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Up Kilimanjaro, for a cause

Banker tackles fabled peak for cancer research

You never know where your reading will take you.

Laurie Stewart’s decision to climb Mount Kilimanjaro began with the board’s annual request for her to set five goals for the bank and herself. Stewart, president and CEO, at $337.8 million-assets Sound Community Bank, Seattle, was mulling the personal element while scanning the publication of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. When Stewart’s husband, Ken, died nine years ago from a rare form of liver cancer, she had donated to the center.

Stewart flipped a page and read about “Climb for a Cause,” a nonprofit group that organizes mountain expeditions that raise money for charities. Stewart noted that a Mount Kilimanjaro trip was coming up and recalled how climbing the volcanic peak had been a longtime goal for her husband.

When the time came to present her goals, Stewart revealed that she planned to climb Kilimanjaro. This caught the directors off-guard, to say the least.

The directors were surprised, but their reaction was mild. “My friends think I’m crazy,” says Stewart, 61, “and my mother will barely discuss this with me.”

Stewart actually took on twin goals. The physical challenge, of course, was daunting enough. But the second concerned the point of the climb. Each climber, in addition to handling their own gear, transportation, and other expenses, must commit to raise at least $10,000. (As she awaited her plane on Aug. 9, Stewart’s donation “thermometer” reached $8,210, toward her own goal of $12,000. More than $2,500 came from bank staff. To see the latest tally, or to donate, visit this speedlink:

Stewart is no stranger to business challenges. She converted Sound Community Bank to a mutual savings bank from a credit union in 2003. And six years ago, she set a personal goal of losing weight (she’s dropped 100 pounds) and getting into shape. She began walking, then running, and worked up to a full marathon. That gave her the courage to try the climb.

The charity expedition that Stewart joined in mid-August planned to ascend in a five-day approach. The route is a very challenging walk, rather than a “technical” climb, due to the mountain’s gradual slopes. However, the terrain is sufficiently rugged, and the risk of altitude sickness significant enough, that the five days help participants’ bodies grow used to the altitude. Hired bearers carry the bulk of the equipment, which includes multiple changes of clothing. The climbers pass from equatorial lowlands to snow and ice.

By contrast to the climb, the descent, not requiring acclimatization, occurs in one long day. Stewart and the others will rise at midnight and complete the final ascent to the summit in time to see the sun rise. Then they’ll head back down.

As she headed to Africa for her first mountain climb, Stewart admitted to some trepidation, but resolved to do her best. “It’s about the journey,” she said.

Next: Stewart's on-mountain experiences and insights.


Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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