Fishers reach the top of Denali

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BRATTLEBORO — Another try was all Bob Fisher and his son Mackenzie needed after attempting to climb Denali last year.

"We didn't make it last year, primarily due to poor weather on the mountain," Fisher said in an interview Thursday. "This year we got lucky, and the weather was beautiful and sunny for the day we needed to get to the summit."

Denali, located in Alaska, has the highest mountain peak in North America. Its summit is found at 20,237 feet.

Altogether, the ascent took Fisher and Mackenzie 16 or 17 days. Three weeks were reserved, just like last year, to achieve the feat.

Fisher is a local attorney who represents the town of Brattleboro and the Hermitage Club, which runs a private ski resort, airport, inns, restaurants and golf course in the Deerfield Valley.

"When I'm out on the mountain in my big puffy down coat and didn't shave for three weeks, I'm just another climber," he said. "I get back here, I got my bow tie on. It's like it's a totally different world. But it's nice to be back."

Mackenzie is currently attending Montana State University, where he studies cell biology and neuroscience. He expects to graduate next year. He went to Stratton Mountain School and grew up going to local ski resorts at Mount Snow, Haystack and Stratton.

About 10 or 15 years ago, state's attorney at-the-time Dan Davis and Fisher were at a conference in New Mexico. They also incorporated hiking into the trip. Someone they met said they were trying to reach the highest point of every state, leaving Davis and Fisher intrigued.

"I said, 'Maybe we should have that as a goal.' It transformed into a quest for us to try and do the tallest mountain in every state," Fisher said. "I think I've done 43 out of the 50. And of course, Denali is the hardest."

A week or 10 days is needed to move gear to an area at about 14,000 feet called Upper Base Camp, Fisher said.

"You fly into a glacier at 7,000 feet. So it's a long, long curve. It's not like going straight uphill to 14,000," he said. "The reason it takes so long is because you're carrying on your back probably 60 pounds in a backpack and pulling probably 60 to 70 pounds in a sled. It's a little bit like leapfrogging. You carry half of your gear up then walk back and take the tent to the next camp."

Every move takes two or sometimes even three days, Fisher said. The only mishap involved Mackenzie spilling a water bottle on his sleeping bag at 17,000 feet.

"Everything freezes," said Fisher. "Luckily, we were able to ring it out and get it as dry as we could and we were warm enough. Things like that can turn into a big problem when it's so cold."

Fisher and Mackenzie saw someone's tent rip apart from harsh winds at that altitude.

Experiences last year saw the duo more prepared this time. Fisher said they knew when to move and when to stay in camp. Some days, they would sit in their tent and read books while waiting out the weather.

Climbing through a snowstorm could feel somewhat safe for Fisher and Mackenzie as long as the wind wasn't moving too fast.

"If it's the same day but the wind is blowing 40 to 50 miles per hour, what seems like an adventurous outing turns dangerous and threatening," said Fisher. "It's like snorkeling. If it's sunny, it's nice. You see a little coral, all these cute little fish rolling around and everything's happy. But if it gets cloudy and the water gets dark, the bigger fish come in. And all of a sudden, it turns scary."

On the last day of hiking to the summit, Fisher did not get frostbite but something called "frostnip."

"It's when your fingers get tingly," he said. "Frostbite is where your fingers turn black. But still, it's enough where you need a band aid and ointment."

Reaching the top was "certainly exciting," Fisher said.

"It's not anticlimactic but you're not jumping up and down," he said. "You're pretty tired."

Mackenzie described himself getting "pretty emotional" during the moment.

"Not only because it was the tallest part in North America but I was with my dad. We were a good strong team," he said. "You are so tired. It's a slog but when you get to the summit, your body takes energy from the reserve tanks or something."

Getting from 17,000 feet to the summit took Fisher and Mackenzie about eight hours. They braved the climb alone this year but coincidentally ran into two of the guides they went with last year.

Fisher said it was fun to be on top of the mountain with people they knew.

"The view was fantastic," he said. "We couldn't really see the valleys but the tops of all the other mountains. It was quite nice."

Returning to camp at 17,000 feet, Fisher and Mackenzie went to sleep. Then they traveled down to 14,000. That section likely was the most dangerous part of the trip, said Fisher.

Descending the mountain between 14,000 and 7,000 feet was accomplished all in one day.

"We skied that," said Fisher, noting that he and Mackenzie used snowshoes last year so the skis were an upgrade. "It was not only fast but also obviously, skiing versus snowshoeing is so much more fun."

Mackenzie agreed.

"I think you only make that mistake once then you have to find a better mode of transportation," he said. "We had just gotten a big foot of snowstorm and the powder was really good. It made the descent that much easier."

Mackenzie advises those aspiring to climb Denali to get in pretty good shape first.

"Make sure you're as physically strong as you are mentally strong," he said. "It's a big mental game up on the mountain, too."

Fisher and Mackenzie brought along freeze-dried meals, making smoked salmon burritos and tuna melts throughout their journey. They also ate plenty of oatmeal.

"We were good Vermonters," Mackenzie said. "We had just-add-water pancake mix and maple syrup made in Vermont."

Nothing has been planned yet for Fisher and Mackenzie in terms of upcoming trips. Fisher said he hopes to climb the remaining seven high points across America over the next couple years. Most of them are along the Mississippi River. And Hawaii is being saved for last.

Mackenzie has joined Fisher on 30 to 35 of his quests.

"I lost track. But when I was younger, I did a lot of road trips," Mackenzie said. "I've had a lot of good times with my dad. He's definitely my adventure buddy or partner, whatever you want to call it."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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