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LEW FREEDMAN: True-love story reaches several peaks

Mr. Mountains and Ms. Businesswoman did not initially connect at 10,000 feet. But the love-story merger that followed their first meeting took them higher together than they thought possible and led to a magnificent, years-long adventure journey.

Oh, yeah, they got married along the way too. Phil Ershler, 55, one of the premier American mountaineers of his generation, and Susan Berger, 51, have collaborated on a different type of mountaineering book.

"Together on Top of the World" is a story that encompasses their pursuit of the seven summits, climbing the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents, but also their relationship in the Seattle area.

It also recounts scary obstacles Ershler faced from health problems that were encountered over a period of years. Ershler has coped with Crohn's disease and has overcome cancer. Given how challenging it is to climb 29,035-foot Mount Everest and other peaks in the seven summits quest, such as 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, how he managed those two diseases offers telling glimpses into his determination.

Just as in marriage, each climber brought something different to the partnership. Ershler, a savvy veteran of Himalayan peaks and a longtime guide on Washington's Mount Rainier - he has climbed it 425 times - brought expertise, caring and experience to the climbs undertaken over a period of years. Berger (now also Ershler) brought enthusiasm, the excitement of learning something new and fresh eyes to adventures and places Ershler had done and seen many times previously.

It is said that anyone who runs a marathon has experienced a very individual, personalized journey. No less can be said of anyone who reaches the summit of Mount Everest. Often the journey of the heart, mind and soul is the most important aspect of such trips, but not enough in the minds of publishers to make for a broader story for a wider audience.

Mountaineers long climbed in relative obscurity. With the phenomenal growth of the citizen adventurer market, there is more interest in the writings of top-flight mountaineers than ever, but there must be a hook. This is how publishers think: It is worthwhile to read of the first group to climb the seven summits, but not the fifth. It is worthwhile to read about the first woman to climb a mountain solo, but not the 18th man. If you are the first at something, your agent will be invited into inner sanctums to cut deals. That is the intersection of "worthwhile" adventure and popular culture.

"Together on Top of the World" combines a first with a worthwhile achievement, and the book is a timely release for the May Everest climbing season under way right now. The secret of this book's success is how the interest level is maintained at sea level. We respect what Phil and Sue are attempting to do in the mountains, but we also care about how they fare back home between climbs.

Written with the aid of author Robin Simons, the book risks alternating sections and chapters, usually a kiss of death, but in this instance it is workable.

For Ershler, a career mountain guide who has battled Crohn's disease much of his life and beat colon cancer with complications in between the couple's mountain adventures, the mountains always have been special.

"The mountains have been the source of so many important things in my life," he said in a recent interview. "I found my health in the mountains. My health was better when I was climbing. That's one of the things that motivated me to become a guide. The mountains also provided me with a way to go see the world."

Berger was selling telecommunications equipment for Fortune 500 companies when a mutual friend introduced her to Ershler. Always athletic but with no background in mountaineering, she surprised herself by the way she adapted to altitude.

"I had no idea any of this would happen when I met Phil," she said, also in a recent interview. "I never had hiked or climbed. I did it at first so I could understand what he did for a living.

"I got a headache, a stomachache and I wondered, `Why do you do that? I'm never doing this again.' "

Then she reached the summit of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier for the first time, gazed out at the marvelous view and received her reward.

"I forgot about the pain a couple of days later," she said. "It became a tremendous part of my life. I never had owned a passport."

Eventually, she became a motivational speaker, the Ershlers kept climbing mountains together (once a year out of the country) and they wrote their book together.

"I wanted a partner I loved," Phil Ershler said. "This is the thing I have to give to Susan."

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