He climbed from the depths of despair to the top of the world

Hear from Dave Mauro about his journey to the Seven Summits at the Marysville Opera House on Oct. 9.

Bellingham resident Dave Mauro’s shin tattoos represent each of the highest peaks on every continent that he has summited. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Bellingham resident Dave Mauro’s shin tattoos represent each of the highest peaks on every continent that he has summited. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

When Dave Mauro’s life hit rock bottom, the only place left to go was up.

Way, way up.

Mauro, 56, is one of just 65 Americans reported to have climbed the Seven Summits — the highest mountains of each of the seven continents — and he did it in seven years, starting when he was 44 years old.

The noteworthy mountaineering challenge nearly killed him, but it also saved him.

An author and adventurer, Mauro will talk about his journey up the Seven Summits and the lessons he learned along the way at Marysville’s Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series on Tuesday at the Marysville Opera House.

The Seven Summits, in height order, are: Everest at 29,035 feet in Asia, Aconcagua at 22,834 feet in South America, Denali at 20,310 feet in North America, Kilimanjaro at 19,340 feet in Africa, Elbrus at 18,513 feet in Europe, Vinson at 16,067 feet in Antarctica and Carstensz Pyramid at 16,023 in Australasia (Oceania).

Different lists include slight variations, depending on your definition of a continent, but the same core is maintained.

“His story of not even starting until he was 44 is unique,” said Lauren Woodmansee, recreation coordinator for the city of Marysville. “(It will be) inspiring for so many people who are debating whether or not to take up a new hobby or sport later in life.”

In 2007, Mauro, of Bellingham, was getting a divorce, mourning the death of his older brother, living in his sister’s guest room and clinically depressed.

“I was pretty much out of ideas about what to do with my life,” Mauro said, who climbed the Seven Summits from 2007 to 2013.

Then came a life-changing invitation from his brother-in-law to climb Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, in Alaska. Not only is it North America’s tallest mountain, it is also the most dangerous. Mountaineers have around a 50 percent success rate. About 100 climbers have died trying to summit.

At first, Mauro, who had zero climbing experience at 44, turned him down. But his brother-in-law persisted. So Mauro gave in and agreed to climb Denali with him.

“He knew I needed something to focus on,” Mauro said.

Over the next eight months, Mauro trained like a Navy Seal. He hired a personal trainer for regimented workouts and hiked the Chuckanut Mountains, south of Bellingham. He worked out and hiked six days a week.

Even so, Mauro wasn’t sure he was ready to summit the 20,310-foot mountain.

“I had doubts all the way to the summit,” he said. “I more or less planned on not making it.”

At 14,000 feet, the halfway mark, Mauro almost quit. By then, three from his climbing group had already dropped out. The others would have been forced to turn back if he stopped; the supplies would be too heavy to carry.

But he didn’t give up. Rather than focus on the large and overwhelming goal of summiting, Mauro made short-term goals for himself: To get to that next rock, to take the next 10 steps.

It worked. He reached the top.

“That turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons I learned,” Mauro said. “I credit much of my success to that.”

Even a fall through a crevasse didn’t stop him. GoPro footage taken by his brother-in-law showed Mauro exhausted from the fall, barely able to construct a sentence.

“I probably looked as bad I ever looked, “Mauro said, “and felt as good as I’ve ever felt.”

He got a tattoo on his right shin to commemorate the climb.

That buzz from summiting stuck with Mauro. Soon he found a reason to climb the next highest mountain on another continent. Then the next one, and the next one and another after that.

Each time he successfully summited, he added another tattoo to his shin.

By the time he reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, a 16,023-foot-tall mountain with a jagged peak overlooking the jungles of New Guinea, he had a shin covered in tattoos and just one more mountain left to climb: The tallest of them all, Mount Everest.

On the final leg to Camp Three, at 23,600 feet, Mauro started feeling dizzy. His vision narrowed.

“One of my teammates died in almost the same place,” Mauro recalled. “We didn’t figure out what killed him. That was a scary moment.”

Another climber in his group, an Air Force medic, rushed to Mauro’s aid. He ran Mauro through medical tests, got him rehydrated and had him rest up. They later figured out he had picked up an intestinal bug at a previous camp. Other climbers had also gotten sick.

“I had mostly recovered by the next morning,” Mauro said. “I don’t how many times I felt like I was dying on my climbs, but as soon as I knew I wasn’t, I was going up.”

Mauro reached the summit at 3:43 a.m., exhausted by the climb but exhilarated all the same. He spread his brothers ashes, took some pictures, then headed back down.

Mauro kept a diary during his climbs. The entries inspired him to write “The Altitude Journals: A Seven-Year Journey from the Lowest Point in My Life to the Highest Point on Earth,” which published in May. It reached No. 1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list in the Outdoor Adventure category and No. 2 in Mid-life Management.

And, just in case Mauro’s journey to the top of the highest mountain on each continent isn’t forever etched in his mind, it’s forever tattooed on his skin. His tattoo, with stacked black-ink outlines of each peak, now covers most of his right shin.

“Someday I might be an old guy who has forgotten all about this, but every time I put on my sock I’ll think, ‘Damn, I had an exciting life,’” Mauro said.

Through his presentation on Tuesday — which will include photos and GoPro footage from his climbs — Mauro hopes he will inspire others to climb their own mountains, literally or figuratively.

“Everybody has their own Everest,” Mauro said. “I hope they can the find pieces of my experiences that they can relate to in their own climb.”

Mauro is on a new mountaineering journey: climbing every state’s tallest mountain. He plans to summit the lower 48’s tallest mountain, California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, next year.

Evan Thompson: 360-544-2999, ethompson@heraldnet.com.

If you go

What: Marysville Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series

Where: Marysville Opera House, 1225 Third St., Marysville

When: 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Oct. 9

Cost: $5 at the door

More: 360-363-8400 or www.davidjmauro.com

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