by Phillip Manning ~ July 10th, 2013
Tom Choate of Anchorage recently returned from a history making trip to the top of Denali. At seventy-eight years old, Choate is the oldest person to stand on the summit of North America’s tallest peak. This is his fifth climb on Denali, including his first trek almost exactly fifty years ago.
“It’s always been an inspiration to go back to that mountain. I’ve been in love with the mountain ever since then, and I’ve tried to go back every decade. As my body gets older, it gets harder, but it’s still fabulous.”
Since 1963, a great deal has changed on the mountain. Choate explains what he has observed over five decades.
“My recollection was eve in the middle of July in ’63, there was a lot of snow, quite a lot of ice, and whether you call it global warming or what-not, a lot of material is melting away. Each decade I go back, in ’93 for example, you had to deviate a little bitfrom going directly to the summit. In 1963 you could go directly to the summit fromwhat they the ‘Football Field.’ This year I discovered that you’re going further and further onto the ridge to reach the summit because there’s fifty feet less snow.”
Choate summited on June 28th, but his first summit attempt was two days earlier, when a rare thunderstorm engulfed the mountain.
“Suddenly, this big white cloud comes in and covers us all up and it starts to snow. It’s like, “What in the heck is going on?” We sat down at the bottom of this steep hill, and there was this loud clap of thunder and lighting zooming around in the clouds. People started popping off the top ridge like flies. A guy comes down past me and says, ‘Look, my hair’s been curled. This big spark jumped from my shovel to my head.’ It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, this is 20,000 feet. How can there possibly be a lightning storm up here?’
Tom Choate describes himself as an, “old mountain goat.” He has done extensive climbing over the last fifty years, and has this piece of advice for aspiring adventurers in the Alaska Range.
“There’s so many places to explore, and so many mountains that haven’t even have a foot laid on them. It’s all right there, so don’t focus on, ‘Oh, I have to have the biggest and the highest,’ and that kind of thing. Or even return to a place like Denali, where a lot of other people are. You only have to go maybe twenty miles from Denali, and you can be totally alone for the entire summer and not see anybody…knock off peaks that nobody’s been on. These challenges are all right here. You don’t want to ever say, ‘Ah, that’s a little bit too hard.’ Just go out there and be persistent and be ornery like I am.”
Choate says he doesn’t have any plans for 2023 yet, but that he’ll “probably find something interesting to do.”