Part-time Aspenite completes the Seven Summits
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – It started with a photo album. Ephraim Gildor admitted he was taken aback when he first laid eyes on the photographs while rummaging through his mother’s belongings shortly after she succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
While Lily Gildor routinely was taciturn when discussing her formative years in war-torn Europe, her eldest son had managed to uncover some details. He knew about how his mother, a Jew, sought refuge from the Gestapo in a Belgian convent. He knew about how she kept newspaper death notices of friends she lost in World War II and about how she and his father relocated to Israel to pursue a better, safer life.
Ephraim Gildor never knew about his mother’s favorite escape, however. At least not until he came across those compelling snapshots, among them a 1955 black-and-white image of her negotiating a vertical rock wall high above Freyr, Belgium.
He still often glances at it.
“That picture is serious, not like what I’d do,” the part-time Aspen resident said Tuesday afternoon. “She climbed vertical walls, technical climbs all over Europe after the war. Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, (Zumsteinspitze): it’s amazing.”
He’s not sure why she didn’t tell him, he said.
“Once they went through all those things, I’m sure they were confused for the rest of their lives,” he added. “Then I was in the air force in Israel, which was already dangerous, so I don’t think they wanted to add some ideas to my head.”
A plan was hatched that day in 1984 in his mother’s house. It finally came to fruition in 2009, when Gildor successfully summited Denali, and culminated with a trip to the top of Kilimanjaro a few weeks ago.
There, Gildor became the first Israeli to scale the Seven Summits – the highest mountains on all seven continents.
“It looks like an up-and-coming, midlife-crisis thing,” Gildor said with a chuckle. “I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it. I don’t want to compare myself to all the other people in town who could do this in the afternoon. For me it’s an accomplishment. It was good for my self-esteem.
“It was my way of reconnecting with her.”
The endeavor was out of Gildor’s comfort zone, sure, but not exactly out of character.
“I played water polo. That was my claim to fame. … I was chubby when I moved to Aspen,” Gildor joked. He had never climbed in his life. He did not even see snow until age 21 while on vacation in Val d’Isere, France.
Still, Gildor was determined to give the sport a try. The idea was put on hold for more than two decades, however, as Gildor embarked on a circuitous career arc suitable for the silver screen.
He enlisted in the Israeli air force and participated in missions in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others. Later, to take care of his younger sister and brother after his parents’ deaths, Gildor went on leave to pursue a degree in mathematics and computer science at Tel Aviv University.
He parlayed success there into a scholarship to the University of Chicago. He moved to the U.S. to pursue a master of business administration degree in economics but never finished. He went to work at the Chicago Stock Exchange, counted cards professionally for a stretch, became one of the first people to help streamline computerized trading and launched a lucrative career as a business owner.
He relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2007. One year later, after turning 50 – just three years younger than his mother was when she died – Gildor said plans to climb began in earnest.
He soon approached renowned skier and guide Chris Davenport.
“I was actually doing a Kastle ski demo at the base of Aspen Highlands, and he came up and introduced himself, and we took a run together,” Davenport said Friday by phone from Alaska. “He started telling all these stories. In my mind, I was thinking he had the means to do some cool stuff, do some exotic trips.
“I was concerned (about his level of experience), but it became a fun project to help teach him the skills he needed.”
In the coming months, the duo met at Highlands to refine steep-skiing technique and mountain awareness. They ventured up Independence Pass to practice rope skills and rappelling, all with an eye toward Alaska.
In June 2009, they headed to 20,320-foot Denali with Bill Allen, owner of Ophir-based guiding outfit Mountain Trip.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Gildor admitted. “Every time is a surprise to you – the headaches, how you feel, how you do. That’s a big part of the difficulty.”
The novice acquitted himself quite well, Davenport said.
“That’s not the easiest one to start with, but he did great,” Davenport said. “He suffered through it and wouldn’t complain a lot. He didn’t require a ton of hand-holding – just a little bit – and was just enthusiastic and fun to be with.
“Once I saw how well he performed on Denali, I knew there was a lot more potential there. To be honest, I don’t think he even knew about the Seven Summits. We were talking about other mountains – Everest and Kilimanjaro and Vinson – and I started to see the gleam in his eye.”
The group spent three weeks on North America’s grandest peak.
It took Gildor less than one day to be hooked.
“Right away. It was beautiful,” Gildor recalled. “Relatively speaking, in a world of Internet and everything, I feel like you get some sense of the remoteness out there.
“All my friends from New York, I tried to explain it to them. It’s really hard. My friends here, I think they understand. My friends in Israel think I’m an idiot. … For me, I feel like I’m in the beginning of the 20th century, exploring for National Geographic.”
Buoyed by the positive experience, Gildor, Allen and others tackled 16,023-foot Carstenz Pyramid in Indonesia later that year. (Davenport was slated to take part but pulled out because of a prior engagement after helicopter trouble delayed the excursion.)
In January 2010, Gildor crossed 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina off the list.
“We just had a terrific two-week trip,” Gildor said. “Some days it was snowing, some days there was a huge amount of winds and we had to wait, but it was beautiful.
“I’ve been to Argentina six times since then. I fell in love with the people.”
After a successful, but largely forgettable, trip to 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus in Russia in the summer of 2010 – “High camp was like sleeping in a garbage area. There were mice running in the ceiling all the time. It was disgusting,” he said – Gildor set his sights on Antarctica and the 16,050-foot Vinson Massif.
Allen and renowned Aspen mountaineer Neal Beidleman joined him for the two-week December voyage they completed without incident – and in spite of some bitter conditions.
“You land on the ice, on the 10,000- to 15,000-foot ice runway, step out of the airplane, and it’s so cold it’s like a shock,” Gildor said. “I think it was minus 30. Was it minus 40 sometime? I’m from Israel, so I think it was minus 50. Neal probably thinks it wasn’t. It was miserable.
“It was like being on the moon. There was nothing there – not a flower, not a bird, nothing. It was quite an adventure.”
So, too, was the next peak on Gildor’s slate: Everest. The world’s tallest mountain arguably provided the stiffest physical test of the seven.
The mental strain might have been more daunting, however, both for Gildor and Beidleman.
While Gildor was confronting some upheavals in his personal life in the days before the May 2011 jaunt, the details of which he declined to divulge, Beidleman initially was hesitant to return to Everest. In 1996, five members of his climbing group and others were killed there, incidents that John Krakauer chronicled in his best-selling book “Into Thin Air.”
“Personally, I have been a climber since I was a young kid and always enjoy any opportunity to get out, especially with good friends,” Beidleman wrote in an email to The Aspen Times. “And with our Everest trip, it was a unique opportunity for me to have a different experience than the last time I was there. I was very happy to be able to share that with Ephi, Chris and Bill.
“Ephi had several difficult outside challenges to deal with other than just climbing while we were on Everest. I think most people would not have lasted or endured the extended time away, but he was fully committed and kept his head down and focused on the things he needed to do. I was really impressed and proud of him for following through. It shows me how he was able to accomplish so much else in his life.”
“There were a lot of emotional ups and downs,” Davenport said. “On a big, dangerous mountain like that, you really need to be sharp mentally and physically. The easiest thing to do would’ve been to pull the plug. I have a lot of respect for him.”
While the idea did cross his mind, Gildor said he never really considered walking away. After all, he had come so far. And he had a talented, empathetic circle of climbing partners spurring him onward and upward.
“If it wouldn’t be for them, I wouldn’t have done this,” Gildor said. “Bill and Neal have personalities more of guides, kind of helping and things like that, and Chris has amazing charisma and drive. He’s very motivating. Together, it was the best of both worlds. They bring good luck. I think you make your own luck, and they did with making good decisions. I was in very good hands.
“With Bill on Everest, we spent 50 days in a tent. It’s a long time to spend with somebody – I’m amazed he doesn’t hate me. I mean, I had a hole in my pee bottle and had to share. When you have to wake him up at 1 a.m. to ask to use his bottle and have to put it back in his sleeping bag or it freezes, and he says, ‘Of course, here,’ that’s a high level of friendship. … That’s a good test for any relationship.”
They soon shared a much more poignant experience: After having to turn around once because of inclement weather, the group finally reached the Everest summit May 20 via the South Col and the famed Hillary Step.
They spent about 40 minutes soaking in the views, the sunlight and the weight of the moment. As he had five previous times, Gildor pulled out an Israeli flag and proudly planted it in the snow.
Then, he buried a small picture of his mother.
“It was really emotional for me,” Gildor said. “I felt very close to my mom. I believe in reincarnation, so I felt close to her on every mountain, but on Everest I definitely feel like I could touch my mother’s soul.
“She made it to the top of the world. The top of all of them.”
Gildor had a picture and a flag – and a container holding the ashes of his recently deceased dog – stashed in his equipment and had his son Omri, Davenport, Allen and three Tanzanian guides by his side when he reached the top of Kilimanjaro on March 17.
The group had the summit all to itself.
“Getting to the top was good, then very sad. There was this sense of emptiness because the project was over,” Gildor said. “There was also this sense of accomplishment in a way. I really had an amazing time.
“I didn’t have too many expectations, and when you don’t you always surprise yourself. … This changed my life.”
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