At his peak

Alumnus Brad Hooker takes on Mount McKinley and many of the world’s tallest mountains

It took two weeks of frostbite, whiteouts and near-death experiences, but Brad Hooker made it to the top of Mount McKinley on one of the most dangerous days of the year.

Hooker, a 2002 Flagler graduate living in Seoul, South Korea, only began rock climbing a little more than a year ago. But he quickly found a passion for nature and exploration that’s taken him to the top of some of the world’s tallest peaks, including Alaska’s Mount McKinley, 14,400-foot Mount Rainier in Washington, 19,300-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and a 13,000-foot volcano in Indonesia.

“It’s definitely been a big uphill climb the whole way,” Hooker said, pun intended.

The communication and English major spent much of the last two years working as a server and bartender, all the time saving up money for his next travel adventure. When he discovered the thrill of mountain climbing, he was working as an English teacher in the South Korean capital.

In February 2006, he enrolled in a five-week rock-climbing course. He figured his next step would be a backpacking course, but that evolved into expedition climbing instead – which sparked his passion to conquer North America’s tallest peak.

“I had this crazy idea in the back of my head I’d be able to climb Mount McKinley,” Hooker said. “But the more I found out about it, it became more feasible.”

That’s probably because it wasn’t his first expedition climb. Expedition climbs can last several weeks and climbers carry everything they need to make camp and, more importantly, to survive each night. When Hooker began training for the McKinley climb, he’d already scaled Mount Rainier and Mount Kilimanjaro.

But McKinley was Hooker’s most rewarding climbing experience to date – and the most difficult. The 20,300-foot climb to the summit took a total of 14 days. Along the way, Hooker’s group got word of two climbers who had died while attempting the climb just days before.

“Our own summit attempt was a living hell,” Hooker wrote in his blog. “When you see these guys climbing on TV, you just can’t imagine how tough it is climbing in the thin air.”

Within the first hour, he was having trouble breathing because of the altitude and cold. He contracted frostbite on his nose and fingers that resulted in long-term effects – months later, his fingertips would still get numb easily when he got cold. Although the first 14,000 feet were like climbing ski slopes, Hooker said, the terrain became much more dangerous from there.

When they made camp at 17,000 feet, Hooker’s group had to build a wall of ice to act as a shield between them and the 40 mph winds swirling about them. They witnessed helicopter rescues of injured or stranded climbers.

After they finally reached the summit on day 14, the climbers immediately began the 12-hour trek back to camp for the night. But the weather became even more dangerous. The group experienced whiteout conditions and some of the most hazardous, icy landscape they had seen.

“We summited on one of the worst days of the year and nearly fell 13,000 feet because of it,” Hooker said.

Two of the climbers with Hooker lost their footing on an icy patch on the face of the mountain. Hooker, remembering the guides had told them they were in a “No Fall Zone” — a place too dangerous to fall — tried to dig the pick of his ax into the surface, but the snow was too soft.

Thankfully, they had anchored their lines to a picket earlier, and the friction from the tether was able to stop their fall very near to a 13,000-foot drop off.

The relatively small drop they made was enough to leave the two climbers wide-eyed and shaken. And Hooker himself gasped for air for several minutes after the fall, thanks to the adrenalin and the high altitude.

The next day’s descent turned out to be much less eventful, but all the more rewarding. Spring had begun to take hold in Alaska in the two weeks it took them to scale the mountain, and the sense of accomplishment that Hooker felt enhanced the landscape.

Hooker said it best in his blog: “We stepped out of our small plane on the airstrip into warm sunny air and smelled the wonderful aroma of Alaska budding in the Spring and began to strip off the layers that had glued to our bodies over the last couple weeks. I was ready to go home and tell everyone about this unbelievable adventure.”

Now Hooker is working at a modern English institute that pays for his apartment and unknowingly helps fund his adventures. He teaches English to Seoul’s affluent, including business executives, university students, professors and even a monk.

“I try to save up as much as I can and then rely on the credit card when I have to,” he said. “I’ll pay it off in the future.”

What about Hooker’s future travel plans?

“I want to get out and see nature more,” he said.

His next mountain-climbing expedition will be Mount Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America at 22,000 feet. He hopes to climb it in February 2008 — if his “investor” cooperates.

“It all depends if I can get off [work],” Hooker said.

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