Taking Medicine to New Heights

Cambridge medical students are expected to be well-schooled in the art of social climbing, but Peter Steele, who studied medicine at the University of Cambridge, in England, chose mountain climbing instead.

“There were some really excellent climbers [at Cambridge], and I got bit by the ‘climbing bug’,” Steele says in a British accent that seems to lend a natural authority to his words.

Although the idea of British aristocracy appeals to a lot of people, it doesn’t hold much weight for Steele, who has regularly chosen adventure over wealth.

In the mid-1960s, while Steele was working at a hospital in Central London, he met the King of Bhutan. The king was in Britain seeking medical advice after a heart attack. He invited Steele to his country.

In 1967, Steele, along with his wife Sarah and two young children, packed their belongings and moved to Bhutan, a tiny nation nestled anonymously between southern China and northeastern India.

There, Steele studied the goitre, an enlarged gland that causes swelling in the neck.

“It was an incredible experience,” he says, and it became the basis for his first book, Two and Two Halves to Bhutan: A Family Journey in the Himalayas.

Writing had become another lifelong passion for Steele.

His second book, Doctor on Everest, is based on his experience as the doctor on a 1971 expedition to summit the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest.

No one in the expedition reached the peak, but Steele feels this was somewhat fortunate for him.

“Because the expedition failed [to reach the summit], no one else wrote about it, so it allowed me to tell my story.”

During his time on Mount Everest, one of the team members went missing, Steele says, adding that he and five other mountaineers formed a rescue mission at 25,000 feet.

They found the man who, tragically, had died of hypothermia.

Steele told his story of Mount Everest on a lecture tour in 1975. It was then that he was invited to visit the Yukon.

How could an adventurer refuse?

The Yukon wilderness captivated him, and soon the whole family moved here. “Originally we were planning to live there for a few years and then move somewhere more sensible,” he says.

Cross-country skiing kept the Steele clan here.

“We all really enjoyed [skiing], and it was great for the kids to have a program like that to go into.”

The family made their mark on the sport.

Steele’s daughter, Lucy, represented Canada at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France; and his wife, Sarah, was president of the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club.

“I still really miss her,” Steele confides, and It’s obvious. Sarah passed on in 1995 and Steele set to work mapping and designing the Sarah Steele Ski Trails. They are well-used and appreciated.

Steele considers the creation of these trails to be among his greatest accomplishments.

As the interview comes to an close, Steele watches that I zip up my jacket before preparing to meet the cold. His paternalistic nature has been obvious. He is, after all, a father as well as a doctor.

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