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Headed for Mt. Everest, one step at a time

ALL her life, Sue Cobb has excelled by simply putting one foot in front of the other. Twenty-nine thousand vertical feet from now, that should put her on top of Mt. Everest.

This week Mrs. Cobb, a 50-year-old lawyer, wife, and mother of two, left on her trek to become the first American woman to successfully climb to the top of the highest mountain in the world.

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Cobb is probably one of the least experienced climbers to attempt the mountain, which rises 29,028 feet from the border of Nepal and Tibet. But she knows what she's in for during the next two months: violent winds, hideous cold, wafer-thin air, avalanches at any time, and plain old fatigue.

But it's Cobb's idea of a good time.

Take, for example, her February 1985 attempt to climb Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. ``There was a blizzard,'' she recalled in a recent interview. ``We got pinned down for three days at 17,000 feet. We had some 50-below nights. It was really fun.''

When the blizzard finally ended and the climbing team began its descent, the climbers had to trudge through a desolate moonscape for two or three days, 20 hours a day.

``Sue kept a lot of us going,'' recalled Courtney Skinner, who led the climb. ``She was an encouragement and a drive,'' even though she was the least experienced of the climbers.

It was that trip that persuaded Mr. Skinner to tap her for the Everest expedition.

In two weeks, Skinner, his brother Robert, and about three dozen others from the Wyoming Centennial Everest Expedition will establish a base camp below the mountain in Tibet. Between Sept. 23 and 29, six of the climbers, in teams of two, are scheduled to reach the top. And if all goes as expected, Sue Cobb will be one of them.

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``The hardest part is mentally maintaining your grip on the objective,'' says Sharon Wood of Alberta, Canada, who climbed Everest two years ago.

Initially, she says, ``the excitement of being on the mountain fuels you.'' But after 50 or 60 days, she says, ``we had lost half our team through attrition, and the weather was deteriorating.'' Some 2,000 feet below the summit, ``We had lost much of ourselves physically,'' - Ms. Wood herself had dropped 25 pounds - ``but we still had the hardest part ahead of us.''

Of the 11 people in her team capable of reaching the peak, only two - she and a man - actually got there.

Cobb appears unconcerned about her lack of experience in high-altitude climbing. She has, she says, a time-tested philosophy - one that has helped her win championships in skiing and tennis against others with more talent and experience.

``I really do know what it takes to succeed at something,'' she said as she sat at a sidewalk caf'e during a recent interview here. ``It takes hard work, discipline, perseverance, much more than outright talent.''

An expert skier

Sue Cobb's life has been a process of applying that philosophy to an ever-shifting set of priorities. After getting her undergraduate degree from Stanford University in 1959, Sue McCourt married her college sweetheart, Charles Cobb. For two years, she traveled with her husband, who was a hurdler on the 1960 Olympic team and a naval officer.

When her husband returned to Stanford to attend business school, Sue began teaching at a private girls' school. She was flooded with invitations to escort her students to their family ski houses in Sugarbowl and Squaw Valley. ``That's when I took up skiing,'' she recalls. ``And as usual, I focused on it, immediately took 400 lessons, so I could become an expert in two weeks.''

She did become expert, although she didn't really prove it for a few years. For soon she had two sons and spent all her time taking care of them. Ten years later, in 1971, she was on the slopes again.

``I saw a lot of people my age - in their mid-30s - racing,'' she recalls, ``and I thought, `Gee, I can do that.'''

And she could. A year later, Cobb beat her nearest rival by six seconds in the national championship of NASTAR, a national racing club. She placed second in the United States Ski Association's veteran championship race.

After that, she never raced again. The family moved to Miami, and Cobb, in search of a sport, picked up her tennis racket.

``I never really was a good tennis player,'' she says. ``I didn't have classic strokes. But I would practice harder, stay longer, hit 400 backhands down the line.''

Other players were better, she says, ``but I would win.'' In her age category, she picked up ``a few state titles a couple of years,'' she says, bagging state championships in women's doubles and mixed doubles, and ranking fifth in Florida's women's singles.

But about this time, Cobb had a change of heart. Cutting short a family vacation in Honolulu to get back for a tennis tournament, she made a major career move. ``I thought, this is ridiculous. I'm 36 and I'm rushing back for a veterans tournament,'' she says. ``I have to establish a life with a direction other than competitive athletics.''

And so, without telling anyone, Cobb took the entrance exams for law school. Although her test scores were good, her college grades - a 2.6 grade point average - were ``mediocre,'' she says.

But even the past could be conquered. Cobb had read an article that said ``grade inflation'' had raised GPA's by about a point over the past decade. So she wrote her former dean at Stanford. Would her 2.6 GPA translate into a 3.6? Yes, he said. He agreed to write a letter to that effect to accompany her application, and the next fall she was in law school.

Winging it in court

In 1979, fresh out of law school at age 41, Cobb joined one of Florida's largest law firms and began putting in 60- to 80-hour weeks. In 1983, the partners asked her if she wanted to help start up their bond department. In two years, the department had enough business to keep 20 lawyers busy, and she had made partnership.

During this time, Cobb became a director of the Federal Reserve Bank's Miami branch. Her unpaid job there, which she still holds, is to keep her ear to the ground in the business community and report trends to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.

Patrick Barron, her contact at the Atlanta Fed, calls her a ``stickler for details. In a discussion, she wouldn't let it go until she got all the information she needed,'' he adds.

Her performance at the Miami branch attracted the attention of Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. She was reportedly runner-up for one of the positions on the seven-member board, which Martha Seger, who had a stronger economics background, later filled.

Tax reform in 1986 sent the bond business down the tubes. In the meantime, Cobb had picked up her childhood interest in hiking, and her husband was tapped to become an assistant secretary at the Commerce Department.

She went to the other partners in the law firm and told them she wanted to take temporary leave to live in Washington and climb Everest. The surprise was short lived, says senior partner Norman Lipoff.

``If you know Sue, and you know she's into mountain climbing, you'd expect that she would eventually climb Mt. Everest,'' he says.

And now, as Sue Cobb picks her way up glaciers and vertical mountain faces in the world's most rugged terrain, it's clear that eventually is almost here.

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