by Charles Upchurch
photographs courtesy of Chip Popoviciu
It’s called the Death Zone. The last thousand meters from Camp Four to the summit of Mount Everest is an oxygen-fueled ridgeline traverse at 28,000 feet over ice, rock and snow – a razor’s edge where earth comes nearest to heaven itself.
To the left, Nepal falls away, 8,000 feet down a frozen slope into the distant clouds. To the right, a 10,000-foot plunge into Tibet. On May 22, 2008, on this most dangerous leg of his two-month quest to reach the top of the world, Raleigh technology entrepreneur Ciprian “Chip” Popoviciu told Walter how he and his climbing partner, Vance Cook, pushed steadily upward through wind and darkness, planting one spiked boot carefully in front of the other under. A full moon cast the Himalayan peaks beneath them in ghostly blue.
Back in Raleigh, students at Martin Gifted and Talented Magnet Middle School were anxious. They knew the conditions. They knew the risks. They knew the route and the plan. They knew that like any smart climbers attempting this mountain, Popoviciu and Cook had to make for the summit at night, reach the top at dawn, and get out before the Death Zone made good on its name. Before it did to them what it has done to more than 200 climbers, including some of the most experienced mountaineers in the world.
Since March, these kids had studied Everest, and followed Popoviciu and Cook through live blog posts, videos, and satellite phone calls. Equipped with a solar-powered mini-laptop, video camera, and an uplink to a secure web portal, the climbers had welcomed Martin’s students along for the ride. Teachers at the school – which prides itself on providing “diverse learning experiences” – had developed course work in geography, math, science and language connected to the expedition; Popoviciu even set up a wireless sensor network allowing the students to monitor his heart rate and the environmental conditions on Everest.
It was a “once in a lifetime” experience for the students, says Diann Kearney, principal of the school. But it was also the kind of thing Martin prides itself on fostering – unique educational opportunities that draw on the school’s 100-plus elective offerings, plus its network of parents, teachers, and supporters in the community. “Because of the variety of the courses we offer, and the range of experts we have, when something like this comes along, there’s inevitably someone at Martin who is the go-to person,” Kearney says, “and we have a wealth of folks in reserve to draw on.”
The plan to involve Martin students in the Everest adventure was the brainchild of Gigi Karmous-Edwards, then a Martin parent and scientist at the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, and Cisco Systems PR executive Kirsten Weeks. Popoviciu, then 39 and a senior technical leader at Cisco, worked with colleague Tim Woods to configure the equipment to make it possible.
Before his departure, the students gave him a specially designed flag to unfurl at the summit. “Having the students involved made the trip so much bigger,” said Popoviciu. “I felt like I was carrying 1,000 kids up the mountain with me.”
But Everest has a will of its own. As often happens, the physical challenges exacted a price, and the prospect of a summit bid grew doubtful. “In the end,” said Popoviciu, “it was the kids who carried me.”
If you ran into Popoviciu at Third Place, or any of his favorite haunts in Five Points near the home he shares with his wife, Nicole, you might not peg him for an alpine explorer. But he is born to it. He grew up in Transylvania, the western region of Romania. The Carpathian Mountains were his home, playground and spiritual refuge. By the time he was in college, he was an expert mountaineer.
In 1993, Popoviciu came to the United States, earning a doctorate in physics at the University of Miami. He then came to Research Triangle Park to work for Cisco, where over 13 years he became a leading next-generation internet protocol engineer. As a balance to an intensely technical work life, Popoviciu embarked on climbing trips to some of the tallest peaks in the Western hemisphere. It was on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina where he became friends with Vance Cook, a Utah entrepreneur and fellow adventurer who convinced Popoviciu that it was time to go big.
Popoviciu and Cook landed in Kathmandu on March 25, 2008. They made the 10-day trek across Nepal’s Khumbu Valley to the base camp on the south side of Everest.
Back at Martin, the students were busy learning about where Popoviciu was, and the feat he was about to attempt. They learned about the puja, the traditional Sherpa ceremony asking the mountain spirit for safe passage. They got to know the sherpa Jamling, who would accompany Popoviciu and Cook, and the challenges he faced in Nepal providing an education for his own children. They learned about the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall, a massive, tectonic mash-up at the head of the Khumbu Glacier, where breakaway ledges the size of buildings crash in the distance, and crevasses open to unfathomable depths.
Meantime, the climbers spent six weeks acclimating to the dry, oxygen-thin air with excursions to camps at higher and higher altitudes, each time returning to base camp to recuperate.
Then, finally, came the summit window. For a few days in May, the jet stream winds that shear the crest of Everest are held at bay by monsoons approaching from the south, making it safe enough to follow Sir Edmund Hillary’s route to the top without getting swept into the void. Yet even after coming so far, Popoconviciu feared he wouldn’t be able to continue. A rib injury suffered during a climb had grown worse, causing stabbing pain with every breath. A summit bid, requiring labored breathing on oxygen in one of the most unforgiving environments on earth, now seemed a dream too far. But a message from home, arriving on his birthday, changed that. It was from Martin Middle School. “Happy Birthday, Chip!” it read. “We’re with you!”
His pain and doubt were lifted by young spirits half a world away as he checked his oxygen supplies and geared up for the final push. They paused briefly at the Balcony – a ledge hung in the ether at 26,000 feet – before negotiating the South Summit and scaling the famed Hillary Step, leaving only the final ridgeline ascent to the highest terrestrial point on the planet.
They pressed onward, slowly, up the snowbound ridge, ever closer to the ultimate 29,035 feet. As they reached the crown of Everest, the first light of dawn turned the snowcapped ranges rose-pink. An embrace with Jamling, then with Cook, and then the magnificence of silence standing on the top of the Earth.
Popoviciu’s first thought was of his wife Nicole and her sacrifice, allowing him to spend two months away from home. He was overwhelmed with appreciation for life, his home and family, and the soaring beauty of the planet. Then, as Jamling aimed the camera, Popoviciu pulled the flag from his pack and unfurled its message: “Martin Middle School – Dream it, Achieve it!”
At Martin, Popoviciu returned to a raucous reception. He gave a presentation to the student body and thanked them for their support and strength. In turn, the students presented him with a check. They had sold bracelets as a fundraiser, collecting $1,500 in Popoviciu’s name to help fund technology education for the school children of Nepal.
Popoviciu is now founder and CEO of Nephos6, a next-generation internet protocol and cloud technology firm. He consults internationally and plans to return to Nepal in his ongoing quest to climb some more of the 14 tallest mountains on Earth – the “8,000ers” – all above 8,000 meters. In the meantime, look for him at Third Place, one of his favorite places in the world.