Humbled by the Himalayas: Dr. Don Lauer ’21 climbs Everest with son
What most would only dream of doing, three-time alumnus and adventurer Don Lauer has likely achieved it.
When his son Matthew was only 8 years old, Lauer made a promise he intended to keep. “We free climbed a mountain peak about 1,000-feet high, and I was explaining to him some of the mountain structures. I told him, ‘Look, as long as you want to keep climbing mountains with me, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.’” Last April, he lived up to that pact—making the trek up Mt. Everest with Matt.
At times, their journey to Everest seemed a far-fetched, unattainable idea—especially during a global pandemic. The 45-year-old network engineer was, after all, in his final year of the Doctor of Education in leadership program at Charleston Southern University. His then 16-year-old son, Matt, was also in school. But nothing would keep Lauer from this grand adventure—not even a health scare.
Lauer and his son planned their trip for April 2021. It took more than a year to prepare. There was a lot to do beyond just travel arrangements—things like hiring excellent guides, securing the right equipment, and preparing their bodies for intense conditions with physical training.
“The only hill we have in Charleston is the Cooper River Bridge—I would windedly hike it,” Lauer said. His supportive wife set up a workout routine for him to build up his endurance. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Lauer, who works in network engineering for Naval Information Warfare Center (previously SPAWAR), transitioned to a work-from-home environment. He would work out during lunch and immediately after work. Training happened nearly every day.
Exactly four weeks out from their trip across the world, Lauer hit a roadblock that threatened to destroy their big plans. His heart went into atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib. Lauer had a team of cardiologists run tests and extend guidance. His biggest question: “Could I physically survive and go?”
Due to his physical training leading up to that point, and the fact that Lauer would be joining a medical missionary team on the trip, the doctors cleared him for travel with the caveat that he would need a heart ablation after his return.
Built with grit
Some may wonder how Lauer could entertain a potentially dangerous trek up one of the highest elevations on the planet, but a look into Lauer’s life illustrates this Buccaneer’s grit. A Navy veteran, Lauer was medically released from the military in a full body cast. After an early retirement, he began working in civil service and sought to advance his education. He completed his bachelor’s in 2007 and master’s in 2009 from CSU. Ironically, Lauer’s capstone project in his final semester of the Master of Business Administration program was a case study that CSU would have the market for a doctoral program.
In addition to working and going to school, Lauer was also raising a family with his wife, Danylle. They have five children. Though life as a working professional and father kept him busy, his bucket list included going back to school yet again for his doctorate—that and traveling the world.
Growing up on the West Coast, mountaineering was no new concept for Lauer. He had been on plenty of treks before. His spirit of adventure also recharged with mission work in Honduras and Africa. Having traveled with Lauer on mission trips, his equally adventurous kids have also joined him on adventure trips in the U.S. and Canada. “It really started with mission work around the world,” he said. “If you’re unafraid to jump on a donkey and ride to a remote village in the middle of nowhere, then climbing a mountain [can be done]. The mission field is good training.”
Matt said he is grateful for the many trips with his dad. “He has only fueled my ambition to go on more crazy adventures,” he added.
Trips with his sons have meant something special to Lauer. “It welcomes them to manhood,” he said. “It’s that time individually where we have that goal together and that struggle together. It’s a bond between father and son that you can’t replace.”
One fateful day, Lauer made a different kind of trek—this time joining one of his sons on a campus tour at CSU. While walking by a table in the Dining Hall, Lauer stumbled upon a sign announcing CSU’s first doctoral program. He was immediately hooked and began another academic journey with his alma mater to fulfill another bucket list item.
Trip of a lifetime
When Lauer began planning a month-long trip clear across the globe to hike a famous mountain, he knew he’d have to take some time off work as well as school. The EdD team and Dorchester County School District 2 made it work for Lauer and his son. Amazed with how supportive his work, CSU, and Matt’s school were before and during the trip, Lauer commented, “I thoroughly believe God ordained this for us to go.”
The Lauer duo left with their team on April 13. With COVID still at its height, Matt and Don were the only humans in the international terminal at one point. Once in Nepal, it took them 12 days to get to base camp, but only three days to make their way back. “On the way up, you have to worry about altitude and acclimation,” Lauer said. “You’d take one step and it felt like you’d run 50. I’d take a few steps and breathe.”
So much of the experience left Lauer captivated. First, with the people. Lauer encountered a very resilient and gracious people on his trip, specifically the mountain guides who led him and his fellow teammates up Everest. “It’s mind-boggling the resilience of the Himalayan Sherpas,” Lauer said of the elite mountaineering people of that region. “I think the Sherpas are the only ones who can say they walked up and down both ways in the snow. They have an amazing work ethic.”
In Kathmandu—the capital of Nepal—the majority of its residents are Hindu. Further up the mountain are Buddhists. “It’s incredibly humbling to be around them,” said Lauer. “They were so incredibly nice and just so happy to see us. If you think of how our world was shut down by COVID, they have two 60-day tourist seasons and most of their money comes from us.”
Lauer also took in the vastness of God’s creation. “The Himalayas are incredibly humbling—they’re gorgeous,” he said, describing the mesmerizing views he encountered as he climbed. “There’s nothing like them in the world.”
As Lauer, Matt, and the rest of the team climbed, it was not lost on them how dangerous it could be. They walked through a memorial of hundreds of hikers who died making the same climb. Lauer said it was humbling to know that others died trying.
They hiked up over 20,000 feet and slept in -20 degree sleeping bags. Lauer experienced what felt like four seasons in a day. He’d slather on sunscreen in the morning to avoid getting sunburn and would strip down to a T-shirt by midday. The highs would reach in the 30s and lows in the -20s. Sometimes they’d walk through blizzards, though it was the region’s summer season. To stay hydrated, they’d boil water at night to purify it and add it to Nalgene bottles to sustain them for their hike the next day.
Their goal was to make it to Everest Base Camp. A trip to the very top of Mt. Everest costs $40,000 for an American—that did not fit into their mission or budget. The four medical professionals on his team—including a surgeon, nurse practitioner, and EMT—did training at the villages and tent hospitals along the journey up the mountain to base camp. In addition to bringing resources, they did lectures each day after hiking.
“The villages were dealing with COVID in real time. Each village needed different resources,” he explained. “One of the problems at Everest Base Camp—a literal tent—was Khumbu cough, which is basically a cold. But Khumbu cough and COVID have similar symptoms, so many would have to be evacuated to eliminate the spread.”
One teammate broke her foot and was medically evacuated. The rest of the team continued on.
Lauer said his hardest day was when they reached between 12,000 and 14,000-foot altitude. “Everyone hits a wall, and that was the wall that hit me the hardest. It’s hard to prepare because you don’t know how your body is going to react,” he said of the physical toll of the hike. “I just got really tired. My son got a little headache.”
Though physical fitness is vital, preparation and endurance is equal parts mental and emotional. The team received support along the way. Churches and hundreds of people, including CSU professors and students in Lauer’s cohort, sent text messages and emails to the Lauers and other teammates with prayers and words of encouragement. “You don’t think about that as part of the preparation—it opened up quite a bit of blessings for us. Messages always came at the right time when we’re cold and wet and exhausted,” he said.
Lauer was grateful for their guide and assistant guide from the Sherpa villages. “Our assistant guide was 21 and had been doing this for five or six years. The guide has done this 100 times,” he said. “They’re used to doing eight to 10 treks a year to make salary for the year.” Lauer added their team was the only group for the guide at that point in the year—the economic effects of COVID felt even in the smallest remote villages of India and Nepal.
The Delta variant of the virus was closing in on them at the end of their journey—they made it out of Nepal just in time. Lauer said, “God lined it up to get us in and out of the country safely.”
Spirit of adventure
Lauer had just one more mountain to climb upon his return to the states—his dissertation.
“A small amount of people pursue and finish a doctoral degree. Equally, a small amount of people pursue and climb Mt. Everest. Who does both at the same time? Only Don Lauer,” said Dr. Robert Doan, assistant dean of the College of Education. “Through faith in God and support of his family, Don was successful at both of these unique experiences. He demonstrates a lot of grit—which was also his main framework for his dissertation.”
He graduated in December with his doctoral degree—one of 23 trailblazers to walk across the stage as CSU’s first doctoral graduates. His dissertation is entitled GRIT: A Comparison of Military Versus Non-Military Students at a Private Christian University.
“I tell my kids to not quit. Don’t quit when it gets hard,” said Lauer. “If you won’t go a little bit beyond your comfort zone, you’re never going to grow and you’re never going to learn and you’re always going to be afraid. We’re not built to live in fear, we’re supposed to have a spirit of adventure.”
Matt checked a big box on his bucket list by climbing Mt. Everest. “My biggest takeaway from this is to be grateful for what I have,” he said. “We have been up and down the Himalayas and in every town with freezing temperatures there would be nothing but a furnace in a single big room for everyone to be in.”
This fall Matt will become a Buccaneer following in his father’s footsteps as well as the path of his older brother, Donnie, and mother. You will likely find him in the new Science and Engineering building on campus as he begins his studies in engineering.
What’s next for the Lauers? According to the newly titled Dr. Don Lauer: teaching, research, and Kilimanjaro.