Physician Assistant Student Climbs the Seven Summits

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Climbing the seven summits — the tallest peaks on each continent — is a bucket list item for many people. From the 7,310-foot-high climb of Mount Kosciuszko in Australia to the 29,035-foot peak of Asia’s Mount Everest, Vanessa Blasic, a physician assistant student, trekked them all.

At first, Blasic did not set out to climb the seven summits. Instead, she was striving for a different goal: to join her brothers during their own mountain missions.

“My brothers were in the Boy Scouts of America and would take amazing adventures to Joshua Tree, New Mexico, Hawaii,” Blasic said. “I started to become jealous, wondering why I was not allowed to go. My father, being on the chair of the Boy Scouts, allowed me to take my first trip to Mount Whitney with them at the age of 13.”

Two years later, Blasic’s father Greg, her brother, James, and 15-year-old Blasic climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. “After that, it snowballed with people asking what our next climb would be. So we started checking them off one by one,” she said.

In the span of 12 years, Blasic and her father completed their goal of climbing all seven — a feat first accomplished in 1986.

Prepping and Training
A San Diego native, Blasic’s weekends leading up to her seven-summit adventures were spent hiking the local trails in San Diego or heading to San Bernadino to scale the taller peaks.

“Once we started to set out on the seven summits, I would train in the gym,” she explained. Circuit training and cardiovascular exercise were essential to Blasic’s workout preparation for the mountains. RMI Expeditions recommends a vigorous, 6-days-a-week workout for people planning to climb any mountain. Endurance, cardiovascular fitness and motor skills are needed to climb. When on a mountain trail, explorers may be moving anywhere from 5 to 16 hours each day for days on end, so it’s important to build up climbing stamina.

One obstacle Blasic trained for was ice trails. “We took a course on Mount Baker to learn basic skills for glacier travel,” Blasic explained. All seven summits, regardless of location, are susceptible to snow or chilling winds.

Every climb requires physical fitness, and all trips need to be planned. From time off school and work to acquiring and packing the long list of climbing equipment, Blasic and her family worked out the details of their trips months in advance. The Blasics used Alpine Ascents International or Mountain Trip Inc. to assist them in their trips. Mount Kosciuszko in Australia was their only self-guided climb.

“Each trip takes months of planning, from the training to the gear lists, the traveling, the insurance, the time off work or school,” said Blasic. “Luckily, most of the mountain [trips]were during winter or summer break.”

Finding a Balance
Blasic is currently studying to become a physician assistant at the University of Southern California (USC) and is scheduled to graduate in May 2017.

“I was always interested in pursuing a medical career,” she said. After earning her bachelor of science in biology, Blasic began working as an EMT in San Diego. “I loved the job, and I met some amazing PAs doing it and decided [the PA profession]provided the right fit for me,” she explained.

Her medical knowledge was useful during her climbs. “Fortunately,” she said, “I did not need my PA knowledge too often. Sometimes with minor medical issues such as stomach issues or acute mountain sickness.” Blasic was relieved that emergency medical assistance was never needed.

During the planning phase, Blasic would work around her school schedule, as well as her clinical rotations, attending classes during the day, hitting the gym in the afternoon and studying at night. “Only a few times did I have to ask to take a final exam early,” she said. “For Mount Everest, I was able to take a leave of absence from USC.”

The Mount Everest trek took Blasic and her father 7 weeks to complete. It was also the last summit on their list; they completed their goal on May 21, 2016. At 29,035 feet above sea level, Everest is the tallest of the summits. Climbing this mountain requires an extensive amount of preparation, including weeks spent acclimating to the drastic change in elevation.

Mount Everest-the Seventh Summit
Blasic explained that the final summit on her list had some of the most difficult challenges to overcome. “[Everest was] extremely demanding at some parts, with technical skills being used with pitches of 50 to 80 degrees from Camp 3 and on,” she said.

During a Mount Everest expedition, hikers spend a great deal of time acclimating to the thinner air and elevation. Five camps are set up at various elevation points, where climbers can adjust and monitor their levels of acclimation. The pitches Blasic mentioned are steep sections of the climbing route where a rope between two belays is required. This means that the climbers are anchored to the rocks or a ledge on the mountain. Climbers use the ropes to pull themselves up.

“I constantly had to remind myself that I could do it,” Blasic said about her trek up Everest.

In addition to the physical demands of the climb, the time being on the mountain and away from friends and family took its toll on Blasic, but letters written from home kept her spirits up. “One card from my classmates read ‘you can do it,’ and so I wrote in Sharpie on pink duct tape on my wrist ‘I can do it!’ Every time I looked down, I was reminded of how proud I was of myself and everyone was of me,” she added.

Despite the challenges she may have faced, Blasic made it to the top. “Mount Everest was the most rewarding [of the summit climbs], because it was the last of our seven summits, and it completed a 12-year goal of mine.”

Blasic found the other climbs to be rewarding, too. “Mount Vinson in Antarctica was breathtaking,” she noted, saying it was surreal to be completely isolated from society.

Trekking to New Territories
Because she took a leave of absence from USC, after graduation Blasic will make up the rotations she missed. Blasic wants to continue her healthcare career in pediatrics, the emergency department or mountain rescue.

As for her climbing, “I would like to pursue Amadablam in the Himalayas,” she said. With graduation on the way, she is still eager to climb, finding that the lessons she learned on the seven summits still apply to her daily life.

“Whenever you feel overwhelmed, make a conscious effort to breathe and take a moment to allow clarity and focus to come back into view,” Blasic said. “This life was made to make experiences, to see, do and be, and it’s our job to make what we want of it.”

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Autumn Heisler
Autumn Heisler

Autumn Heisler is a former staff writer for ADVANCE for Nursing.

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