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Climber takes precautions on trips

From Los Alamos to Denali, N.M. outdoorsman scales new heights

By Emily Van Cleve

For the Journal

Jason Halladay climbed to within 3,000 feet of the summit of Mount McKinley (Denali) last June with the plan of snowboarding down the side of the mountain. When he got to an elevation of 17,200 feet and realized that trail conditions prevented him from going any further, he re-evaluated his plan to snowboard down the mountain.

“I saw an icy headwall and decided it was just too icy to snowboard down from that elevation,” he explained. “So I hiked down a couple of thousand feet until I found a safe place to get on my snowboard.”

That careful evaluation of risks is what’s kept Halladay out of harm’s way during the many hiking, rock climbing and high mountain snowboarding expeditions in which he’s participated for the past 20 years. Halladay is an adventurer, but an adventurer who takes every possible precaution.

“So far, I can say that I’ve never finished a trip thinking that I narrowly escaped death or getting seriously injured,” he added.

Halladay, a 38-year old systems administrator at Los Alamos National Laboratory who lives in Los Alamos, has climbed all 59 14,000-foot-plus mountains in Colorado twice in the past decade during all seasons of the year. His family and friends have gotten used to not seeing him at Thanksgiving and Christmas because he’s usually climbing a mountain during those holiday breaks.

“Summer climbing is straightforward, maybe even routine,” he said. “Winter climbing is more challenging and there are fewer crowds. It can feel like a real wilderness experience.”

Winter means avalanche season. Halladay has taken an avalanche preparation class and always keeps local conditions in mind before and during a winter hike.

“I watch the weather, and I never rush when I’m climbing in the winter,” he said. “I go as far as I can without getting into trouble. Then I stop to assess the situation. I may have climbed that route during the summer, but what is a good trail in the summer can be very slippery in the winter. I always have to be willing to turn back on my goal, just like I did when I climbed Denali in June. Intuition plays a big part in my decisions.”

Halladay made it to the summit of Denali (20,320 feet) in 2003. He’s also reached the summit of Kilimanjaro in Africa (19,340 feet) and Aconcagua in Argentina (22,841 feet).

On some of his climbs, he takes his snowboard with him.

“It’s not often that I find great snowboarding when I get to the top,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m taking my snowboard for a walk.”

Rock climbing also is an integral part of Halladay’s life. He began climbing in 1999. In 2001, he met Aron Ralston and began rock climbing with him on a regular basis. Ralston survived a canyoneering accident in southeastern Utah in 2003 by amputating his right arm. His story is the subject of the film, “127 Hours”. Since Ralston’s accident, he and Halladay haven’t climbed together.

“I have six or so climbing partners at this point in my life,” said Halladay. “My wife Allison (Fritz) climbs at about the same level that I do, so we climb a lot together. For me, a good climbing partner has a good personality and provides good support. I trust that person to catch me when I fall and be positive when I do fall.”

“I work hard at my climbing routes until I get them right,” he explained. “Recently, I climbed a short wall in Parajito Canyon near the (Los Alamos) ski area. It’s really close to town. I became obsessed with it. I fell asleep thinking of the moves I should make climbing it. I did four visits and 15 attempts before I could climb it without falling.”

When not rock and mountain climbing, Halladay is honing his skills as a long-distance trail runner. Since 2005, he’s been building endurance and strength. Last summer, he ran 100-mile races in the Colorado towns of Leadville and Silverton. There are points in the races where the trails go higher than 12,000 feet in elevation.

“The elevation is the biggest challenge,” said Halladay. “But I’ve never needed to use supplemental oxygen.”

For Halladay, outdoor sports are all about pushing himself while keeping safe.

“One of the reasons I do so many different things is that it helps me from getting mentally tired, which is what I think would happen if I did just one sport,” he said. “I also want to keep growing and challenging myself.”

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