Climbs Way to Top
By Sharon Sharpe
St. Tammany bureau
Justin Carreño was first inspired to mountain climb when he saw Mount Rainier while working in Washington. "It was just looking me in the face all the time," he said. He knew he had to climb it.
"I tried it and got hooked. It's an addiction now," the 29-year-old Slidell man said.
Since Rainier, Carreno has climbed mountains in Mexico, Japan, New England and in the Rockies and Cascades. This summer, he used his vacation to reach the summit of North America's highest point, Alaska's Mount McKinley.
He spotted that mountain nine years ago, while working in Denali National Park as a cartographer for the National Park Service. "It just appeared to me one day, so grand and beautiful. It was inspiring," he said.
Carreno, now an oceanographer at the Naval Oceanographic Office at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, said that since that moment, "It's been on my mind. I knew it was going to be a destination for me. I had to climb it."
To prepare for the ascent, Carreno flew to a base camp at 7,200 feet in the Kahilena glacier at Denali. "Snow, ice and rock" was all he would see for the next 23 days as he scaled more than 20,000 feet with a team of six to reach the summit high above the clouds.
The team would climb from six to 17 hours a day, depending on conditions, he said. Temperatures ranged from zero to 15 below at night, but there was little night. It was daylight most of the time, he said, which helped with the climb because "time wasn't an issue."
Besides the glaciated surface, the biggest difficulty was "extreme weather and cold you cannot predict. It was a brutal season as far as weather went," he said. Those conditions resulted in a 48 percent rate of success for climbers this year, a drop from the usual 50 percent who reach the top in any given season.
Weather caused the team to stall for 12 days at 14,000 feet. The weather above them was too rough to go up and too windy, he said. "That is the most serious factor in weather, (for climbing) the wind. You could see plumes of snow" overhead, he said. Each climber had to carry food and supplies for such a contingency.
Times like that "make you grateful for the little things in life," he said. The demands of such an extreme sport can wear on a person, he said. "The mind starts to wander to family and friends. I wanted to go back to my cubicle at work. It's crazy," he said.
When the weather cleared, the climb continued and when Carreno reached the summit, he flew the Navy flag. According to his research, it may be the first time the Navy flag has flown on Mount McKinley. He later presented the flag to his commanding officer.
"It's beautiful up there, seeing something so few people get to see. The feeling is amazing," he said.
Carreno said he does it "because of the challenge" and the feeling of accomplishment. It's an experience that adds meaning to his life. "I love the outdoors and want to experience it in the raw, by my own means," he said.
He said to begin mountain climbing takes motivation and time to build fitness skills and proficiency with the necessary equipment. Someone who is interested can team up with experienced climbers who are willing to teach them, or they can hire a guide.
"The big thing is it takes a lot of physical and mental fortitude. It's not meant for everybody," he said.
Since climbing Mount McKinley, people have ask him about Mount Everest, which would be the next logical climb. But he has not yet been inspired by that mountain.
He's seen "other beautiful mountains out in the wilderness that would challenge me just as much," he said.
Carreno who is from Connecticut and attended graduate school in Wyoming, also likes to scuba dive. He just knows for sure: "I will definitely be climbing again."
Sharon Sharpe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (985) 645-2856.
Published on NOLA.com Friday, August 10, 2007 2:33 p.m.
Published in The Times-Picayune Sunday, August 12, 2007