Viorel “Wally” Stirbu takes the concept of an active retirement to an impressive level—literally. The 63-year-old former Chicago Fire Department engineer recently returned from Antarctica, where he successfully climbed the continent’s highest peak, Mt. Vinson: his second-to-last climb of the Seven Summits.
The Seven Summits represent the highest points on each continent. In the past three years, Stirbu has made it to the top of all but Mt. Everest, which he will climb in May.
Stirbu, with dozens of road races, triathlons and stair climbs to his name, came into endurance sports in 2003 when he trained for the Chicago Marathon with the Chicago Area Runners Association. He has run Boston three times and last year finished 13th in his age group at the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8K, though he primarily focuses on mountain climbing now. In 2014, Stribu summited Mt. McKinley in June and the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia in July before his climb in Antarctica in December.
“On Mt. McKinley, you got to pull your sled with you, then carry [your supplies] on you back. That’s the most dangerous climb in all of them,” Stirbu says. “Sometimes it’s more dangerous than Mt. Everest because on Mt. Everest we have Sherpas that carry our things.”
There is some debate as to which mountains should count for the Seven Summits, due to the fact that the Carstensz Pyramid technically sits within the boundaries of the Australian continental shelf, despite not being on the Australian mainland. As such, eight different mountains appear on two differing Seven Summits lists. Because the Carstensz Pyramid has a reputation as the more difficult of the Australian options, Stirbu decided to climb there instead.
•”Mt. Kosciuszko [on the Australian mainland] is much easier,” Stirbu says. “To do the Pyramid, you have to traverse from one peak to another. Kosciuszko: anybody can do that. I want to do it the hard way.”
Aside from the inherent challenges on the Carstensz Pyramid, Stirbu and the other in his group also encountered political challenges. Fighting between tribes in Indonesia forced the climbers to attempt to go a different way that required crossing gold mine territory, but the mine would not allow them to cross. Three Americans, including Stirbu, were in the group, and after calls to the United States Embassy, the climbers made it through the area.
Stirbu will travel to Nepal with International Mountain Guides to climb Mt. Everest: a trip that will take 60 days. He will have a Sherpa the entire time and plans to attempt to summit on May 15.