Malibu mom makes history by soaring to seven heights


Diannette Wells just returned from her most recent summit, Mount Everest.

By Olivia Damavandi / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu resident Diannette Wells is one of the few women in history to complete the Seven Summits, a challenge created in the 1980s that consists of summiting the tallest peaks of each of the seven continents.

And she’s afraid of heights.

“I just never look down,” she told The Malibu Times after returning from her most recent summit, Mount Everest in May.

While some confront their acrophobia by challenging themselves to an innocuous ride on a Ferris wheel, Wells challenged herself with a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro (19,339 feet), the highest peak in Africa, which she climbed for the first time in 1999. In 2003, Wells visited Russia and reached the pinnacle of Mount Elbrus (18,481 feet), the highest peak in Europe. Next, she conquered Mount Vinson in 2004, the highest peak in Antarctica, measuring 16,067 feet. After that, Wells reached the apex of Mount McKinley (20,320 feet) in Denali, Alaska, the highest peak in North America. Her insatiable appetite for climbing led her to summit the Carstensz Pyramid (16,023 feet) in Papua New Guinea, the highest peak of Oceania. Earlier this year, Wells reached the zenith of Mount Aconcagua (22,280 feet) in Argentina, the highest peak of South America, before finally culminating her pursuit of the Seven Summits with the surmounting of Mount Everest (29,029 feet), on May 23, in the Himalaya mountain range along the border of Nepal and Tibet.

As a single mother, Wells confessed that the difficulty of being so physically distant from her three children, MacKenna, 11, Johnnie, 16, and Brianna, 18, in order to pursue her precarious dream was compensated by her opportunity to prove to them that they, too, can pursue theirs, no matter how big or small.

“Brianna started college and was on the East Coast, Johnnie is a climber, so he was OK with it, and MacKenna was hard to leave, but she’s always known my dream. I got her a little puppy; a good bribe gift always works,” Wells said jokingly, and earnestly added, “We missed each other a lot, but they now know that ‘if my mom could do it, anything’s possible.'”

Though each of her seven summits was unique in its own way, Wells’ experience climbing Mount Everest was inimitable because of its timing.

“The Chinese were trying to get the Olympic torch on the north side of the summit, so we were constantly surrounded and monitored by a bunch of military officers who wouldn’t allow us to have any computers or cell phones,” she explained. “I sneaked mine in, and hid in my tent to make phone calls to my family and friends.

“Nobody is ever going to tell me I can’t speak with my kids,” she asserted.

However, despite managing to smuggle her phone, Wells lent it to another climber who, while hiding in his tent, spilled his hot tea all over it and broke it. In addition to feeling completely isolated, her tradition of calling her children from each summit would not be upheld.

“I was shocked, but what could I do?” Wells said in recollection. “You can’t get mad at someone at that phase of the climb, you have to go to a Zen place … I just couldn’t believe that I hid my phone for six weeks and someone broke it.”

When asked what it felt like to reach the top of Mount Everest, Wells’ said: “I thought it would be really emotional because you work so hard for so long. I always pictured myself reaching the summit and just losing it, but when I got there, I just stared at the wide open view right in front of me and wondered why I wasn’t crying,”

Exhausted and incredibly cold, Wells made sure to take all the pictures she needed and moved on to face her next immediate challenge: a safe descent.

“I was up there [on the summit] for about an hour. Before you know it, it’s over, and all you’re thinking is ‘get down, get down, get down,'” she said.

Before descending the mountain, she collected some rocks from its summit and traded one of them for use of another climber’s satellite phone to call her children.

Wells’ travels have sustained her thirst for climbing, but also her appetite for adventure. Of Papua New Guinea, which she described as the most culturally interesting location of the Seven Summits, Wells said, “Wives are still stolen from tribe to tribe and men walk around wearing nothing but gourds over their genitals.”

Like many countries, Papua New Guinea is filled with rats. On one of the islands, Wells recalled her stay at a hotel with so much rat feces that she simply had to choose a bed with the least amount. One night while she was in the bathroom, a rat ran over her foot. Since she didn’t have any duct tape with which to cover the hole from which the rat was coming in and out, she left her room at three o’clock in the morning and sat in the lobby until it was time to climb.

Even in the midst of rat feces, the ever-optimistic Wells said, “The beauty of Papua New Guinea, though, is that in the middle of its very thick jungle, there is a glacier and some of the most beautiful rock climbing I have ever seen. The rock is like a cheese grater, but so much fun.”

Wells commenced her passion for climbing in 1998 when she scaled Mount Whitney with 10 girlfriends, most of them from Malibu. “I hadn’t laughed that hard in so long! I had the time of my life! As soon as I reached the summit I yearned for more,” she said, confessing that she never thought she would be able to climb Everest until her fiancé, Todd Burleson, planted the seed in her head that she could. Burleson is the director and founder of Alpine Ascents International and is, according to its Web site, one of the world’s leading mountaineers. The now engaged couple met while on a climb.

Burleson has completed the Seven Summits twice and earned the prestigious David J. Sowles award from the American Alpine Club for his rescue efforts on Mount Everest in 1996. To Burleson, climbing isn’t just about summiting a mountain, “It’s a life changing experience,” he said. “People who work a lot, and don’t get a chance to exercise make a goal of climbing a mountain, and once they do, it stays with them forever. It takes training and commitment.”

Despite her initial fear of heights, Wells’ motivation for climbing is a product of the “happy feeling” she gets when she is in the mountains. She said the first of the seven summits (Kilimanjaro) made her feel “like everything in the universe was perfect,” and added that she would wake up and see views she couldn’t even believe were real. Wells advised anyone with a dream to climb Mount Everest to “go for it,” and also said, “Ignore whoever puts you down and laughs at you. Pursue your dream, because everyone should have one no matter how big, small or crazy it may seem.”

In addition to providing adventure, travel, history making, and finding the love of her life, Wells said that mountain climbing has, “Made everyday issues of life become trivial. It has taught me to be mellow and at peace with myself, and I’ve learned that all this craziness that happens in our life is just not that important.”