CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) – Julie McKelvey of Cumberland County is many things. She is a business owner, philanthropist, wife, mother, daughter, and mountaineer.
McKelvey is currently on a quest to complete what many consider impossible by summitting the highest mountain on each continent, also known as the seven summits.
The list includes Africa’s Kilimanjaro, Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, Europe’s Mount Elbrus, North America’s Denali, South America’s Aconcagua, and Australia’s Kosciuszko.
McKelvey, as of May 22 when she stood on top of the world on Mount Everest, has completed six of the seven summits.
“I’m a different person than I was five years ago when I started this because the mountains have changed me, from the inside out,” said McKelvey.
McKelvey started her journey after climbing Mount Fuji in 2018 with her father and son. McKelvey had never heard of the seven summits, but as she watched her first sunrise above the clouds in Japan, but she was instantly hooked. When she returned home McKelvey planned a trip to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro with her friends.
When her group topped Kilimanjaro, their guide told her about the seven summits and that she was standing on one. That conversation was the beginning of McKelvey’s incredible journey.
Mount Elbrus, the next mountain for McKelvey, was her first experience with crampons, snow, ropes, and big boots. Denali followed next, but McKelvey’s first attempt was stopped when what she thought was a sprained foot turned out to be broken and she was unable to complete the climb. Eventually, she summited Denali last summer.
McKelvey completed her fifth mountain, Vinson, last year. Everest is her most recent adventure, leaving her with just Kosciuszko remaining to complete the list.
Although this has been a personal and spiritual journey for McKelvey, she hopes to show others that anything is possible. McKelvey is 54 years old and is coming up on 28 years sober from drugs and alcohol. As a woman, she is a minority in the world of mountaineering as well. However, none of that matters when she is standing at 20,000 feet.
“Less than 100 women have ever done the seven and I think 500 women have summited Everest,” McKelvey said, “I hope that I can carry this through and inspire people (that) when you turn 50 or 40 or whatever the number is, your life isn’t over. It’s really possible if you believe it is and you’re willing to do the work.”
McKelvey is also using her expeditions as a way to raise money for something she is very passionate about.
McKelvey’s father founded Miracle-Ear, whose mission it is to “help people live their best lives with those they love through better hearing”. The Miracle-Ear Foundation evolved out of the business and helps provide free hearing aids and support services to those in need.
McKelvey switched from a journalism career to start in sales at Miracle-Ear and worked her way up, eventually buying the company from her father when he retired and has since expanded the business. McKelvey now owns 34 offices across Pennsylvania.
The business owner also decided to start Summit for Sound to raise money to provide disadvantaged children and adults with free hearing aids through her climbs. So far, her efforts have led to over $225,000 dollars being donated to the Miracle-Ear Foundation.
McKelvey just finished what she said has been the most difficult climb so far, Everest, which she has a strong connection with.
“I did the Everest base camp trip in 2018 right after Kilimanjaro and that was the first time I had seen Everest,” McKelvey said “That was when I was like, I’m going to go climb this thing. That’s when I made up my mind that I can actually do it.”
Just the sight of the mountain brought McKelvey to tears.
“I had this incredible emotional reaction when I first saw it and just [started] crying . . . just the power this mountain has over me is undeniable,” McKelvey said.
It was not a straightforward climb for McKelvey, who caught a virus that was going through her group. During her acclimatization climbs, McKelvey couldn’t stop coughing and her guide made her go back to base camp to visit the doctor. The doctor ordered her to be flown down to Kathmandu as soon as possible, but it took two days for the weather to clear enough for a helicopter to get through.
“They kept replacing the oxygen bottle and [it was] kind of scary.” McKelvey said. “Meanwhile the rest of the team is up on their rotation and they’re coming back down to base camp and they’re continuing on.”
Once McKelvey was able to get down, the doctors determined she had a very bad chest cold and pulmonary edema. McKelvey had to put her plans on hold, and check back into her hotel to recover. Eventually, she was cleared to climb again, but the window for summiting was closing.
McKelvey made it back to base camp and was feeling rejuvenated after staying at a lower altitude, but she was met with another obstacle. Her guide, Tendi Sherpa, had to leave for the hospital because he caught the same virus McKelvey had.
“Tendi and I had spent five weeks together at that point and you get to know your guide really well,” McKelvey said. “They know all your things, your issues and your pace.”
McKelvey was given another guide and was able to begin acclimation rotations again. Luckily, Tendi recovered quickly and was able to rejoin her at camp three.
While McKelvey was doing these set of rotations, her original team showed up with all of their gear and were getting ready to summit. McKelvey was the only one who would not be summiting then.
“It was hard for me,” McKelvey said. “It was hard for my ego first of all, but I just felt like I was alone.”
Everyone had been told that May 12 was the best summit window, but conditions changed and McKelvey saw the summit group return absolutely destroyed and covered in frostbite. It turned out some of their equipment had been stolen, including crucial oxygen, and they had to wait in long lines. Summiting later ended up being an advantage for McKelvey.
Eventually, it became apparent these conditions, combined with many other factors, were resulting in catastrophe. There were helicopters constantly appearing to attempt rescues and to pick up those who didn’t make it.
“We’re seeing all these helicopters, all these rescues and people hanging from the long line and Tendi had told me, if they’re standing straight up, they’re alive and if they’re hunched over on the line, they’re dead.,” McKelvey said.
Finally, McKelvey and Tendi made it to camp four and everything seemed to settle down, except that there was a dead body at the camp, which was the first one McKelvey had seen.
The body was still there when McKelvey returned from her eventual summit and seeing the person again caused her to break down.
“I was not prepared for it, but I don’t know how you can be,” McKelvey said.
McKelvey noted that during the climb she had to internalize what she saw while keeping her focus on the climbing. Once she returned home, McKelvey started having nightmares about the lifeless people she had seen on the mountain.
“They don’t get the homecoming that I had,” McKelvey said. “They don’t get the big sign in the front yard. They don’t get the stuff. Their family is never going to see them again.”
Finally, McKelvey and Tendi started their way to the summit of Everest. They began the push on fresh snow, which is rare in the death zone, and had to forge their own path while the wind was blowing the snow in their faces. The sun came up, snapping McKelvey out of her survival trance and she was able to see the view of her lifetime.
“I’ll never forget – we were on the south summit, and I see this flash of red and turn and it’s the sun coming up,” McKelvey said. “It happens on every mountain and it’s the most incredible thing, but on Everest, you can see forever.”
On the postage-stamp-sized summit of Everest, as McKelvey described it, she joined the small group of people that were gathered on the top of the world. It was finally time for McKelvey to fulfill a promise she had made to her mother by scattering her mom’s ashes on the highest point on Earth.
“[It was] one of the last things she said to me,” McKelvey said. “I said, “Mom, where do you want to go? Where do you want to be?” she said “Put me on that mountain.”
McKelvey sprinkled her mother’s ashes and took some pictures before it was time to leave in order to ensure they had enough oxygen for the climb down. As they were getting ready to leave Tendi stopped McKelvey and told her to stand still and turn very slowly in a circle.
“He’s like “You got to take in where you are right now. You’re on top of the world,” McKelvey said. “That was 30 seconds that I’ll never forget as long as I live.”
McKelvey repelled down most of the way back and was one of the only people at base camp when she returned. She had just summitted Everest on one of the last days of the deadliest season ever on the mountain.
McKelvey was welcomed home by a parade of family and friends when she returned to Pennsylvania. Right now, she says she feels “super mellow” and “calm”. McKelvey believes the entire experience has made her a better person and more appreciative of everyday life, which is part of why she keeps going.
“There is something that is so special about pushing through to the other side of the suffering and what’s up there,” McKelvey said. “It is hard to describe up there how incredibly beautiful it is.”
McKelvey plans to complete the final mountain, Kosciuszko in Australia, in December. Her husband Bobby and boys, 14-year-old Jackson and 19-year-old Jacob, will be joining her for the special moment. McKelvey is still processing everything from her latest adventure, but she is looking forward to completing the journey with those who have supported her throughout it all.