January 31, 2000
Volume 52, No. 19
Climbing high for a cause
By Eric Rangus
And what did you do to celebrate the millennium Chances are it probably couldn't touch the experience of four Emory students who climbed the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere: Mount Aconcagua in Argentina.
The reasoning behind the three seniors-Alexander Frenkel of Philadelphia; Jesse McGahey of Asheville, N.C., and Erik Woodhouse of Atlanta-and one doctoral student's, William Edelglass of Atlanta, trek is much deeper than the idea of conquer-the-big-rock-because-it's-there. They did it to raise $50,000 for cancer research.
"I've always wanted to do something different or special for the millennium," Wood-house said. "The beginning of the project was a bunch of us sitting around talking about ideas, then we started talking about helping a charity."
The charity they found was CURE Childhood Cancer, a nonprofit organization that funds research and supports children diagnosed with cancer, along with their families. The charity is tied closely to Emory. CURE-funded research is done at Emory Hospital and other donated money goes to families and hospitalized children in the form of programs such as in-hospital education, peer and family counseling, and the purchase of items such as art supplies or books that would make a child's hospital stay more comfortable.
A friend of Frenkel's, Emory grad Clay Beers, had been helped by the organization when he was battling the disease. The first check-$50 from Chris' Pizza-got the ball rolling in October. While it was a good start, it was uncomfortably close to the new year.
From the beginning, the time crunch was serious. All four climbers were full-time students-McGahey was taking 21 hours of classes-and mixing physical preparation, fund raising and schoolwork proved to be just as hard as the eventual ascent up the mountain. Even the final hours before they left Atlanta on Dec.15 were hectic.
McGahey was up most of the night on the 14th finishing a final exam; Woodhouse and Frenkel had exams during the day on the 15th (a graduating senior, Frenkel's were the last of his college career); and Edelglass, a dean's teaching fellow in the philosophy department, graded his final paper at 7:30 that morning. And $5,000 worth of gear arrived that morning, as well.
At 22,841 ft, Aconcagua is the highest point in the Andes Mountains, which tower above the Argentina-Chile border 90 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Their steepness makes for some of the most involved climbing in the world. While there are several routes up Aconcagua, the Emory team-which also included Outward Bound instructor Gabe O'Hare-chose the Northwest, or Normal Route. That was the one followed by Matthias Zurbriggen, a Swiss who was the first person to reach the summit on Jan. 14, 1897.
"When we got there, no one was summiting," Edelglass said. "They had all this gear and looked impressive, and I remember thinking that we didn't look as impressive."
Edelglass estimated the team's chances of reaching the top at about 30 percent. Still, the team made better hiking time than advertised in the guidebooks. With that, their confidence rose each day.
More than a week of hiking and climbing brought the team to Nido de Cóndores, a camp that sits at 17,552 ft. After spending three nights there (about 1,500 feet below summit camp) and then a night at the summit camp (known as Berlin Camp) at 18,963 ft, the team headed out at 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 31 for the final climb to Aconcagua's peak.
Climbers contend with the most technical aspects of the mountain on the last day. They have to wear crampons-iron spikes worn on the feet for traction-and face grades as steep as 35 degrees. But as the team got closer to the top, stronger forces than gravity or fatigue took over.
"I started losing my feeling of the symptoms of altitude," McGahey said. "My headache went away, my feeling of exhaustion went away. It was like I was being tugged into the summit. You know you're gonna make it, and it's really an overwhelming feeling of euphoria."
"I was thinking about all the people who were thinking about me," Frenkel said. "I actually had a lot of clarity that day, more than I had on the mountain before that. It was a very powerful time."
"I had been so set on just taking the next step that even on summit day I hadn't thought about whether we would make it-until about 100 feet from the top," Woodhouse said.
They reached the summit at 3:55 p.m. on New Year's Eve. When the millennium turned in Bethlehem, the Emory team was at the top of the Western Hemisphere. The accomplishment was noteworthy enough that it earned them a mention in Time Magazine's Millennium issue.
After spending time at the summit for pictures and reflection on their accomplishment, they returned to Berlin Camp, where they watched the fireworks that marked the turn of the century in the city of Mendoza below. By 12:15 a.m. on Jan. 1, they were all fast asleep in their tents.
Mount Aconcagua may have been conquered, but the team's work is not finished. To date, they have collected $35,000 in pledges-$15,000 short of their goal.
"We have no fundraising experience and we need a little bit of help to reach our goal," Edelglass said. "I do hope that some of the faculty reading this will take up our challenge to them. No contribution is too small and everything will be appreciated."
For donation information, please contact Alexander Frenkel (404-483-6179) or Erik Woodhouse (404-636-9599). Any donation is tax deductable. Checks payable to CURE Childhood Cancer can be mailed to:
CURE Childhood Cancer
c/o Cure Climb 2000
1960 Ridgewood Dr.
Atlanta, Ga 30307