Friends in High Places

In June of 1994, my oldest friend, Todd Huston, began a project he called “Summit America”. Todd had a goal of breaking the record time for summiting the high points of all 50 states. The existing record was 101 days and was held by Adrian Crane, an ultra-endurance athlete. Adrian Crane has two legs; Todd has only one.

When Todd was fourteen years old, a boat ran over him, sucking both of his legs into the propellers. His left thigh was torn to the bone, the back side of his right leg was missing, and his right knee was sliced in half. The doctors were able to save both legs, but his right leg was paralyzed below the knee. The infection that plagued his leg for years led to the decision to amputate when he was 21. Todd is one of the toughest guys I know. His leg was amputated while he was wide awake. He asked to be anesthetized below the waist, and while he was talking to the doctor, they fired up the saw and amputated his right leg, below the knee. Anybody that tough can do anything they put their mind to.

I never treated Todd any differently than anyone else or showed him pity over what had happened to him. When he came to visit me in San Francisco 35 years ago, he hiked the hills all day on crutches. When my car wouldn’t start, I had him push it with one leg while I sat in the car and popped the clutch to get it going again. In hindsight, it was great training for his future.

Todd and I have always had each other’s backs, so when he ran into an unexpected challenge with his Summit America project, he knew who to call. Todd had initially invited me to be part of the expedition but I wasn’t able to take that much time off from work, so I’d had to say no. I offered suggestions regarding the sequencing of the climbs, including starting the time-clock at the summit of Denali in Alaska, the highest of the 50 high points at 20,320 feet. This suggestion changed the course of the climb and of Todd’s life.

By late July, Todd had successfully summited 46 of the 50 high points and was well on track to break the record. I had been following his progress and was really excited for him. On July 30th, the phone rang. There was a problem in Oregon. A week earlier, a team of 5 climbers on Mt Hood had fallen. Two had died and two had been seriously injured. Apparently, there was a problem with snow melting due to unusually warm weather, resulting in serious rockslides on the mountain. Todd had already arranged for a guide to take him up Mt Hood, but due to the conditions and the fatal accident the previous week, his guide pulled out at the last minute. Todd tried to find another guide, but no one was interested in taking an amputee up the mountain in conditions that everyone considered dangerous.

I had climbed Mt Hood 3 years earlier, and I knew that it was not a technical, challenging mountain. In fact, Mt Hood is the second most climbed mountain in the world, behind Japan’s Mt Fuji. Climbers of all levels have successfully summited Mt Hood. I knew I could help Todd get to the top. I told him that if he’d pay for my ticket, I’d take the first flight to Portland and we’d get it done. I took the next day off, and Todd picked me up at the airport at 9:30 AM.

We headed to the hotel, where we met up with Whit, Todd’s climbing partner on this expedition, and Lisa, who was in charge of community outreach and logistical support. I assured them that Todd would be safe and that we would have a successful climb and get the expedition back on track. On the way to the lodge, we visited a family whose little girl had recently had her leg amputated. Todd has always cared first and foremost about inspiring others; the climbing came second.

After dinner at the Timberline Lodge, as the sun was starting to set, Todd, Whit and I started our climb. We left about 8:00 PM, and climbed to Hogback Ridge, at 10,600 feet, where we made camp. Our camp consisted of three ledges that we made with our ice axes, just wide enough for a pad and sleeping bag. We anchored our sleeping bags with our ice axes, and then we slept from midnight to 4:00 AM. At 4:00 AM, when the snow was at its coldest and safest, we roped up and began our summit push.

The conditions were good. We came to an open crevasse with a narrow snow bridge. I crossed to the other side and anchored the rope to belay Todd and Whit. With one major obstacle behind us we now faced the crux of the climb – a steep narrow gully of ice and loose rock. I led the pitch. Todd and Whit were staggered behind. As debris fell from above, I repeatedly yelled ”ROCK!” to warn the climbers below me.

We traversed carefully across the mixture of snow, ice, rocks, and mud as we approached the summit and were welcomed by a beautiful sunrise. We had done it. With smiles, high fives, and cheers, we took our summit photos, signed the registry, and started our descent. It was a race against the sun to get Todd and Whit down the mountain before the snow got too soft and warm, my main concern was the softening of the snow bridge. Todd glissaded down much of the mountain to speed up his descent and save energy from using his prosthetic leg.

 

The clock was ticking. My flight back to Reno was leaving within hours of our summit. Once I got Todd and Whit got off the snow, I ran ahead and down the mountain to the Timberline Lodge to pack up our gear. Lisa and I loaded the truck and she revved the engine, urging Todd and Whit to hurry. They jumped in and we were off. Lisa had been tasked with getting me to the airport on time, and she took the challenge to heart, weaving the big red Ford pickup truck meticulously through the winding country roads. As we screeched to a halt in front of the airport, I said goodbye and wished Todd good luck, and then I ran for the gate. I arrived minutes before the flight took off, and was at work the next day.

Todd successfully completed his “Summit America” project on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii on August 7th, setting a new record of 66 days, 22 hours and 47 minutes. He became the first and only disabled person to break and hold an able-bodied world record. This opened the door for him to receive exposure in global media and thousands of publications, including Sports Illustrated and all of the major television networks. CBS did a story on him ten minutes before the Super Bowl, which was seen by tens of millions of people. Todd has numerous awards including having been named on the list of Ten Outstanding Young Americans (along with Peyton Manning). He has spoken at the Sydney Opera House and has met with prime ministers and kings. A movie is currently in the works about his life and the “Summit America” project.

I was—and I remain—proud of Todd, and happy to have been able to help him achieve his goal. Since high school, Todd and I have been together through a lot of ups and downs in life. This was by far the best “Up”!

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