Christine O’Neil had never played racquetball before, so when the young high school student stepped onto the court with her father, John O’Neil did what any dad would do — he sand-bagged a little.
“I played a lot, so I messed around at the start and let her get up 5-0. Then I decided it was time to turn it on and play harder, but she ended up beating me 10-0. That’s when I knew I had a very competitive daughter who would not back down from a challenge.”
That message has been repeated a number of times since, as Christine O’Neil went on to graduate from St. Ursula Academy, Albion College, and then earned a masters degree from Colorado State. She is now the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Finlandia University, in Hancock, on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
After recently tackling ice climbing on glaciers in Alaska, and spending 10 days in the summers hiking, backpacking and camping on rugged Isle Royale in Lake Superior, O’Neil realized she had developed a serious affinity for the outdoors since leaving northwest Ohio.
“I used to snowboard when I lived in Colorado, but I never really did anything I would consider that adventurous,” O’Neil said. “But once I got to the U.P., I found out how much I enjoyed the outdoors. Living here, you learn about things like backpacking and hiking.”
But even after the extensive hikes into the wilderness on remote Isle Royale, and the ice escapade in Alaska, which was done at sea level, a trek up the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states seems like a significant leap on the degree of difficulty meter.
“Obviously, I’ve never attempted anything like this before, and the altitude concerns me,” O’Neil said. “So when I first started thinking about it, it was really scary to imagine.”
Mount Whitney is 14,505 feet and draped in snow. When O’Neil’s party of about a dozen began its climb on Saturday, the temperature on the mountain was in the low 20s with a chill factor in single digits.
Weather permitting, her group plans to utilize two base camps along the “Mountaineers Route” to the summit. To reach their goal, they will have to make a very arduous vertical elevation climb of more than 6,000 feet in a distance of around five miles, and pass a rather forbidding sounding landmark called Iceberg Lake at the base of the mountain, about 12,000 feet.
“I guess they haven’t had as much snow as usual, but I still expect it to be cold, very cold,” O’Neil said early last week before flying to Las Vegas, and then making the drive north and west to the area near the mountain in California.
Her motivation for taking on Whitney, a mass of granite that pushes into the sky above the rest of the Sierra Nevada mountains, comes from something more than the simple challenge, or that competitive fire, and an increasingly adventurous spirit. There is a real cause involved.
While thumbing through a backpacking magazine last year, O’Neil saw an ad for the Mount Whitney climb, which was organized to raise funds for the Big City Mountaineers, a mentoring program that strives to provide urban youth with “transformational wilderness experiences.” The “Summit for Someone” campaign asks each climber to solicit pledges to support these efforts.
“It seemed like a very worthwhile cause, and a great adventure at the same time,” O’Neil said.
She had to put together an application and an essay outlining her interest in the project, and then was notified in October that she had been selected to take part. Several experienced mountain climbers will lead the expedition.
“Fortunately, I had some time to prepare for this,” O’Neil said. She started intensive workouts to increase her endurance through cardiovascular exercise, hiked with weights to build strength, and since she will be carrying a heavy pack on the ascent, O’Neil has been toting up to 45 pounds of gear on her back while using a stair-climber or hiking in the U.P.
“Once I was accepted, they gave me a couple workout plans to follow, and I just tailored those for where I live,” she said.
The 36-year-old O’Neil, who traveled to the area a week early so that she could do some additional training in the days preceding the climb, said she expects the move from hiking to climbing to be challenge-laden.
“I needed to learn some more skills for the mountain, because climbing with ropes and crampons is something I’ve never done before,” she said.
“My biggest concern besides the altitude is the climb itself, since it’s so different. I’m very nervous about that.”
That level of anxiety is shared or magnified in her friends and family, who fully support the venture, but don’t mask their trepidation.
“When I saw a picture of her ice climbing, I said ‘who does something like that’, ” said Sally Waterman, a Toledoan whose daughter, Jacqueline, was one of O’Neil’s best friends during their days at St. Ursula.
“Christine is sometimes just a little bit quirky, but her interest in these outdoors adventures has come along in the last 10 years or so,” Waterman said. “But she’s a very smart girl, and she would not take on anything like this without a lot of research and proper preparation. I’m worried about her safety and I think it’s crazy, but I have always admired her spirit, and I think it’s for a great cause.”
O’Neil’s father said he won’t relax until he gets word that his daughter has safely returned from the summit.
“It just scares me to death to think about it,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be well-secured and in the company of good climbers, but it’s still a mountain, and we don’t have many of those around here.”
Information on O’Neil’s climb on Mount Whitney is available at summitforsomeone.org.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.