Claremont native takes on seven summits

Climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents cannot be taken lightly; one must go at it with both feet.

That summary comes from Claremont native Tom Bicksler, and he should know, the 41-year-old has climbed two of the seven and takes on his third, Mount McKinley, this month.

Mr. Bicksler, who currently resides in Mt. Baldy, has always been an outdoorsman but a life-changing event almost ten years ago pushed him to pursue serious mountaineering. At age 31 he weighed 245 pounds, but his weight plummeted to 170 over the following year. Alarmed by the sudden weight loss and, knowing that the family had a history of diabetes, his sister suggested a visit to the doctor. At age 32 he had to face the fact that life was going to change.

“They call me a 1.5,” said Mr. Bicklser, referring to the two types of diabetics, those whose bodies don’t produce insulin (Type 1), and those whose bodies can’t use insulin properly (the more common Type 2). Being somewhere in between, he still produces some insulin, but treats the disease with insulin injections. 

Fighting one chronic disease is tough, but a few years later he was diagnosed with the immune deficiency Crohn’s disease, which attacks the intestine.

Staying healthy and being fit helps keep both diseases under control, and at age 37 Mr. Bicksler started training to climb the seven summits.

“Once I started getting into the bigger mountains, some of the people I hike with here in Baldy started kicking around the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro, they did not follow through but I ended up taking the jump and took off to Africa.”

He reached the highest point in Africa, Tanzania’s 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in October of 2012, and shortly thereafter came up with the idea of using the endeavor to raise awareness about diabetes and Crohn’s. 

“I have two goals, first, an athletic lifestyle helps control some of the issues we have, and also to show people [that after a diagnosis] life is not over.”

His second peak, the highest point in South America, was the spectacular Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, which at 22,841 feet, is also the highest point in the Southern Hemisphere.

This week he flew to Alaska to attempt McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the highest point in North America. It is one of the most difficult due to the brutal wind and temperatures; it can be 60 degrees one day and minus 20 the next. The expedition can take up to 25 days and the team of six climbers will have to take all of their equipment with them.

For a diabetic the climb presents another challenge because of the daily injections. “Diabetes and needing insulin to survive makes climbing in extreme conditions difficult. Monitoring you sugar levels and injecting insulin as needed. Also your insulin must not freeze or it will go bad. Keeping it from freezing on McKinley will be a huge challenge at -20 degrees. Keeping it in a pouch close to your body can be the only way to keep it from freezing.”

A day before the flight to Anchorage he said, “I’m excited about the trip; team’s pretty strong.” However, the current weather conditions in Denali National Park are not the best, with a foot of snow over the weekend and a forecast of down to minus 65 on the summit, according to Mr. Bicksler.

The team plans to spend only ten minutes at the top. The final day involves a 2,000-foot vertical climb which will take the team ten hours to ascend and descend.

Among the obstacles that could cause the team to abandon, white out conditions, extremely strong winds and blizzards top the list. Injury or altitude sickness would also stop the ascent. “Altitude will be a major problem up there,” said Mr. Bicksler.

“I do have a device for satellite texting and will keep in contact with family. Also if I have a clear signal, I will update the expedition’s Facebook page.”

If he succeeds in climbing all seven summits, Mr. Bicksler will join a small group of adventurers. Oddly, a reliable number remains unclear, the most complete list abruptly stops in 2011, and several attempts to get a count from professional climbing organizations went nowhere. Mr. Bicksler said the number is around 350 climbers since 1985 when American Richard Bass became the first by reaching the top of Mount Everest.

The feat is not without controversy, with some criticizing Mr. Bass for climbing the 7,310-foot Mount Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia, instead of the more difficult Puncak Jaya (also known as Carstensz Pyramid) in Indonesia, also part of the Australian continent. In 1986 Canadian Patrick Morrow became the first to complete all seven including the Indonesian peak.

For the record, the seven summits (plus one to account for both tallest peaks on the Australian continent) include: Mount Everest tallest point in Asia; Aconcagua, South America; Mount McKinley, North America; Kilimanjaro, Africa; Mount Elbrus, Europe; Mount Vinson, Antarctica; Puncak Jaya, Australian continent, and Mount Kosciuszko, Australia.

Through his website those interested can keep track of his progress and donate to help offset the costs. The McKinley trek could cost as much as $10,000, while Mount Everest will be at least $45,000.

Mr. Bicksler is already planning his next attempt, Russia’s Mount Elbrus at 18,150 feet. “I’ve given myself ten years (to climb all seven),” he said, “just in case I don’t summit a particular mountain and I have to go do it twice.”

“I have a history of seeing how far I can take things, some people say I take things to extremes.”

Steven Felschundneff





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