Seven Summits, One Lung
Jon Reiter’s lucky life (From the 2011 Winter SONOMA magazine)
Jon Reiter in Antarctica, on top of the bottom of the world.
Kenwood contractor Jon Reiter was 19,000 feet up on Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, feeling, he says, “like a rock star,” and eager to reach the 22,841-foot summit.
“I was feeling great,” he remembers, “moving up the mountain, everything was going great, we were nine, ten days into it, and then, I got to the next camp three hours behind everyone else, almost on my knees. I couldn’t breath, I was so sick. I thought, why? What’s happening here?”
The Argentine side of Aconcagua, by far the most popular approach, is a tough hike but not a particularly challenging or technical climb, especially during December and January, the South American summer when most people try. (The youngest person to summit the mountain so far was 11, the oldest was 87.) And Reiter, who was in his mid-forties, had already summited Denali, without question the most challenging high-altitude peak in the Americas. So what was his problem?
The greatest risks on Aconcagua are severely windy weather and altitude sickness, both conditions experienced climbers prepare for. The wind can be a particular problem on summit days, because it generally increases the higher you go, sometimes reaching velocities of more than 100 miles per hour.
But the greatest risk is HAPE, a dreaded acronym that stands for high altitude pulmonary edema, a condition that causes the lungs to fill with fluid and can lead to suffocation and death. HAPE is unpredictable, has little relationship to age or fitness, and the standard precaution is gradual acclimatization.
Given the symptoms, Reiter assumed he had HAPE. But he was above 19,000 feet, night was coming on and it was too late in the day for the one course of action guaranteed to improve his condition—go back down the mountain. Some high-altitude expeditions carry an inflatable, airtight chamber called a “Gamov bag” that can hold a climber while it is inflated to a pressure much closer to sea level, thereby mimicking a descent. But Gamov bags are a rarity on Aconcagua, and Reiter’s team didn’t have one.
So in the cold and dark he began getting ready to die.
“I wrote a letter to my wife. It was rough, I was coughing pretty hard, couldn’t breath, I was filled with liquid, my lungs rattled, within a few hours I couldn’t even walk. I really thought it was over.”
But Reiter wasn’t without resources. He had some Diamox (acetazolamide), a drug used to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness, and a hypodermic full of Dexedrine. “I rammed it into my hip and filled up on Diamox and dex, and drank some tea, and I was up all night. But the next day they got me down to about 15,000 feet, and a helicopter got to me, and I was able to survive.”
But Reiter, it turned out, wasn’t suffering from HAPE. When he got to a hospital in Mendoza, Argentina, X-rays were taken and, he says, a doctor told him, “You have one lung half-full of water and nothing in the other, and you can’t get pulmonary edema in one lung. It doesn’t happen. You have to get back to the states.”
Reiter immediately flew home, where he learned he had a cancerous tumor in his right lung that was blocking the bronchial tube and acting like a flapper valve, “so the moisture was getting in but it couldn’t get out.”
The good news was that the tumor had not metastasized. The bad news was, he would lose two-thirds of his lung.
Reiter is a boyishly optimistic man, his sincerity and enthusiasm are infectious, but most people confronted with the loss of most of a lung would simply hang up their crampons and turn to something less risky than mountain climbing.
Not Reiter. He was on a mission that was linked to a pair of epiphanies he’d had sitting through two very different church services over a span of years. The first was in Texas around 1989, when he was 25, working construction, framing houses and not particularly excited about his life, when something the minister said hit him between the eyes.
“We’ve all heard the sermon, ‘Life is short, this isn’t a dress rehearsal, dream big and you can do anything you want.’ And I just thought, ‘What if?’”
So he and his wife, Susan, had their first life-changing conversation and she asked him, “What do you really want?”
His answer: “Well, I just want to build for myself.”
It’s a long story, but that’s just what Jon and Susan did. They created a construction company, that became a large construction company, building tract homes all over Austin, sometimes 30 at a time. But when their second son, Agustin, was born, they decided to make another big change. They sold the company and moved from Austin, where Jon was born, back to Sonoma County, where he was raised. They settled in Kenwood and began building high-end, custom spec homes—only two or three a year—aimed at clients who want and can afford the best.
Jon describes three homes a year as “just plugging along, just keeping small intentionally,” but the extraordinary nature and quality of the work he does allows them periodic trips to Europe so that they can take clients on tours of the architecture they want to re-create here. One of Rei-ter’s homes, an exquisitely crafted French country farmhouse profiled in these pages last summer, was selected by the Interior Design Society as a Designer Showcase property.
On the side, Jon had served as a leader in his older son’s Boy Scout troop, and that involved lots of hikes, and the hikes got bigger and bigger, until Jon and another Scout leader decided to tackle 14,179-foot Mount Shasta.
“We said, wow, this is really neat. I love the outdoors, I love nature, that’s my religion... So I just found myself going back and back and back to the mountains, and then, I would hear about the Seven Summits, and I would hear about the world’s great mountains, the spiritual mountains, and I dreamed of them, but…” His voice trails off.
Then Jon’s youngest brother was shot and killed in a Sacramento carjacking incident, and during the funeral Jon was struck by epiphany number two.
“You know, we all get philosophical at funerals, we get to feel our own mortality, thinking about time, and it dawned on me, again, this isn’t a dress rehearsal, this is our life, and I said, what do I want to do? I have my wife, I have my sons, I have my business. What would I do if I could do anything I wanted?”
The answer was waiting, just behind the question. “I would climb the big mountains, I would see the world, I would see all the cultures, I would do it instead of just talking about it.”
Within a couple of months Jon Reiter was in Alaska, taking a 12-day mountaineering course on Denali, learning crevasse rescue, glacier travel, altitude sickness prevention, “Everything about how you climb a big mountain. It was great.”
A fellow student in that class, a Mexican named Moises Nava, was also a developer, and the two became fast friends.
“We became pals out there on that glacier, and we asked each other, ‘Why are you here?’”
Nava, it turned out, wanted to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. With typical boyish enthusiasm, and never having climbed a major mountain, Reiter said to his newfound friend, “Great, let’s do it, let’s climb them together.”
It was an uncanny coincidence that two middle-aged men, with the time, the considerable means and the innocent enthusiasm—neither an experienced climber —would meet on a Denali glacier and dedicate themselves to one of the world’s most exotic and unpredictable challenges. And yet the plan unfolded, almost instantly, to become the first American-Mexican team to do all seven summits in one year.
They started off summiting Denali and Kilimanjaro in the summer and fall of 2008. The first, at 20,324 feet, a supremely challenging mountaineering expedition in Alaska; the second, at 19,034 feet, a supremely beautiful trek in Africa. Which leads us to Aconcagua and the missing lung. When Reiter flew home for surgery that December, Nava finished the climb and no one really expected his partner to return to the summit pursuit. No one except Reiter.
Nava was on a roll, so he knocked off Mt. Vinson in Antarctica and then Everest. But nine months after the surgery, on December 7, 2009, Jon Reiter was also standing on the summit of the Vinson Massif, 16,024 feet up in the frigid Antarctic air.
“They fly you out (in a bush plane) to the base of the mountain and they set you down, and they’re like, ‘We’ll pick you up in 19 days at these GPS coordinates, you might want to be there.’ And when they leave, you’ve heard of deafening silence? It was so awesome. It looks like a desert, and it’s nothing but ice.”
By the following August, Reiter had climbed 18,510-foot Mt. Elbrus in Russia, and in October, 2011 he was off to Papua, New Guinea, for Carstensz Pyramid, a 16,024-foot rock massif that required a Tyrolean traverse with 2,000 feet of exposure. Along the way he encountered aboriginal natives decked out with lethal-looking bows and arrows and wearing long, tapered penis gourds.
To cover competing Seven Summit lists with different peaks for the highest point in Oceana, Jon and Susan also walked up Australia’s 7,310-foot Mount Kosciuszko.
Afterward, he said the missing lung really wasn’t an issue. “I felt great, and Moises (who joined him on Carstensz) said I was almost as fast as before.”
That leaves a return trip to Aconcagua, which he plans to do this winter with Moises, and then Everest in another year or two.
Records are made to be broken, but Reiter had designs on being the first person to summit Everest with a double lobectomy. Then, last year, a much younger, one-lunged climber bagged that claim.
“If I never make that summit,” Reiter says, “it will suck. But again, it’s the experience, just seeing, the culture, the Sherpas and the mountain.”
A happy smile lights Reiter’s face as he reflects, “Doesn’t it seem like we’re lucky? I have no regrets, even with the cancer and almost buying the farm on Aconcagua, I feel like it’s worth it, to live fully. As Thoreau said, simplify, simplify, but live life fully. I just feel so lucky.”
(From the 2011 Winter SONOMA magazine)