On top of the world: DeLand attorney climbs world’s tallest mountains
At the summit — Mario Simoes of DeLand waves from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — his second time climbing the mountain — on Feb. 5, 2014. Simoes has climbed eight of the world’s highest mountains since 2008.
PHOTO COURTESY MARIO SIMOES
Simoes at the top of Everest. At the top, he said, he realized, “I am the highest person in the world.”
PHOTO COURTESY MARIO SIMOES
The most gratifying time for Mario Simoes wasn’t when he made it to the top of Mount Everest. It was the moment he realized he was going to make it.
“When we got to the south summit, I had this feeling that I was going to make it,” the DeLand resident said. “That’s actually when I was the most joyful. The anticipation was more enjoyable than actually getting there.”
Everest was the crown jewel that completed Simoes’ “Seven Summits Challenge,” climbing to the top of seven of the highest places on Earth.
Simoes, who began climbing in 2008 at age 36, has done what few in the world have. In addition to Asia’s Everest, he has climbed to the top of the highest mountain in each of the six other continents: the Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Puncak Jaya in New Guinea.
Simoes explained that there are two schools of belief about Australia’s highest mountain. Some believe Mount Kosciuszko, on the mainland, is the highest, and others believe Puncak Jaya, in New Guinea, still part of the the Australian continent, to be the tallest. Just for good measure, Simoes climbed both.
Born in Venezuela, Simoes was raised in Portugal and served as a pilot in the Portuguese air force for about seven years. It was while he was stationed in Mississippi that Simoes met his wife of 21 years, Kim, also an attorney.
When Simoes’ service was up, he worked for several years as a commercial pilot in South Florida. After settling in, he said, he realized that “flying” — which for him had involved aerial acrobatics — would now be mostly pushing the autopilot switch in the comfortable cockpit of a commercial jet.
Simoes began to look for a new challenge. That took him to law school at the University of Florida. And upon his graduation — already a pretty big achievement for someone whose native language is not English — came a knock from fate.
“As a graduation present, my wife got me a climbing trip to Kilimanjaro,” Simoes said inside the law office he and his wife share on the DeLand Municipal Airport. The law office also serves as a hangar for his private jet.
“I was out of shape,” Simoes said.
He may never have climbed a mountain before, but Simoes was no stranger to extreme sports. Over the years, his interests have involved skydiving, mountain biking, sea-kayaking and scuba diving.
“I never back out of a challenge,” he said with a grin.
Preparing for that inaugural climb up Kilimanjaro took Simoes to a local sporting-goods store.
Looking back with the experience he now has, Simoes said he had no idea what he was doing.
“I had to go buy hiking boots for that trip,” Simoes said. “I went to Bass Pro Shops and got a lot of fishing gear, which proved to be disastrous.”
The challenge was great for the new climber.
“I struggled the entire way,” Simoes said. “I had no idea of what I was up against.”
The climb involved a rough trip through a wide range of African terrain and climates.
“It goes from incredibly hot and humid, trees, vegetation; then you go to the alpine line. As you go higher, it gets colder,” he said. “Then you get into the saddle … it looks like you’re on the moon, kind of desolate, boulders, holes on the ground.”
Then came the snow.
“It snowed all night, and when we woke up at midnight to hike the summit, it was covered with snow,” Simoes said.
Finally, after eight days ascending the mountain with a team of eager climbers, and as his Tanzanian guides were chanting native songs around him, the group, holding hands, made it — all 19,341 feet to the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain.
“It was unbelievable,” Simoes said. “It was the first, last and only time that I cried when I reached the summit of a mountain. That one was unique. I think it was just from the sheer exhaustion.”
Shortly after Simoes returned from his journey in Africa, a Google search clued him in to what those in the hiking community refer to as the “Seven Summits Challenge.”
At first, Simoes said, he was hesitant to take it on. The climb to the top of Kilimanjaro had taken a lot out of him.
“It took me a couple of years, three or four years, to get over that, but I never forget,” Simoes said.
Even though Simoes climbed Kilimanjaro, he said, he felt like he didn’t beat the mountain.
“I felt like a failure,” Simoes said.
As a test of sorts, to prove to himself that he had what it took to take on the challenge, Simoes scaled several smaller mountains, and even made a trip to a base camp at Mount Everest in 2013, trekking roughly 17,600 feet into the epic mountain to test himself.
“When I came home, I told my wife, ‘That’s it; I’m going to do it,’” Simoes said.
Over the course of two-and-a-half years, he completed the Seven Summits Challenge. He even returned to Kilimanjaro and climbed it again.
“There’s only about 300 people that have completed the seven summits,” Simoes said.
The final challenge of the seven was Mount Everest, the tallest peak, not just in Asia, but the world.
“Everest was almost like the moon,” Simoes said. “The idea of going to Everest, and climbing to the top, if you asked me five or six years ago, it would be, in my mind … like climbing to the moon.”
Just the trek to a base camp took Simoes and his group of guides and fellow hikers 11 days. The group had to ascend the mountain in three rotations, climbing up for a day or so, then descending once again to a lower base camp.
“You’re basically tricking your body into building red blood cells,” Simoes said.
The aim of the rotations, Simoes said, is to help acclimate climbers to the thin oxygen levels and, climbers hope, stave off altitude sickness.
The ominous climb took the group through the Khumbu Icefall, where the climbers placed metal ladders over cracks in the snow-covered earth.
Wearing cleated climbing equipment and tethered by ropes to stakes hammered into the rock, Simoes crossed over deep crevices in the earth that held enormous mounds of splintered glaciers. Simoes said they reminded him of large kernels of popcorn.
Aside from the challenging terrain, Simoes said his main concern, as he began his ascent up Everest, was that he would get sick along the way.
“The Khumbu Valley is just riddled with bacteria,” he said.
Simoes and his compatriots faced 12-hour climbing days over the course of the next several weeks.
“You live by the sun at this point, in terms of temperatures,” Simoes said. “As soon as the sun sets, that place turns basically into a freezer.”
At 9:45 a.m. May 19, after weeks of climbing, Simoes and his group reached the summit of Mount Everest.
Once he made it to the top, Simoes said, he spent about an hour looking around, sitting in quiet solitude, and taking in views comparatively few people on Earth have seen.
“I remember saying, ‘I am the highest person in the world right now,’” Simoes said.
Looking back, Simoes said it wasn’t his physical strength that pulled him to the top of that mountain.
“From a physical standpoint, I found the climb easy,” Simoes said.
Instead, he explained, the pressure came from worrying about whether the weather window would last.
“The mountain is so high that it actually pierces the jet stream,” Simoes said.
Winds up to 150 mph would render climbing Everest impossible, save for a week or so both before fall, and after spring each year, Simoes said.
In June, Simoes added Mount Kosciuszko to his list of conquests.
Altogether, Simoes said, completing the challenge set him back roughly a quarter of a million dollars.
The next adventure for Simoes, a man who gets nervous when he doesn’t have a challenge on his calendar, is the Explorers Grand Slam.
That involves skiing to both the North and South poles. Simoes plans to start that challenge in April 2017, when he will be flown to a block of ice in Norway, about 70 miles from the North Pole. From there, he will cross-country-ski over rough, icy terrain until he reaches the pole.
“The challenge is to make it to a point where very few humans make it,” Simoes said. “I get bored. I want to try something new. I want to get really good at it.”
- Kate Kowsh, firstname.lastname@example.org