Denali National Park

Senior shares the challenges he faced during a three-week climb of Mount McKinley

By Meredith Ginn

The blistering wind is blowing at forty miles-per-hour; the snow is stacking foot upon foot as the temperature creeps its way down to a bone-chilling -15 degrees. The sun hangs low in the horizon despite the 3 a.m. time displayed on senior Hans Aschinger’s wristwatch.

Aschinger climbed for three weeks through up to five feet of fresh snow on the beautiful slopes of Denali. Photo courtesy Hans Aschinger

Senior Hans Aschinger climbed for three weeks through up to five feet of fresh snow on the beautiful slopes of Denali. Photo courtesy Hans Aschinger

This past summer, Aschinger traded in the warm days sitting by the pool for a three-week climbing excursion of Alaska’s Mount McKinley (20,320 feet) with a group of local climbers. Little did he know what he was signing up for. 12-to-16-hour days of dragging a 100-pound sled, which carried his life for these three weeks, were only the beginning of his struggles.

“Climbing is boring,” Aschinger said. “It’s not fun, and it’s hard.”

When it was difficult to keep going, he’d put his head down and move his feet step after step.

The obstacles Aschinger faced head on were not easy; his biggest challenge was finding a way to persevere through these hurdles. He found a way.

Aschinger began his climbing days rewinding all the way back to the summer going into freshman year. His classmate, Zach Politz, whose father, Andy, is an avid climber, was planning to take a group to climb Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier peaks at 14,411 feet and is located approximately 54 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington, according to National Geographic. Aschinger, always in search for new challenges, asked to come along.

A short few months later, Aschinger, accompanied his mother, Connie Aschinger and the group of climbers on the climbing endeavor.

“It was truly one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced,” Connie said. “I looked up Mount Rainier on the Internet, but had no idea how big the mountain was and how difficult climbing is.”

Although Connie’s big climbing excursions ended there, Aschinger fell in love with the hobby. He began to take short weekend trips to the mountains of places like West Virginia and a few short years later he was planning his challenging trip to Denali.

Despite the climbing challenges, Aschinger justified his love for the hobby because of the learning experience he gains.

“[You] make peace with fear,” he said.

He believes that there is something inside him that kept him going up on the mountain. For him, that something is his belief in a higher power. His religion and a belief in God served as one of his biggest sources of strength.

“When you’re out on the mountain, you realize that something created everything,” Aschinger said. “You look at the mountains, the snow and the sky; you look at the water down below, the rivers, the lakes. Something had to create it all.”

Also while he was on the slopes of the mountain, he had time to reflect on his surroundings.

“You realize how small we really are when you’re on a 20,000 foot mountain,” he said.

Not only did he get strength from God, he also looked to his wise mentor and Andy Politz, who accompanied him on the mountain as a kind of motivator. Politz has been an inspiration and hero for Aschinger since their days of climbing Mount Rainier.

“I don’t know anyone braver than Andy,” Aschinger said.

Politz has immense climbing experience. He noted that he has reached the snowy peaks of Mount Everest on the border of Nepal and Tibet to the lofty peaks of Europe, Asia and North America.

Climbing is not only difficult for climbers like Politz and Aschinger, it is also strenuous on their anxious families at home. Four people had blown off of Denali in May due to extremely high winds, according to Anchorage Daily News. Falling into crevices was also at high risk, as are several other possible disasters.

Aschinger was able to contact with his family every few days through a satellite phone, yet his family needed more comfort than just a basic report every few days.

Like Aschinger, his family used prayer to console their worries. They had to put trust in him and his climbing capabilities as well as the fact that he was accompanied by Politz, the master climber.

“To be honest, we definitely felt at peace about the climb,” Connie said.”The peace outweighed the worries.”

Aschinger’s family was not the only group of people trying to keep updated with each move in the climb. He was also connected with several foundations for which he was climbing to raise money.

Every time he climbs, he tries to help a greater cause. He has raised money for foundations such as the Stefanie Speilman Foundation for Breast Cancer and the USO, a foundation that raises money for deployed troops and their families.

“Climbing was not just a selfish desire,” Aschinger said.

Before he even reached the base of Denali, Aschinger knew he had a long road ahead to prepare for, and he had people he could not let down. His preparation often included 7 to 8 mile runs just as the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon. He ran a half marathon as well. He was tough on himself to assure he was prepared.

And as he stood at the base of the mountain at the end of his climb he was thankful he was prepared; at least as prepared as he could have been, since he could never have imagined which types of obstacles he would face.

His largest obstacle was deciding to cap his climb at 14,000 feet after injuring his knee. He stayed behind, alone. Aschinger demonstrated bravery in these circumstances; he was not going to slow the rest of the group down and put them at risk for his own benefit.

As he camped in the desolate surroundings at the 14,000 foot marker, there was news that a dangerous, week-long storm was approaching, the others descended back to him and together they proceeded down the mountain.

Following the descent, Aschinger had time to think about his accomplishment. It was hard for him to face that he never got to peak the mountain; hence, he would love to climb Denali again. He wants to face the new and unexpected challenges that climbing it a second time would bring.