SANTA FE, N.M. — Allan Oliver has climbed in the Himalayas and he’s climbed big mountains in South America.
But there’s nothing like reaching the top of your home country and continent.
Oliver, 50, accomplished that feat recently when he stepped atop Mount Denali in Alaska.
Scratching the sky at 20,310 feet, Denali lords over the surrounding countryside like few other peaks, which makes sharing the crest a lifetime achievement, said Oliver, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation.
“Denali is a bigger climb,” he said, comparing it to the other mountains he’s summited in the past. “Your base camp is at a lower elevation. And getting to the top of it, you’re at the highest point in North America. There’s also the significance for an American, it being the highest point in North America and the United States. So that’s an extra element there. It was something I’ve always wanted climb.”
It also satisfies a longtime urge after his father had worked as an engineer in Alaska and told him stories of the state.
“He always had a soft spot for Alaska, said it was one of the beautiful places in the world,” Oliver said. “It’s a place that just really captured my imagination.”
The beauty of which his father spoke was actually understated, he said.
“Denali, I’ve never been to a more beautiful place in my life,” Oliver said. “And I’ve been to a lot.”
Beautiful, but dangerous, as much of the haul is either on crevasse-filled glaciers or up sheer rock faces, clinging and climbing the fixed ropes.
“We were roped in essentially from the time we left the airport,” Oliver said of the landing pad below the 7,200-foot-high base camp.
Oliver’s group got stuck for about a week about halfway up Denali, waiting for a three-week window necessary to make a summit bid.
It was those times that could make or break the spirit of the climbers, he said.
“You really have to have your mind in a good place,” Oliver said. “When you’re stuck on a side of a mountain for six or seven days, that can get frustrating. You can start questioning whether you’re ever going to be able to make it. Having your mind right, you know that the goal is not 100% summiting, but rather more about climbing and enjoying the fact that you’re out there in this beautiful place and doing the thing that you always wanted to do. That piece is so critical. The folks that were 100% set on summiting, they’re the ones that struggled the most.”
Oliver and the group he was with passed the time by reading or engaging in fun activities like building an igloo and even an outdoor living room, complete with an ice couch and an ice television with a conveniently placed hole that brought nearby feature Farthing Horn into focus.
“I called it the National Geographic Channel,” Oliver said.
The group ultimately found a climbing window and made a dash for the top, ascending to the summit June 20.
“I ended up being short of breath for two reasons,” he said of standing on the high spot of North America. “The air is just so darn thin. And you can see forever. It’s amazing being on top of this beautiful mountain range and you’re the topmost point of that mountain range. It’s a bit of a spiritual experience.
“By that point, you’re just looking down on the whole rest of the world,” Oliver said. “Everything is below you. It’s a spectacular feeling of achievement and super humbling.”
He trained for the adventure by hitting many of the nearby peaks, carrying progressively heavier packs. Oliver took a stab at Mount Rainier in Washington to get a feel for climbing extended periods on ice and snow.
As for future endeavors, Oliver is not sure, although continuing to hike and trek with his nine-year-old son will hold a big place in those plans.
“I’m probably going to look at other mountains,” he said. “I’d like a little time to think about this. Being away from my son that amount of time wasn’t easy. But it is something I love doing. I want to do more big things like that again. With my son, we do a lot of trekking on a lot of the local trails in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and into Taos. He loves the downhill and we love doing that together.”