I decided on Mount Rainier in Washington. It's not the highest, but it's very technical and a lot of serious climbers have trained on it. I knew I'd have to carry my own gear for the two-day summit and learn how to climb on ice. I figured it would be a true test of whether I was built for mountain climbing or not.
How did you train?
I started training two months before I went up on Memorial Day weekend in 2008. During the week, I would run and swim to build up my lung capacity. On the weekends I'd go up and down Stone Mountain three to five times. I'd done that for Kilimanjaro, but for Rainier I climbed with a backpack full of books and water. Sometimes I hiked up Kennesaw Mountain, over to Little Kennesaw Mountain and on to Pigeon Hill and back. For later climbs, I wore a 40-pound weight vest and pulled a tire on a rope behind me.
Was Rainier a true test?
Yes, but I misjudged that mountain and it turned out to be my biggest challenge, for various reasons. A close friend had died three weeks before the climb, so I had to stop training for two weeks. I wasn't in the best shape.
I had to learn to climb on ice, so I took a one-day climbing school between the first and second day of the climb. It's a tricky mountain with a lot of crevasses.
On summit day, you start about 2 a.m. and aim toward reaching the top by 10 a.m. It's safer climbing at night, since ice is more dangerous once the sun comes out. It was also early in the season, so we had to break trail all the way up and that takes extra effort. You'd like to stay at the top awhile and savor your accomplishment, but you don't usually stay but about 10 minutes, because you need to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. It's just as tricky going down.
Even with the challenges, you wanted to try other peaks?
Once you've had that experience, it's hard not to want to do it again and again. I love the solitude, physical stamina and mental challenge of climbing, and I see scenery that few people see. I wouldn't trade that for anything. And every climb is different, because every mountain is different.
At the top of Kilimanjaro, you see a volcano and blanket of clouds. On Mount Elbrus you look over the snowy caps of the Caucasus Mountains as far as the eye can see. From Mount Whitney, you're looking down into the Yosemite Valley. You can see the amazing Swiss peaks of the Alps from Gran Paradiso. I've stayed in tents, wooded huts and an Italian chalet. I've had porters and roughed iteach experience was different.
It sounds like a costly sport?
Air flights can cost you $1,000 to $1,500 and you pay for a good guide company, because they know the mountain and you don't. The guide company for Kilimanjaro was around $4,000. You do your research and choose a guide based on experience and safety rate, not price.
I add to my equipment with each climb. I've bought an ice axe, crampons, backpack, sleeping bag, climbing helmet, boots, a head lamp, other gear and lots of specialized clothing. I rent tents, an avalanche transceiver, [a signal transmitter for emergencies] and the plastic boots needed for glaciers.