Atop a 16,050-foot glaciated mountain in Antarctica’s Sentinel Range, Cheyenne area residents Rob McDonald and Charles “Chaz” Lalonde just completed their decade-long journey of climbing the highest points on the seven continents.
“Relief,” said retired businessman McDonald, 63, about how it felt to stand on the summit of Mount Vinson on January 5, “and sadness, too, because we set this goal and now it was achieved, and we were done.”
Lalonde, 56, an OB/GYN doctor, agreed. “There was a tremendous sense of relief. We were on the second rope team and the first rope team closest to the summit stopped and waved us past. They said the two people who were going to finish the Seven Summits that day should summit first. I was taken aback, and honored. Rob and I summited together. I’ve never cried on a mountain, but I shed a few tears up there.”
The men didn’t start out with the Seven Summits goal in mind. Mc-Donald said, “In 2006, Chaz and Brooke (Chesnut, a former Skyway neighbor) invited me to climb (22,838-foot South America highpoint) Aconcagua with them. After we summited that peak, we wanted to pursue (high altitude mountaineering) further and decided to try (20,320-foot North America highpoint) Denali in 2008.”
That was an epic trip, said Mc-Donald. “Brooke, Chaz and I were at high camp, and the winds were blowing and we were almost out of food, with just one package of oatmeal each. We were lying in bed at 4:30 a.m. and the wind suddenly stopped, and we went up. We befriended a group of Germans on the peak, including a physician who was trying to finish the Seven Summits, and had been turned back on Denali before because of storms. He summited this time, and so we were all ecstatic. On our way back to Anchorage from Talkeetna, the German doctor asked Chaz when he was going to do (29,035-foot Asia highpoint) Mount Everest. Chaz told him it wasn’t even on the radar, but the doctor held his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, and said Everest was only a little bit harder than Denali.”
“That got into Chaz’s head. He’d already done (19,341-foot Africa highpoint) Kilimanjaro with his wife, Mona Comeau, and Brooke and his wife, Pam. He’d done Aconcagua with me and Brooke, and now the three of us had Denali. Chaz had three of the Seven Summits under his belt, and he convinced Brooke and me to continue on with him. Of course, we discovered that Everest was not just a little bit harder than Denali, it was a lot tougher!” said McDonald.
The men trained hard for the peaks. Lalonde said, “We started doing winter ascents on Pikes Peak. We put on heavy packs and hiked up Barr Trail. I can’t tell you how many times we camped at the A-frame. We’d sleep, and head up to the summit the next day. Just walking around at high altitudes with a heavy pack is the best way to train for this kind of stuff.”
McDonald and Lalonde went to Seattle for a four-day “course and climb” on Mount Rainier, to practice glacier travel and crevasse rescue. They summited Mt. Rainier on the third day. After Denali, Lalonde climbed (18,510-foot Europe highpoint) Mount Elbrus in 2010. He and McDonald climbed Mt. Everest together in 2012.
“Everest is not a technically difficult mountain,” said McDonald. “We never used rope teams. We used fixed ropes, and had to be able to work ascenders. We practiced walking ladders wearing crampons. You have to develop your cardiovascular system, and mental toughness. We cached food and oxygen tanks for the way up, and carried it out on the way down. We climbed through the Khumbu Icefall four times each way, up and down, and that — and the summit — was my favorite part of the trip. I know it’s the most dangerous but it’s the most beautiful, too.”
McDonald and Lalonde each caught an upper respiratory virus on Mt. Everest, and McDonald’s oxygen levels in his blood dropped so low that, at 21,000 feet, he was afraid to sleep because he thought he might not wake up. He and Lalonde descended to 14,000 feet to recover. “That,” said McDonald, “was the most frightening part of the trip.”
McDonald continued, “We started banging them out after Denali and Everest. I did five peaks total with Chaz, and four with Brooke.” Mc-Donald and Lalonde, along with their wives, climbed (7,310-foot Australia highpoint) Mount Kosciuszko in 2014.
The McDonalds also did Kilimanjaro in 2014. This month, Lalonde, McDonald, and Chesnut, who now lives in Golden, were joined by Doug Ingram of Colorado Springs in Antarctica.
“Climbing Vinson, we noticed the Colorado climbers acclimated more quickly, while the Seattle climbers were more skilled with rope travel, because they have glaciated peaks to climb year-round,” said Lalonde.
McDonald concurred. “Living at a higher altitude gave us a tremendous advantage. You can train on the Incline and Pikes Peak every morning. We did Mt. Elbrus in one day without any acclimatization, with no ill effects.”
While climbing the Seven Summits requires a lot of training, the cost and time involved make the goal prohibitive for many people. McDonald estimated the total cost at around $100,000, although this would vary depending on whether you did the climbs guided or unguided. Everest and Vinson are the costliest and most time-consuming, at around $40,000 each, and require a commitment of 8 to 9 weeks and 2 to 3 weeks, respectively. Lalonde noted they were legally required to hire a guide and porters for some of the peaks, like Kilimanjaro. They chose to hire guides for others, and did a couple of them unguided.
“By the end it felt awkward (having someone else carry our gear),” said Lalonde, “but you have to remember, you’re supporting an infrastructure, you’re supporting their families.”
Lalonde and McDonald shared advice for achieving such a goal: Save your money, and stay in shape. Lalonde noted, “I run five times a week, swim one day a week, and during the winter I ski, mostly telemarking. I’ve run the Pikes Peak Ascent 17 years in a row, and I train locally with the Incline Club. I enjoy trekking with my wife, Mona. We don’t need to stay in a five-star hotel to be happy, a tent is just fine. I don’t drive a fancy car. And I don’t think the person who dies with the most toys wins. I work hard, and I enjoy life.”
McDonald added, “Stay fit and you can do these things well into your 60s and beyond. My wife Ann and I are going to do a trek in Nepal. I want to go back to the Khumbu Valley. I’d still like to climb Mount Blanc (highest point of Western Europe), and I might even head to Indonesia for Carstensz Pyramid (highest point of New Guinea) someday.”
Courtesy of Cheyenne Edition
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