Gretchen Roufs' portraitWhere do judo enthusiasts go when their knees wear out? “To the mountains,” says Ken Ossian, owner and president of Ossian Inc., an ice melt manufacturer in Davenport, Iowa.

In 1998, Ken and four of his black-belt judo friends decided they would hike Mount Whitney, located in California. At 14,494 feet high, it’s the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. Three had limited hiking experience; two had never hiked. Ken said, “Our goal was to do the 22-mile round trip in one day. When we got to the top, I thought: ‘How will I ever survive? I’m only halfway.’ It’s the most fatigue I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

In darkness, they stumbled down the mountain paths, rationing the batteries in their two flashlights. According to Ken, “There were lots of sheer drop-offs, but it was too dark to see them.” When he got home, he gave his equipment to his son and said he’d never hike again.

Ken had a change of heart in 1999. He climbed Colorado’s Pikes Peak (14,110 feet) and his team made it to the top in less than 13 hours (including the two hours they spent lost on an unmarked trail).

The biggest trek on Ken’s list was his climb to Mount Everest’s base camp in 2002. Base camp is — at an altitude of over 18,000 feet — higher than the highest peak in the continental United States. Ken passed through Los Angeles, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Kathmandu until finally arriving in Lukla, Nepal. Most of the 18 people in Ken’s group were going to the base camp or the icefalls (an icefall is the part of a glacier that looks like a frozen waterfall). Only six planned to summit Mount Everest.

Mount Everest is the highest peak on earth at 29,035 feet. It was first ascended in 1953. According to one published fact sheet, only 964 different people have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Any journey on Everest is a rough one. Avalanches take the biggest toll. Climbers on Everest are twice as likely to die from avalanches as they are from falling off the mountain. One of the sobering parts of Ken’s story was to hear that the trekkers had to fill out a “body disposal form.” In 1996, the worst year for deaths, 15 of the 98 people who summited died.

Ken reported that adjusting to the altitudes was the most immediate problem. “At 14,000 feet, everyone had altitude problems. The guides told us if we weren’t having any problems, we were not telling the truth.”

The trail itself is a challenge. Ken said the 400-year-old trail was steep with angles, rocks and swinging bridges. “We were constantly crossing over mountain streams. I always kept one hand on the handrails. Even the Sherpas (the local guides) hang on.”
Then there are the physical problems that are minor at home but dramatic on the mountain. In Ken’s group, one person had food poisoning, another was so sick he was quarantined, and another had a sprained ankle. Ken contracted bronchitis. As it turned out, Ken and another climber had to leave the mountain in a helicopter.

He’ll be back on a mountain again, though. I’m sure Ken was just kidding when he said in his Mount Everest journal, “This is probably my last extreme hike. If I do another it will be out the back door of a five-star hotel.”

Gretchen Roufs, a 15-year janitorial supply industry veteran, owns Auxiliary Marketing Services of San Antonio. To suggest someone you think should be featured in “freetime,” contact her at (210) 601-4572.