Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Matt Markey

Toledo native returns to conquer Mt. Whitney on 2nd attempt




Back in mid-April, Christine O’Neil was done with Mount Whitney. She had attempted to climb the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, but retreated off the mountain after aggravating a hip injury with the most taxing part of the ascent still looming ahead of her.

O’Neil, a Toledo native and 1994 graduate of St. Ursula, had tried to reach Whitney’s 14,505-foot apex as part of a fund-raiser called Summit for Someone. She hoped to put some donations in the coffers of the Big City Mountaineers, a mentoring program that offers urban youth unique wilderness experiences.

But with the pain in her hip intensifying, and the 60-pound pack on her back exacerbating the problem, O’Neil threw in the towel. She was confident that she had given it her best effort, but sometimes the mountain just wins.

“I was OK with that decision for about three days,” said O’Neil, who works as the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Finlandia University in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “I told myself that I tried and it didn’t work out. But then you start to think about it, and you feel like you gave up. Then you think about it more and more.”

O’Neil — who has tackled ice climbing on glaciers in Alaska and spends 10 days in the summers hiking, backpacking, and camping on rugged Isle Royale in Lake Superior — said the choice kept eating at her.

“I kind of felt like this would be something that would hang over my head forever,” she said.

After taking about 10 days off to heal, she started to train again, but this time with more of an emphasis on building strength. Her experience on Whitney had given O’Neil a very real picture of the mettle it would take to reach the top.

“After coming down the mountain that first time, I don’t think I’ve ever been that sore. It is very taxing on your body,” she said. “Before the first time, I felt like I had worked out pretty hard and was ready for the climb. But after struggling so much on the first try, it helped that I knew what to expect.”

As part of her new regimen, O’Neil utilized a ski resort near her home in the U.P. and would hike up and down the mountain four or five times at a clip. She also used a stair climber while carrying a 40-pound pack on her back.

“As I prepared for my second attempt at the mountain, I could feel myself getting stronger,” she said. “I think I was definitely in better shape the second time.”

O’Neil returned to California on June 2, and early on the morning of June 7, O’Neil confronted the path to the highest peak in the continental United States for a second time. She had breakfast with her guide about 7 a.m., did a quick gear check, then started the climb on Whitney, a mass of granite that pushes into the sky above the rest of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

By midafternoon, the pair had reached 11,500 feet, where she and her guide set up camp. They rose about 3:30 the next morning to have breakfast and prepare for a push to the summit. They waited until about 5 a.m., when there was just enough light to see what they were doing.

O’Neil and her guide reached Iceberg Lake at 12,500 feet, then put on climbing harnesses to cover the next 1,500 feet of steep, loose rock. When they reached a notch at about 500 feet from the summit, the climb became strictly a vertical ascent against sheer rock walls.

At the summit, O’Neil found a lot of big rocks and a spectacular, panoramic view.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, but it was a lot bigger area than I thought it would be,” she said. “You see pictures of Whitney, and it looks like it comes to a sharp point at the top, but there is actually more space up there.”

After staying about 30 minutes, the pair moved back down the mountain, collected their gear at their campsite, and continued their descent, reaching the base of the mountain early that evening. O’Neil found herself exhausted, but relieved.

“There were definitely times that I wanted to stop, because it is very physically demanding,” she said about the second assault on Whitney. “You don’t get all that excited about the process since it is so hard, but it is pretty exciting to know you have reached the top of the mountain and fulfilled that goal.”

O’Neil admitted that before her first run at the mountain, she initially was a bit scared about the prospect of such a climb because it was so different than anything else she had done. But what ultimately pushed her to return so soon, and face off with Whitney again — was it the challenge, the specter, the notoriety?

“I think it was just me being stubborn,” O’Neil said. “I just didn’t want to wake up every day and think that I didn’t finish what I started.”

WALLEYE FISHING SEMINAR: Toledo native and pro walleye fisherman Ross Robertson will hold a workshop on “Summer Walleye Tactics” on Wednesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Jann’s Netcraft on Briarfield Boulevard in Maumee. Robertson will share the systems that professional guides utilize to catch more fish and bigger fish in the summer. Seating for the event is limited, so call Netcraft at 419-868-8288 (option 1) or email to reserve space.

SAFE BOATING CLASS: The Toledo Sail & Power Squadron and the Western Lake Erie Safe Boating Council will hold a boater education class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Cooley Canal Yacht Club, located at 12235 Bono Rd. in Curtice. The course covers docking, anchoring, crossing, passing, right of way, and other boating topics. After completing the course, a boater education certificate is awarded, and Ohio law requires that those born on or after Jan. 1, 1982, must have a boater education certificate when operating a powerboat greater than 10HP. Michigan has a similar law. The fee for the class is $35 per person with a family discount available. Lunch will be available on site. Register by calling 419-343-0251 or through the email address.

Contact Blade outdoors editor

Matt Markey at:

or 419-724-6068.

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