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Steve Packer’s Ordeal Ends in Success With His 50th Highpoint on Wheeler Peak

[Published in Apex to Zenith #51 – Fourth Quarter 2000]

New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak caps Steve Packer’s quest. Left to right: Steve Packer, Andy Brolin, and Steve’s wife, Karen.
“…it cost me nine of my fingers and toes, 12 surgeries, and 15 months out of work”

We got up at 4 AM. After hot coffee and a fortifying breakfast, we got an early start under a nearly full moon and a sky filled with stars. I love climbing at that time of morning. When all you can hear is the sound of your breathing and your heart beating strong in your chest, and you’re hiking with two of your closest climbing companions, along a mountain stream through a thick forest of aspens and pines, you realize that life just doesn’t get much better.

So it was, on September 16, 2000, as we started up the Bull-of-the-Woods route toward the summit of Wheeler Peak near Taos, New Mexico. With me were my wife Karen, and my climbing companion from many past adventures, Andy Brolin. I can’t imagine having a better climb for my 50th and final Highpoint: not too difficult… but not a drive-up, either.

As we reached the ridge near the abandoned mines on Frazer Mountain, we were greeted to a glorious blood-red sunrise. A little further along, we passed very close alongside ten bighorn sheep on our way toward La Cal Basin. As we approached the summit I felt like a horse headed for the barn: it was hard to hold me back as I neared the completion of my six-year and six-day odyssey. It was a wonderful feeling to finally reach my 50th summit at 13,661 feet above sea level, and realize that my quest was at last complete.

Highpointing has been an interesting process. A silly undertaking; some would say. The organization required, the countless hours flown, the thousands of miles driven. The greasy hamburgers, the stale trail mix, the gallons of coffee, the endless scenery, the heavenly sunsets. All of these are but components of this odd pursuit we call highpointing.

I chose it as a disciplined method of getting around to all the nooks and crannies of this beautiful country that we are so blessed to live in. And, oh, what glorious sights I did see! And the people I met along the way were so fascinating! Some became lifelong friends. One became my wife.

Where does one begin to describe the awesome majesty of these United States? The yellow aspens shimmering in the breeze along the way to King’s Peak; the vista of endless lakes and tarns as I belayed fellow climbers up the wall to Granite Peak; the exhausted tremor of my leg and arm muscles as I soloed that icy couloir toward Gannett Peak; the pyramid shaped shadow of Mount Hood, cast by a rising sun on the haze layer below; the spectacular panorama from Rainier’s summit after three attempts to scale that behemoth; Katahdin and Mt. Marcy in the rainbow colors of autumn in New England; the stark desolation of Mount Whitney, contrast against the verdant splendor of Sequoia National Forest below and to the west.

And then, of course, there was Denali. So awesome. So powerful. So majestic. The Weathermaker. So large that it creates its own micrometeorology of high and low-pressure systems, hurricane force winds, cap clouds and bitter cold temperatures. It would change my life.

After summiting on a bright, beautiful, sunny afternoon in 1997 with warm temperatures, and a light breeze out of the north, the wind suddenly swung 180 degrees to the south, increased to gale force within minutes, and the temperature plummeted.

Visibility went to zip. Later we started getting blown off our feet. Before the end of that fateful day, we would be in a desperate fight for our lives; one that not every climber would survive. The night that followed in the igloo we constructed at 19,200 feet was the longest one that I ever hope to suffer through. To everyone’s surprise, we got ourselves down to High Camp the next afternoon, and the bottom line is, we survived—albeit with frostbite.

But it cost me nine of my fingers and toes, 12 surgeries, and 15 months out of work, trying to fight off the fear that I would never be able to fly jets again. As one of my guides wrote on a card that he sent to me in the hospital, “the hardest climbs are out of the mountains.”

So it turned out to be. My favorite climbing quotation has always been Hillary’s comment that “it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” One of the happiest moments of my life was when the FAA certified me to climb back into the cockpit and fly 737’s again.

It has been a long, difficult, painful struggle, but not without its rewards. Every cloud really does have a silver lining. On the afternoon before I had my fingers and toes amputated, I was wheeled down to the hospital’s therapy department, and met with the lady who was to become, as James Brady used to say, my “Physical Terrorist.”

Despite the less than cheery circumstances, I was instantly attracted by her charm, humor and grace (not to mention she was really cute!). I flirted with her through weeks and months of painful therapy, but she kept insisting that she could not, and would not, date one of her patients. So I did the only logical thing: I fired her.

She thought I was joking, but I told her I was dead serious about seeing her socially. Six months later, she finally agreed to go out with me. We later built a house together and got married, and are living happily ever after, hiking and climbing (and scuba diving) whenever we can.

It was absolutely the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. She is now a member of the Highpointers Club, and has climbed five significant peaks with me (NV, HI, ID, CO, NM). {You should have seen her scramble, without hesitation, across Chicken-Out Ridge, and then lead to the top of Borah!}

What’s next? We’d love to climb the Matterhorn, and perhaps some other juicy peaks, and then hike the Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada. To my Denali climbing bud-dies, Andy Brolin, Chuck Bonning, & Don Mercer, you have my everlasting thanks, respect and admiration.

A guy couldn’t ask for any better mountaineers to be tied into a rope with, when the proverbial stuff hits the fan. To my wife Karen, who got my stiff stubs to move again, got me back into the cockpit, and melted my frozen heart, you will always have my never-ending love and limitless gratitude. To my fellow Club Members, I urge you to use caution, because even with the best of preparation, equipment, guides, training, planning and conditioning, things still can, and occasionally do, go wrong. I wish you all only the finest of climbing adventures and memorable mountaineering experiences.

CLIMB ON!!!

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