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Rising to the Challenge

After falling victim to an avalanche while ice climbing in 2011, West Lebanon native Ed Warren didn’t have as much of a speedy of a recovery as he’d hoped for.

Eighteen months later, he made up for the lost time in a big way.

Using modern-design ski boots to help stabilize a left ankle that was severely broken last fall, Warren recently set records for both the fastest ascent and fastest round trip of Denali, also known as Mount McKinley.

On May 31 — his last day of active duty for the Air Force — the 27-year-old reached the 20,320-foot Alaskan summit, the third-highest of the Seven Summits, the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents, in just 12 hours, 29 minutes. An experienced ski mountaineer, Warren used lightweight skis for most of the descent and returned to the mountain’s airstrip base in 4:17 for a round trip time of 16:46, breaking Chad Kellogg’s previous Denali speed record by more than seven hours.

How’s that for a recovery?

“It was a bad fall a year and a half ago, a 10-12 foot wall of snow came at me at probably about 80 miles per hour and I fell about 50 feet,” Warren recalled in a phone interview from Tuscon, Ariz., where he was visiting a friend last week. “I thought I was going to die while it was happening, but I ended up just shattering my left ankle and tearing up my right (quadriceps). So I was on crutches and a cast for a while, and then last October I had another surgery to remove a loose bone fragment. So needless to say, I couldn’t ice climb for awhile, and I had a lot of time to think about the things I was going to do when I could get back out there.”

Warren had heard of Kellogg’s 23:55 round trip in 2003, but didn’t even attempt Denali himself until 2011, when he successfully reached the summit.

Finally rehabilitated to the point where he could think about skiing again at the end of last winter, Warren, always extreme, took it a step further and joined a partner to compete in the Elk Mountaineering Grand Traverse, a 40-mile ski mountaineering race in Colorado. The duo placed 27th out of 180 teams as Warren took a liking to new, lightweight equipment allowing for superb flexibility on the most rigid slopes.

“Because of the popularity of these mountaineering sports that combine running and skiing, there are all these new ski boots that give you a great range of motion and new skis that are a hybrid of alpine and cross country skis,” Warren said. “That’s what kind of got the (Denali speed record) thought process rolling for me, because I could take advantage of this new technology in equipment. I still can’t run, unless I’m in one of these ski boots.”

After weeklong acclimatization climb with friend Robert McLeod -—necessary because of how much the altitude gain affects blood oxygen levels — the pair returned to Denali’s airstrip base in the wee hours of May 30, sore and exhausted. The plan was to rest for two days before Warren’s speed-record attempt on June 1.

“We were dragging about 180 pounds worth of gear on sleds, and by the time we got back we were just really tired,” Warren said. “Other people who were coming back were celebrating, getting ready to take showers and drink beer, and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do that again, and do it much faster, in two days.”

He ended up doing it again sooner than that. With a potentially volatile weather front moving in from the northwest, it appeared bound for Denali on June 1. Warren decided at about 9 p.m. on May 30, 18 hours after returning to the base, that he was going to set out again the next morning.

“There are so many things you can’t control on the mountain, you have to try to control what you can,” Warren said. “If I wasn’t going to make it, I wanted it to be my own decision, and not because I had to turn around because of the weather. I thought that if I left (May 31), I could beat the weather system, so I stayed up until 2:45 preparing and packing and set the alarm for 4:30.”

Determined to perform the feat self-supported — others have attempted the speed record with crews in tow to help carry supplies — Warren carried all of his own gear, including six liters of water, a stove and enough food in case he was stuck somewhere overnight. In lieu of a lightweight tent, he simply carried a trash bag in the event he needed shelter.

While his skis and boots would mean more gear than the average ascending hiker would carry, the added speed while using them on the way down would more than compensate.

“We’re talking about skis that were only 700 grams apiece. That’s ridiculously light,” said Warren. “The trade-off for that is that the skis aren’t good for holding an edge, and there are some really icy spots on Denali.”

That includes the lower glacier, a five-mile stretch at the outset of the climb that required being roped up to McLeod. Considered a “no fall zone” because of the danger of falling through snow bridges into icy crevasses, the stretch was less precarious because the duo left early in the morning, before the daytime sun had a chance to soften the passageways.

Reaching the first camp at 11,000 feet at about 8:30 a.m., four hours in, Warren left McLeod behind and continued upward while “skinning,” using synthetic grippers on the bottom of his skis.

He reached the 14,000-foot camp at 10:30 and removed his skis for the steepest part of the climb, between 14,000 and 17,000 feet.

“Every year people (going for the speed record) turn around during that stretch,” said Warren. “It can be really stacked in (little to no visibility) and it’s cold. The whole time you’re pushing and pushing, and then you still have to keep going. The steepest section is from 16,000-17,000 feet, where there are ropes fixed in for people to use. I didn’t use them.”

With the steepest sections behind him when he reached “high camp” (17,000 feet) at about 1:30, any respite for Warren was short-lived.

Looking across the ridge line, it appeared the storm system due for the next day was arriving early, and ominous clouds approached.

“I was pretty nervous, looking at that system coming in. These weren’t wispy clouds, they were thick,” Warren said. “I thought, ‘I need to go for this.’ In my mind, it was a ‘man versus weather’ situation.’

Warren boogied.

Passing parties that had only departed high camp that morning, he made it from high camp to the summit in less than 3:20 after it had taken he and McLeod more than five hours to do so a few days before. Warren reached Denali’s summit at 4:59 p.m., less than 121/2 hours after departing the airstrip.

With little time for celebration at the top, Warren began his descent while battling a shortage of breath because of the abrupt barometric pressure changes.

“I was starting to get a little loopy because I wasn’t getting enough oxygen,” he noted. “The edges of my vision were starting to get soft.”

Needing to take in thicker air, Warren spent about a half hour at the 17,000-foot camp on the way down, drinking water and talking with a ranger.

Despite the needed break, Warren continued downward as the weather system arrived, bringing thick clouds and snow that brought visibility levels to near zero. He still made great time getting from high camp to the lower glacier — almost too great. Arriving to meet McLeod for the final stretch at about 8:30., the danger for soft snow bridges was high.

“The reason I’d left at 4:30 in the morning is because I’d anticipated coming back over the glacier in the middle of the night when the snow bridges would be nice and hard,” Warren said. “Snow bridges are your best friend and your worst enemy at the same time, because they allow you to go over the crevasses, but you have to make sure they’re sturdy. If it were just a few weeks later in the year, there’s no way we’d be going across there so early in the day.”

Taking tips from other hikers along the way, Warren and McLeod made it across the glacier and then headed up what is known as heartbreak hill, a 4,000-foot ascent from the end of the glacier to the airstrip base.

They arrived back at 9:16 p.m., completing the round trip in less than 17 hours.

While no official speed ascent marks are kept, Warren has been told the feat has been recognized and recorded by the National Park Service. For reference, Warren asked witnesses to acknowledge his time at each camp stop along the way.

“These records are a little hard to make ‘official’ because there are so many variables depending on what equipment is used and the weather,” said Warren, who initially got the inspiration to mountaineer from his father, Edward Sr., who climbed Denali in 1978. “If I were trudging through a foot of snow that day, it would have taken me twice as long. So it’s really not about the record as much as it’s about doing it and doing it the way you know is right.”

A short video documenting Warren’s accomplishment can be viewed at http://youtu.be/zuHWUttL3Pc

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

CORRECTION:

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. Alaska's Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the third-highest of the Seven Summits, the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated its rank among the world's highest peaks.