A pioneer of Alaska mountain climbing has set one -- maybe two -- new records on Mount McKinley. On June 28, three months shy of his 79th birthday, Tom Choate became the oldest person to reach the summit of the mountain.
The previous record was held by Michio Kumamoto of Japan, who reached the top in 2007 at 76.
Choate, born Sept. 30, 1934, is a retired biology professor and self-described "old mountain goat" who lives in Anchorage. He was among the first 130 or so people to ascend the 20,320-foot mountain that now sees thousands of attempts each year. He was a member of the team that, in 1963, made the first north-to-south traverse of the mountain; he reached the summit twice on that expedition.
Choate has since climbed Denali in 1983, 1993, 2003 and now 2013. That streak may present a more telling record than merely being the oldest person ever to stand at the tallest point on North America.
"The more interesting record in my book is that I think it's the greatest duration of time between a climber's first ascent and most recent ascent," said Steve Gruhn, who with Bruce Kittredge accompanied Choate on the trip. Gruhn noted that 49 years, 11 months and one week separated Choate's 1963 and 2013 climbs.
Gruhn was less certain whether anyone else has successfully climbed Denali in five different decades. "But I think that's a safe bet," he said.
Choate made his latest climb with an artificial hip.
"They gave me a new hip last year," he said by phone from Talkeetna a few hours after coming off the mountain Tuesday. "I was only up to four hours of exercise. But up there, waiting for the weather, I got fitter and fitter, where I could do six-, then eight-hour days."
Gruhn is 46, Kittredge is 56. The team accommodated Choate's hip by making extra camps between established resting spots. That involved carrying more food and, hence, more weight.
The party was stymied by fog, high winds and, 700 feet from the summit, a freak electrical storm.
"I was more delayed by weather this time than any of my other trips," Choate said. "We were running days behind schedule. You'd sit and it would look like a good day, then you'd see a banner of 400 yards of snow running off the ridge and know it was 50 miles an hour up there.
"The clear weather is misleading. People say, 'We had all this sunshine.' Well, really, most of those days were too windy to climb even though it was a gorgeous sunny day."
When the wind settled down, a throng of climbers moved at the same time.
"There were something like 50 people all over the Football Field and Pig Hill," two features on the approach to the summit, Choate said. "Like ants. Suddenly a big white cloud enveloped everybody. Five minutes later there was a huge clap of thunder. People were run off the top, burned by shocks. One guy had his hair virtually curled by a shock that came through his shovel. There were 50 disappointed people running off the mountain. Thirty of us sat around for two hours waiting for it to go away."
A thunderstorm at the top of the mountain was unheard of, he said.
He finished the ascent the next day.
"My performance really wasn't that great," Choate said. "It took 11 hours, but eventually I got my old body up there and -- wouldn't you know it -- it was 30 miles an hour and a whiteout."
"There were times we could see off to the south face," Gruhn said. "But it was intermittent. We didn't spend too long at the top. It was late and we had to get out of there."
"Ideally the young folks would have grabbed their packs and gone all the way down," Choate said. "But not me. We went to bed. There was one last decent day and we spent it recovering."
That turned out to be a mistake. Storms made the climb down almost as difficult as the ascent.
"I've never been delayed even one day coming down," Choate said. "This time I was delayed for eight days."
Trying to move from the 17,000-foot camp to 14,000 feet, the climbers were knocked off the ridge by winds and had to retreat to the higher level, Choate said. That happened twice. "It took us two days to go down what it took us less than one day to come up."
The Kahiltna Glacier, where charter planes drop off and pick up climbers, was "filled with clouds and snowstorms," he said. At one point the party was lost in heavy fog, searching to find the trail.
When they finally reached the glacier, they found climbers backed up, waiting for planes. That kept Choate stuck on Denali.
In some ways this climb may have been tougher than his pioneering 1963 traverse with mountaineering giants Vin Hoeman and Dave Johnston, even though that expedition now seems primitive.
"In 1963 we didn't use an airplane," Choate recalled. "We walked from Wonder Lake to Talkeetna, about 180 miles. There were no air strips, no radio service, no Park Service, no nothing."
Gruhn said he was particularly gratified to know that an Alaskan had reclaimed the title of oldest Denali climber, and the "old mountain goat" himself seemed satisfied to kick back and bask in his accomplishments.
"I'm overly relaxed at the moment," Choate said with a chuckle. "I've been sitting in the snow for the past 47 days and all of a sudden I'm sitting here in the sun."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM