For 50-Year-Old Sue Cobb, a Woman's Work Is Never Done—Not Until She Has Reached the Summit of Everest

updated 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Saying that Sue Cobb is a late bloomer is a little like saying Mike Tyson can punch. At an age when some women are preparing contentedly for grandmotherhood, Cobb, 50, is on her way to one of the world's great challenges: the conquest of Everest.

To date, more Americans have sojourned in space than have strolled to the top of the planet's 29,028-foot tallest peak. For good reason. Space is more hospitable in some ways, because the harshness of the environment is at least predictable. Scores of skilled mountaineers have lost their lives on Everest's oxygen-starved heights in thundering avalanches, powerful winds and extremely cold temperatures.

Cobb knows this, but it hasn't deterred her. "I'm not nervous at all," she says. "I have confidence in my ability, I've taken extensive medical tests, and I train constantly." A serious climber for 15 years with limited expedition experience, she runs three to six miles a day, lifts weights and jets off periodically for altitude training on peaks from Canada to Argentina. On South America's 22,831-foot Aconcagua two years ago, Cobb was trapped for three days in a howling blizzard and nearly succumbed to hypothermia. "I was disoriented, stumbling, taking off my jacket in a blizzard," she says. "My teammates recognized the symptoms. They put me in a sleeping bag in a tent and fed me hot liquids. I'll be more cautious about it on Everest."

Despite Cobb's unquenchable confidence, her husband, Chuck, currently President Reagan's acting under secretary for travel and tourism, and their sons, Chris, 25, and Toby, 24, are worried about her upcoming adventure. "I tell her I support her all the way," Chuck says, "but I wish she wasn't doing this one. I tell our friends to talk her out of it." Not surprisingly, they haven't been able to.

Six women have reached Everest's summit over the years, but if Cobb succeeds in becoming the oldest as well as the first American, it will be the crowning achievement in a remarkable career. An athlete all her life, she took up competitive skiing at 34. She was competing in national amateur events for skiers over 25—and winning them—within one year of her first racing lesson.

In 1972 her husband, a former Olympic hurdler, became chief executive officer of Arvida, a Florida hotel and resort company. Cobb simply switched her focus from skiing to tennis. Though she had played one year on the women's varsity at Stanford, where she and Chuck met, she had played very little since then. Two years later she was ranked sixth among the top 10 players over 35 in Florida. She should have been delighted; she wasn't. "I could see I wasn't winging my way to Wimbledon," she says, "and anything less was not good enough for me."

So in 1975, at the age of 38, Cobb enrolled in law school at the University of Miami. Nine years later she was a partner in a Miami law firm and a specialist in municipal bond issues and corporate litigation. Last year she was reappointed to her third one-year term as head of the Federal Reserve Bank in Miami.

Professional success has given the Cobb family a life-style that might have softened them, but clearly has not. They own a Georgetown condominium filled with 19th-century English oils and antiques, a ski chalet in Telluride, Colo., and a four-bedroom home in the affluent Snapper Creek area of Miami. When Chuck's tour with the Administration ends, they plan to move into a spectacular, 17,000-square-foot retreat on a private island in Miami's Biscayne Bay.

For now, though, Cobb has taken an 18-month leave of absence from work and has set her sights solely on Everest, known in the Tibetan language as Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World." By early August, Cobb will be heading through China on a 600-mile truck trip to the expedition's base camp on Tibet's Rongbuk Glacier. There, the American climbing party of 29 men and five women will get acclimatized to the altitude before beginning their 80-day assault on the mountain. Once on Everest, according to trip organizer Bob Skinner, the Wyoming climber who selected her, Cobb's age and attitude certainly will be an advantage.

"We have trained with Sue on other mountains. She's tough and ambitious and stays with a climb," Skinner says. "She is more likely to reach the summit than any of the younger women. We feel there is an excellent chance to put an American woman there. Sue is the ideal candidate." In other words, even in an all-out battle with the Goddess Mother of the World, Sue Cobb is the mother to bet on.

—By Ned Geeslin, with Linda Marx in Miami

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