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Barbara Bitting Gurtler ’55 climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 1986, fondly referring to it as her first “big” mountain.

Wrapped up in an “amazing world of stone, water, trees, fresh air, and indescribable beauty,” Barbara Bitting Gurtler ’55 has climbed mountains on all seven continents, reached the highest point on six, and made two valiant attempts to scale Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. What’s left for her life’s work? Having already defeated the highest points in all 50 states, the grandmother of two also will have climbed 100 summits in Colorado once she ascends four final peaks. 

Not bad work for a farm girl from central Illinois who had no running water or electricity in her home until she was 7. After graduating from Bradley with a degree in home economics, her life began to take on new meaning when she married Homer Gurtler, a Caterpillar Inc. employee, and they honeymooned in Colorado.

“It was the biggest mistake Homer ever made,” Gurtler said with a laugh. “I had never seen mountains before, and the bug bit me. One of the reasons I was so impressed was my dad was born out West, and I grew up hearing his stories. Finally, I was seeing his mountains.” 

Ultimately, seeing the mountains was not enough for Gurtler. After the births of their daughter and son in the 1950s, she took an “innocent hiking vacation” to the Colorado Rockies in 1966 and never looked back — or down — again. She said she never had a bucket list; it just happened.

Photo courtesy Barbara Bitting Gurtler ’55.

Her first “big” mountain expedition was Africa’s highest summit, Mount Kilimanjaro, a 1980s climb she described as “most interesting.” Emphasizing that she had never been so cold in her life while staying at a stone hut base camp located roughly 15,000 feet above sea level, it was not an easy trek. She and another climber each had a personal guide as they started before sunrise for the top.

When Gurtler experienced some altitude sickness, which she said she rarely has confronted, her guide’s repetitive motto was, “Slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly.” She grew extremely hot and was sweating profusely, but once she rested, she told her guide — much to his chagrin — “Buddy, we’re going to the top, and so we did.” 

It took about three hours to reach the 19,341-foot summit from the high camp and about 20 minutes to descend the same distance. Gurtler counts the climb as one of her “greatest achievements at that point in my life.” 

In addition to her African adventure, Gurtler’s life-altering joy was climbing in Nepal. The first time she attempted to climb Mount Everest in 1994, the process required three months away from home, mostly acclimatizing and climbing in the South Asian country. “You have to plan and anticipate; that’s all part of the experience,” Gurtler cautioned. “If you do a good job planning, the climb goes fairly well, but the weather can upset everything, which is what happened on Everest both times. Once it was a massive snowstorm and once a dangerous windstorm.”

What kept Gurtler focused and relatively fearless through the decades was her decision to “go for the Seven Summits. It’s kind of an exclusive club,” she added. “I was fearful once on my second Everest trip when the weather kicked up, and we had white-out conditions and howling winds. My partner was way ahead of me, so I was by myself when the storm came. It was pretty scary as I wasn’t actually sure where I was going.” She obviously survived — and came within 2,500 feet of reaching the highest point on the planet.

Barb Gurtler’s Climbing Journal

Mountain

Country

Elevation

Year Reached

Kala Patthar

Nepal

18,200'

1978

Kilimanjaro

Tanzania

19,341'

1986

McKinley

United States

20,320'

1989

Aconcagua

Argentina/Chile

23,834'

1990

Elbrus

Russia

18,481'

1992

Vinson

Antarctica

16,067'

1993

Everest

Tibet

25,600'

1994

Chimborazo

Ecuador

20,703'

2000

Orizaba

Mexico

18,405'

2001

Logan

Canada

18,200'

2001

Blanc

France

15,772'

2002

Jungfrau

Switzerland

13,642'

2002

Fuji

Japan

12,388'

2003

Carstensz Pyramid

Indonesia

16,024'

2005

When her three months in Nepal ended, she came home physically but not mentally for about a year. “After all, Nepal has eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains in its borders,” she explained. “Picture this: We are looking out at some of the most beautiful and tallest mountains in the entire world, covered in snow, covered in glaciers, surrounded by self-sufficient farmers who live in homes with dirt floors, wood fires, no sanitation, and no running water except for streams. It was nice to see people doing well without much. Nepal’s natural beauty has an addictive charm.”

In 2005, Gurtler climbed 16,024 feet to summit her final “big” mountain, Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid, “the crown prince of them all.” With a guide from New Zealand and Russian helicopters delivering them to base camp, she recalled it as her “most exciting and amazing adventure.”

Although she is grateful to be actively pursuing her life’s work for so many decades, the final four peaks of Colorado’s Centennial Thirteeners may present a challenge due to an issue with her knees.  Nevertheless, if pure will and determination prevail, Gurtler will once again reach the pinnacle with her philosophy intact: “Each summit is unique; the view from the top is glorious.”

— Karen Crowley Metzinger, MA ’97