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Tackling Everest with a new twist

''I used to be a bum and now I'm a hero,'' says Jan Reynolds, the only female member of the ''Grand Circle of Everest'' mountain-climbing expedition, which was completed this summer. ''But I'm just doing what I've always done.''

With physical and mental toughness she seems to take for granted, Miss Reynolds is a veteran of several major, otherwise all-male ski and climbing expeditions as well as a number of spontaneous ''pickup trips.''

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''I'm always ready to drop things and go,'' she says.

Although Miss Reynolds is one of the premier woman climbers in the United States, the spectacular Grand Circle expedition, which mountain historian Leo LeBon has dubbed ''the greatest mountain adventure of all time,'' has finally brought her serious recognition.

The Grand Circle expedition, conceived and led by Ned Gillette, involved traversing and skiing the circumference and satellite peaks of Mt. Everest, including the first successful winter ascent of Mt. Pumori, one of the major peaks in the Nepalese Himalayas. Because of political and climatic constraints, the expedition was divided into two half-circles scheduled between monsoon seasons: the southern half-circle in Nepal in the winter and the northern half-circle in Tibet in the spring.

''We saw Everest from all facets,'' Miss Reynolds says. In her estimation, the expedition was particularly demanding because it included all types of climbing, from trekking to technical rock and ice climbing. It was a tremendous test of endurance, including three 20,000-foot passages in succession. The team members climbed an equivalent of three times the height of Mt. Everest on the Nepal side alone.

Climbing in the Himalayas during the winter also posed some unforeseen challenges.

''It was about 1 1/2 months into the trip and we had all lost about 25 pounds when we ran out of food,'' Miss Reynolds recalls. The team had arranged to meet a group of Sherpas who would supply them with maps and food for the last leg of the trip. The juncture they had agreed upon was a common meeting point during the summer months, but since the American team was the first to climb the range in the winter, no one realized the winter monsoons would make the route impassable.

Unfortunately, the team's map ended at that quadrangle, so the climbers were stranded with no map, no food, and no idea how long it would be until they could replenish their supplies. Their only choice was to press on.

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''When you go on a trip like that you learn to expect the unexpected,'' Miss Reynolds says.

As it turned out, it was five days before they reached civilization, ending what Jan Reynolds dubbed at the time ''The Himalayan Instant Weight Loss Plan.''

Her humor also helped lighten the mood at another low point. After an unsuccessful first attempt at Mt. Pumori, a storm day kept the disappointed and exhausted team members in camp while they planned their second assault. Miss Reynolds prodded herself and the others into good spirits by telling riddles and getting everyone to play ''Hangman.''

That evening a compliment from team member Jim Bridwell caught her by surprise. Paraphrased from her journal, he said, ''You know, it's the first time I've been on a trip with a woman and I think it's better. . . . A woman always has something worthwhile to say - she monitors things.''

Since Jan Reynolds had always climbed as an equal with all-male teams, it had never really occurred to her to consider any special contribution as a woman. But thinking about it later, she observed that with men a competitive edge sometimes gets in the way of reason and there may be a temptation to try more than they could realistically accomplish.

On this recent trip, she says, she never hesitated to bring up all the alternatives when the team was deciding on a course of action. ''But I don't play the wimp,'' she says.

Miss Reynolds is a Vermont native who has always enjoyed the outdoors, and athletic achievements have played a natural part in her life. She's a 1978 graduate of the University of Vermont, where she was a member of its nationally ranked women's ski team. At age 19 she went to Norway ''to see where cross-country skiing was born'' and was certified there as a cross-country ski instructor. Later, during a trip to China in 1980, without realizing it at the time, Miss Reynolds set the high-altitude skiing record for women after skiing down the 27,757-foot Mt. Muztagata.

Now after the Grand Circle trip she plans to concentrate on training for biathlon competitions (which combine skiing and rifle shooting). As for future climbing expeditions, ''I just leave myself wide open and see what comes up,'' she says.

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