Passions

On Top of the World

One student’s quest to climb the seven summits

By Bill Ibelle
Illustration by Josh Reese

Illustration by Josh Reese

Deep in the winter of his sophomore year, Matt Kernan, DMSB’18, was hunkered down in his dorm room when he stumbled on a photograph of Mount McKinley in Alaska.

“I’m going to climb it,” he vowed, even though he had no experience whatsoever in high-altitude climbing.

Knowing that a person can’t just walk to the top of the highest mountain in North America, Kernan set out to get the experience he needed. That summer, his father joined him on an expedition that climbed the three highest peaks in Ecuador—Cayambe, Antisana, and Cotopaxi—each of them over 18,000 feet. That’s three times the height of Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

“It was an intense trial,” he says. “You start for the summit at 10 p.m. because you want to be climbing when it’s the coldest and the ice is the hardest. When you reach the summit, you’re 5,000 feet above the cloud line.”

With the Ecuador experience under his belt, Kernan set out the following summer for Mount McKinley. Also known as Denali, the mountain towers at 20,332 feet and is considered the coldest mountain on the planet—and second only to the Himalayan peaks in difficulty.

“You have to carry an 80-pound pack and pull a sled with another 30 pounds of gear because you need enough equipment and food to survive for three weeks on the ice,” says Kernan. “And you need clothes to withstand temperatures of 50 degrees below zero. You look like you’re dressed for a moon landing.”

Matt Kernan plans to climb the highest mountain on each continent.Matt Kernan plans to climb the highest mountain on each continent.

Kernan saw avalanches virtually every day. A boulder the size of a Volkswagen landed on the trail just a few feet ahead of them before crashing another 2,000 feet down the mountain.

“Another 10 steps and that would have been us,” he says.

But altitude is an even a bigger threat than rock slides. Kernan describes one man who pushed ahead, unwilling to take the time necessary to acclimate to the lack of oxygen.

“We found him beside the trail in nothing but his underwear. Dead. The lack of oxygen messes up your senses, and you become convinced it’s 90 degrees out when it’s really 40 below.”

Kernan’s success on Denali gave birth to the top item on his bucket list: Climb the highest peak on all seven continents.

So when he completed his co-op at State Street Bank in December, he left for the second installment of that dream—22,838-foot Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in South America. Once again, he climbed with his father, a 58-year-old investment banker in Newport Beach, California.

Matt Kernan with his father, David, on a warm-up hike in Ecuador before they climbed three 18,000-foot peeks in the Andes in January 2015; Matt ice climbing at 17,000 feet on the Ecuadoran volcano, Antisana.Matt Kernan with his father, David, on a warm-up hike in Ecuador before they climbed three 18,000-foot peeks in the Andes in January 2015; Matt ice climbing at 17,000 feet on the Ecuadoran volcano, Antisana.

“We were doing great with the altitude, but got hit by a fierce storm at 17,000 feet and we had to turn back,” he says. “The winds topped 60 miles an hour and we were in whiteout conditions. It took us 5.5 hours to make it back to camp, a descent that would normally take about two hours. I lost sight of my teammates several times. We waited for three days at basecamp, but the storm just kept getting worse.”

Kernan takes the disappointment in stride. It’s just part of mountain climbing, and having a healthy respect for the wilderness.

“Sometimes, the mountain just says ‘No,’ and you have to respect that or people get hurt,” he says.  “When you’re up there, it’s a battleground. It’s grueling and painful, and it gets harder with every step. But all the noise of civilization fades and you learn a lot about yourself.”

As for what’s next, he plans to climb Mount Rainier this summer with his girlfriend—followed by a two-week trip to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe at 18,510 feet. He has his eyes on Mount Everest for next spring.

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