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'Bookworm' turns mountain conqueror

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
Lei Wang skied on the North Pole and the South Pole and climbed the seven summits on every continent.
Lei Wang skied on the North Pole and the South Pole and climbed the seven summits on every continent.
  • Lei reached the top of Everest on May 24
  • She says she worried about weather conditions, frostbite, the descent
  • Lei, 39, is graduate of Tsinghua, University of North Carolina

Beijing, China (CNN) -- When one meets a woman who says she had just climbed Mt. Everest, you get curious.

And when she tells you she is the first Chinese woman -- and the 10th person in the world -- to have climbed the seven summits on every continent and skied on both the North and South Poles -- you listen to get her full story.

I could not have guessed Lei Wang is already an accomplished mountaineer-adventurer at age 39. She is petite (5'2" or 1.56 meters tall), sturdily built but hardly athletic-looking. Soft-spoken, she is seemingly bashful.

While growing up in Beijing, she spent her youth buried in books and excelling in schoolwork. She got into Tsinghua University for her undergraduate degree and then earned her master's in computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Soon she was on track for a promising career in information technology, first working with Morgan Stanley in New York and later with start-ups in Seattle during the IT boom. Her mother aptly nicknamed her "shu daizi" (bookworm)."

She was still buried in books in 2001, pursuing an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, until she joined a mountain climbing trip to Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador as part of a "group-building" exercise. That piqued her interest in mountaineering. "I thought I'd just go and do it and have fun, then I'd go back to my studies and my career," she recalls.

On weekdays she worked out in the gym. On weekends she went hiking and rock-climbing. She devoured books about mountains and the adventurers who conquered them. She read Jon Krakauer's novel "Into Thin Air," which she says is considered the "bible" of mountain climbers. She found inspiration watching documentaries like "Touching the Void" and "Women of K2." In 2004, she set her new goals: to reach the world's seven summits and two poles.

I sat down with Lei Wang to learn more about how -- and why -- she changed from a geeky number-cruncher to a passionate mountain-climber.

I want (people) to see that anything is possible to pursue one's dream, one's adventure.
--Lei Wang
  • China
  • Mount Everest

FlorCruz: What got you interested in climbing Mt. Everest?

Lei: In 2004, I did some research in the library and figured that Everest is a mountain that ordinary people can climb, with some training. Soon, I decided I wanted to climb the (other) summits as the learning paths to scaling Everest. After a couple of years, I realized I had spent all my time, my mind, everything on mountains. It kind of became my passion.

Q: What does climbing Mt. Everest mean to you?

A: Reaching Mt. Everest has been my dream for the past six years. I was not sure I was going to do it. I knew I would make the effort, step by step, but I was not sure if I could really make it. It's like running a marathon in the dark. Even though you cannot see how you will get there, you know if you keep on going you will finally get there. It was surreal when I finished it.

Q: What did other people think of you, being so obsessed with mountains?

A: My family definitely thought something was wrong with me. I was supposed to keep a normal job in a bank or in IT and have a normal life. "What are you doing with mountains, what are you doing with your money and vacation?" they asked me. But I've always made my own decisions, and I didn't really care. I'm happy this way.

Q: Who are your role models?

A: Among others, I admire Ed Webster and his philosophy on climbing -- that you should respect the mountains, you should not lose at all costs to climb the mountains because the mountains would always be there. He said if you're not ready, you should come back when you're ready. You should not fight or try to conquer the mountains.

Q: When did you actually reach your final goal?

A. I reached the top of Mt. Everest on May 24 this year. I went with an expedition team organized by a company that specializes in guiding in that area.

Q: What was easier -- to climb up or go down?

A: It's much easier to go up. You may be strong enough to go up, but to come down is more dangerous, so you have to use good judgment. If you decide to take one step up, you must be able to say you can go down this step too. Most accidents happen on the way down. That is how most people die.

Q: Was there a point when you thought you were going to die?

A: Not really, but I did worry if I would come back. I worried about the weather conditions; I worried about frostbite, if my eyeballs were going to freeze.

Q: What's the harder challenge -- physical or mental?

A: I think it's mainly mental. In this expedition, about 60 percent of us made it to the summit. Those who quit were not physically weak. It's how you make a decision, how you can hold on in a difficult situation. People go down if they are sick or injured, but I think mental strength is a major factor. It's being positive and determined. No matter what happens, you have to think about how you'll solve the problem. You have to be able to tolerate a lot of pain. That is part of mental strength.

Q: How did it feel when you reached the summit at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet)?

A: It's funny. I never found it exceptionally exciting being at the top of the mountains. You are partially relieved, but you are more concerned about getting down safely. There is no sense of relaxation or celebration. As soon as you've taken pictures, you rest, drink and eat, so you'll have the strength to go down and get back alive.

Q: Is mountaineering a popular sport in China?

A: We knew little about it when I was growing up, but now it's becoming popular. There are mountaineering clubs in most big universities and cities, but it's a new thing and people are still learning. It's a very expensive sport. But it's a misunderstanding to think it's a rich person's sport. It's not. There are ways to get started and to overcome the costs and hurdles.

Q: Moving forward, what is your next challenge?

A: I realized I've changed spiritually. Mentally I'm stronger, more positive. I want to pass on this learning to other people. I want them to see that anything is possible to pursue one's dream, one's adventure. I don't just mean climbing a mountain. It's doing anything you want to do, even when people tell you that you can't. I want to bring that kind of influence to people.

Miriam Troostwijk contributed to this report.