea level -- stayed another night at Camp II and were heading down to base camp when nature gave them a scare.

"I was coming down from Camp II and was hit by a small avalanche," he said. "My Sherpa said, 'Run!' but it was a small one and we watched it go by.

An hour later back at Base Camp, a real avalanche hit. Though Cunningham was safe, parts of his expedition group weren't back yet.

"I was at base camp and the rest of our group was coming down and it hits and goes through half of our group," he recalled. "Half of the Austrian group was pushed into a crevasse. Another person was pushed by a huge blast of wind into the avalanche."

The two Austrians were rescued and recovered from injuries. The other missing person, a Sherpa, was never found.

"For about six hours, Sherpas were searching for one person. They never found the body," Cunningham said. "I had breakfast with the guy that morning. That was a low point in the trip. I had considered leaving the trip because there were 10 to 15 people who were leaving. When you go to climb Everest, you know there's this potential for death. But it's not until you experience something like people dying, that it changes your mentality.

"There's always the uncertainty when you are climbing. Are we going to make it, am I going to get sick? One of the things about Everest is keeping a positive attitude."

The expedition returned to Camp III a few days later and set off for the summit on May 20.

Camp IV was the last stop before the summit, and another step toward his goal.

"During the climb to Camp IV, I was positive, but I was thinking of all the ways where we could get hurt and die. I'm thinking all of the stupid things while I'm climbing," he said.

But after getting to the final camp, and a little rest, Cunningham packed his gear for the last ascent, which included a very ominous piece of cliff face.

"Hillary Step is a 55-foot vertical section that if you can get over it, you'll make it to the summit," he said. "I took a video of it. I climbed over the Step and got to the top of it and was 40 minutes from the summit. The rest of the time was this beautiful, 29,000-foot view."

Emotions ran high for Cunningham during the last few minutes, saying that he pulled aside his Sherpa before reaching the summit and telling him to "take me home," meaning all the way to the top.

"You have this huge relief," he said of summitting Mount Everest. "Whenever the trip is over, you have the relief because you don't have to worry about it anymore.

"For me, I had a really fantastic trip. I was healthy and the climbing wasn't anything I couldn't handle technically. Most importantly, on summit day I had no problem with cold hands or toes, and my oxygen system was working well. Of all five days, the day I summitted was the best. No wind and a beautiful sunrise."

Seven Summits

Reaching the "Top of the World" completed a five-year journey for Cunningham, who graduated from Buffalo Lake-Hector in 2001.

Going overseas while a junior at St. John's University opened a new world of adventure. Along with about 30 other students, Cunningham went to South Africa study.

"At the end, there were a couple of them that were going to climb Kilimanjaro. I thought it would be fun," he said. "We got seven people from the group and went to Tanzania in June."

Kilimanjaro is the tallest spot on the African continent at 19,340 feet above sea level. Tanzania is in east-central Africa.

"I didn't climb before college. I started doing outdoors environmental-type sports my junior year in college," he said. "I grew up on a farm so everything I did was outside. I did just about anything outdoors. Once I got into college, I traveled a little bit more and got into some more things like mountaineering."

After college, the call for adventure proved to be too strong. Instead of taking internships with businesses and securing a nice, safe career, Cunningham packed his bags and followed his heart.

"I knew after studying abroad that there was a lot of things out there. So I decided to take a job in Alaska," he said.

His job was with Alaska Mountain Guides and Climbing School and led to his second summit, Aconcagua in Argentina, in 2005. He was actually a guide for the company in Argentina, making expeditions up to the 22,841-foot peak.

He tackled Mount McKinley, or Denali, the tallest peak in North America, and Kosciuszko, in Australia, in 2006. It was then that the idea of the Seven Summits took hold.

"I had it scheduled for the last two years," Cunningham said. "I knew I was going to Elbrus (in Russia), Vinson Massif (in Antarctica), and Everest.

Mount Elbrus was the fifth in 2007, then the frozen peak of Vinson Massif on Thanksgiving Day of last year was the sixth. Cunningham has written about these last two adventures on his web site, www.climbingseven.com.

Kosciuszko controversy

There are actually two lists of seven summits in the mountaineering world. The first is Bass' list. The second was from Reinhold Messner, who claimed that the Carstensz Pyramid (16,024 feet) in Indonesia should replace Kosciuszko (7,310 feet) as the Australian continent's highest peak.

"There's a huge argument in the seven summits world, Does Australia count as a continent? Do islands count?" Cunningham said. "Carstensz Pyramid is a one-day technical climb. With the seven summits, for me it's about all of these different places and then you get to climb these mountains."

Cunningham's not one to generate an argument either way. Though he said he plans to climb Carstensz in December or January.

"When you do both, then you don't have to argue," he said.

Back to reality?

"One of the reasons I went to Alaska was I wanted to be young and see the world. Once you have that, it's difficult to go back. I'm traveling the world. I've learned a lot more about myself," Cunningham said about his future plans. "But as far as knowing exactly what I'm going to do ... I'd like to return to school and get my master's degree in business; I'd like to go out and speak and tie in mountaineering to business."

Or he could go back to working on the family farm, which he mentioned as being a surreal experience.

"You go from being on the top of Mount Everest last month to driving a truck for the farm the next," he said.

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