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New Canaan man among oldest to climb Everest

Updated 1:03 pm, Saturday, April 13, 2013

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  • Brad and Sherman Bull on the peak of Mt. Everest in 2001. Sherman was, at 64, the oldest man in the world to summit Everest. Photo: Contributed
    Brad and Sherman Bull on the peak of Mt. Everest in 2001. Sherman was, at 64, the oldest man in the world to summit Everest. Photo: Contributed

 

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In 2001, at 64 years old, Sherman Bull was the oldest man to look down at the world from the summit of Mount Everest.

It only took Bull five tries at charging up the frozen slopes of the mountain to finally get to the top. He attempted the climb in 1992, 1995, 1998 and 2000, reaching the summit in 2001, at age 64, along with his son, Bradford, and a remarkable group of disabled veterans.

"I think in pushing yourself to the limits, you find out what's inside of you, you find out extra reserves, and that's terribly exciting," Bull said over coffee one recent morning. Bull recently spoke about his experiences to members of Staying Put at the New Canaan Historical Society.

In his life's adventures, the man who was an institution in the operating room at Stamford Hospital for 42 years has not only climbed Everest, but also reached the highest peak on each of the seven continents, ran in seven marathons, an ultra marathon (50 miles) and century bike races (100 miles). He also recalls spending some of his summers off from Yale and before Columbia medical school working on a farm, traveling Europe and shooting photos of big game in sub-Saharan Africa for National Geographic magazine.

"Most of us have this notion that we're here for a very short time on this planet," he said of his drive for challenges.

"I think we should try to make this world a marginally better place while we're here. I've always wanted to live life to the fullest, I've always wanted to help. I think also it's nice to try to set examples of what's possible, and if you can inspire people, that's pretty exciting stuff."

The group with which he finally summited Everest was led by Eric Weihenmayer, a blind adventurer who started the organization Touch the Top, which has several programs.

One of those programs was Soldiers to Summits, which led a group of soldiers who were critically disabled in Iraq and Afghanistan, some with prosthetic limbs, all struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, to the top of the Himalayas. A documentary about the trip, "High Ground," was produced in 2012 and won several film festival awards.

Bull said reaching the summit of Everest was the culmination of a lifelong dream he'd had ever since he saw -- when he was in grade school -- Edmund Hillary do it in 1953.

"To make it even better my son, Brad, was there with me. We were the first father-son team," he said. "It was a special thrill from that perspective. All the climbers gathered on the summit together. We came through a terrible storm and we almost had to turn back. The summit day when the sun came out, to see the earth from Mt. Everest, it's an out-of-body, other-worldly experience."

The man who spent his professional career as a surgeon, trying to keep other people alive, has come close to death. He said when he first climbed Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, he saw the man in front of him slip on the ice and fall to his death.

"That sort of put a damper on the climb," he recalled.

His own near-death experience came on his third attempt to summit Everest.

"I came about as close to dying as a person possibly could. I fell 200 meters down the southeast face mountain," he said.

It was 1998 and Bull was at 17,500 feet at 2 a.m. "I never lost consciousness so I knew I was going to die. I was sort of log rolling down the face. Typically, when you do that your body gains momentum and you start bouncing and you either die when you hit or you fall off the side and you're gone. I fell into this crevasse, which saved my life, but I had so much adrenaline pumping that when I came to rest I was pretty happy I was still alive."

But getting out was no simple task: Bull had suffered two crushed vertebrae, a broken pelvis, three to four broken ribs, and bruised kidneys.

"I had to pull myself out of the crevasse with an ice axe. I felt so good, I decided I'd keep going, but that was a false adrenaline rush. The rest of my team helped me back to camp. My son came over from a neighboring mountain to help me get to base camp, where they sent a rescue helicopter."

Getting to base camp meant hiking thousands of feet down the mountain.

"You've got two choices: you can lie there and die, or you can climb down. That's about the simple sum of it all. I had help, I had ropes on me because I fell down a lot. They made me a sled. When I got back to base camp the pain was incredible everything hurt. It hurt to breathe."

Bull said he lost 2 inches of height due to the crushed vertebrae and should have at the least been paralyzed. Instead, he healed and tried the climb again two years later.

While he was devoted to climbing, he had a real life too. With all his adventuring, Bull would have to take months at a time away from Stamford Hospital. His colleagues did not seem to mind tending to his patients, and spoke of him in the warmest of terms.

"Sherman was an accomplished surgeon, a gentleman," Dr. Kevin Dwyer, interim chairman of surgery and director of the surgical residency program at Stamford Hospital, said. "He got to know his patients on a personal level too, that's why they really loved him. He was a good surgeon and a good colleague, always there to help."

Dr. Kevin Miller was hired by Bull in 1999 as a junior partner at Bull's private practice, and it was he who cared for a lot of Bull's patients when he was away. Miller believes that helped his career.

"As soon as he'd come back, though, his patients would be lining up at the door to see him," Miller recalled.

He also remembered some of Bull's unconventional aspects, like the fact that he rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work, or that as part of training, Bull would run up and down the stairs of the hospital, bewildering nurses and others who were not aware of his pursuits. ("Stairs are very important, the best form of exercise," according to Bull).

Miller also remembered some of Bull's other training methods.

"He would work out with one of our anesthesiologists. It was like Rocky when he was in Russia, lifting up rocks and pulling sleds by himself. `This guy's sadistic,' I thought at the time. `I'd drop dead if I tried at half his age what he's doing.' I'm like, `You need a brain transplant,' but he loved it. It kept his mind nimble and his hands nimble. He practiced (surgery) until into his 70s." Miller said.

Bull has six children, three with his first wife, and three with his second wife, Peg, with whom he lives in New Canaan. His son, Brad, recalled a day when he was 8 or 9 biking with his father. The pair was going down a hill at a pretty good clip, Brad said.

"My three-speed bike crashed pretty hard, and I cut up my face. He always kind of under-evaluated things like that. I went home with a bloody face, and my mom freaked out when she saw me and the blood. That was kind of a Dad experience in that he was never one to let a little setback ruin an outing."

He also imbued in his children a sense of adventure and confidence, Brad said. Sherman hikes with his sister, who lives in Europe, and bikes through wine country with his brother, who lives in California. Apparently not one for exaggeration himself, this is how Brad recalled hiking Everest with his father. "It was pretty cool. We were able to enjoy some good father-son quality time."

Bull retired from surgery a little more than one year ago and said he can now catch up on some missed time with his wife and grandchildren.

"One of the sub-themes of climbing is that it's a very sort of indulgent sport in that the people at home worry about you. In the beginning, before cellphones, you couldn't communicate very well. I'd go away six to eight weeks with no word," he said.

Now 76, he's training for a two-month-long, cross-country bike trip, which he said might be the most physically challenging excursion of his life.

"I enjoy life so much," he said. "Sometimes I'm embarrassed how much I enjoy life. I'm enjoying my wife, we do everything together. It's wonderful."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews