Fort Worth

Fort Worth firefighters prepare for ascent of Denali

They attract curious glances as they trudge through downtown, giant backpacks strapped to their backs and dragging weights on makeshift sleds behind them.

They are Fort Worth firefighters, but they’re not training for the next big blaze or building collapse. They’re preparing for a self-imposed challenge — to climb to the highest point of North America.

Interactive: The path to the top of Denali

Four of the firefighters — Kasey Gandy, Matt Magoffin, Clint Brewer and Jerry Bays — have already scaled two of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent.

In 2010, it was Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and in 2012, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina.

In late June, they’ll be joined by firefighter Daniel Ory as they attempt to conquer Alaska’s Mount Denali, all 20,237 feet of it.

“There are three things that are really cool to me about these trips,” Gandy said. “The first is the challenge. That really entices all of us into it. We all just dig the challenge. No. 2 is the adventure portion of it. It’s not just climbing the mountain, it’s stopping for a second and looking around and being like, ‘Wow, I’m in a place that very few people have come.’

“And third, to me probably the most important thing, is the camaraderie because we share the experience as a small group. It’s an amazing experience. It’s a bond we have just amongst ourselves for basically suffering on the mountain for two weeks or three weeks at a time.”

Fitness is part of their job

To their advantage, the five men are already in top physical shape.

“Fitness for us, especially in this job, is a full-time job in itself,” Brewer said. “It’s not like we come back and we take six months off. As soon as we get back, I start running again, he starts training again, he starts swimming again. It’s every day for us.”

But in preparation for their climb, the firefighters kick their workouts up a notch.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Brewer and Magoffin carried more than 50 pounds of sand in their backpacks as they trudged up and down 108 steps at Farrington Field, just west of downtown.

The next morning, also wearing their overloaded backpacks and dragging weights behind them, Gandy and Ory were climbing the same steps — after trekking the 3 miles from Station One in northeast downtown.

While the other men use metal weight sleds they bought, Ory built his own.

“I had to rebuild it recently because mine is made out of wood,” Ory said. “I had 2-by-4’s on the bottom of it and it ground them down. Now I put 4-by-4’s on it so it slides better but it’s also heavier so it’s kind of a Catch-22.”

The support they get from those they encounter is overwhelming, Gandy said.

“We ran into some homeless people that were like, ‘What is this for? What are you doing?’ ” Gandy said. “When we tell them, they’re like, ‘That’s so cool We wish you luck. We’re praying for you.’

“You would not believe the people that are just like high-fiving us as we go by and honking at us in their car and giving us the thumbs up,” he added.

Ory climbed his first mountain in December when he and Bays traveled to Colorado to get in some practice.

Though the least experienced, Ory said he is not apprehensive about attempting Denali as his first major climb.

“I guess when it comes down to it, these guys I work with on the Fire Department, we rely on each other to take care of each other pretty much in some pretty bad situations,” Ory said. “I have full trust and faith in those guys and I know they’re not going to quit. They’re some of the best people anywhere.”

A challenging climb

While not quite as tall as Mount Aconcagua, the Denali climb promises to be their most difficult by far because of the extreme weather. Even in July, temperatures can plunge to 40 degrees below at night on the mountain, which is also known as Mount McKinley.

“There’s going to be accidents, avalanches, crevasses, but the weather is what kills people every year up there, more so than the ones we’ve done so far,” Magoffin said.

Already equipped with high-end mountaineering boots that are essentially two boots in one, climbers on Denali must wear another over-boot on top of that to prevent frostbite.

At Aconcagua, “there was only one day, which was summit day, when we had to put on crampons — which is the spikes on our boots, and use an ice ax,” Gandy said. “The rest of the time there was no ropes. I mean it was steep but not steep enough to where you need to have fixed line. Denali is a lower mountain but it’s a lot harder technically.”

The firefighters will have, at maximum, 22 days on the mountain to attain their goal of reaching the peak.

They’ll take the West Buttress route, first flying by plane to the mountain’s base camp, on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at an elevation of 7,200 feet.

“The first portion of the climb you’re on the glacier so there’s really high risk for crevasse danger there,” Gandy said, referring to the deep cracks in a glacier. “There’s crevasses there that are 400 to 500 feet deep that you can’t see because it’ll be snowed over. Half the time you’re walking across snow bridges that can be a couple feet in thickness and hopefully the bridge holds.”

Their firefighting training is an advantage. In addition, three of the firefighters — Ory, Gandy and Bays — are assigned to stations where firefighters specialize in high-angle rescues, skills similar to those required for crevasse rescue.

“Say a window washer needed to be rescued off a building,” Gandy said. “We can go up to the top of the building, set up a rope system and rappel down to rescue that guy.”

‘It’s a terrible feeling’

The firefighters know firsthand that mountain climbing can be dangerous and that there is no guarantee you’ll reach the summit.

While in Argentina, fellow firefighter Jake Pannell, whom the firefighters credit as the “Godfather” who got their climbing group together, had to quit the climb early after becoming severely ill.

“He was probably the strongest guy in the group. That day, for whatever reason, we noticed him struggling which is very, very strange for him because he was always at the front,” Gandy said. “Next thing we know our guide was taking him down.”

Pannell said it started when his legs began to feel extremely fatigued two hours into the group’s trek to drop their gear off at the first camp.

“Then I started getting dizzy and started getting sick,” Pannell recalled.

Pannell powered through to reach the camp, dropped his gear off, and then immediately set back for base camp with the help of two guides.

“We went down as fast as we can. As we were going down, I remember not being able to focus on anything. It was really blurry,” Pannell said.

At base camp, he was seen by a doctor.

“She made me take a real deep breath,” he recalled. “When I breathed out, I could hear it popping and kind of a wet sound even without the stethoscope. The guide was standing in the doorway. He said, ‘I can hear it from here.’ ”

The lower elevation of base camp did nothing to reverse the problem. Pannell’s lungs kept filling with fluid, progressing to high-altitude pulmonary edema. The doctor started him on oxygen and medications to try to remove the liquid from his lungs.

“It’s almost like drowning,” Pannell said. “ I was almost operating on one lung. It’s a terrible feeling.”

Pannell was eventually taken by helicopter to a trailhead, where he flagged down a blue 1982 single cab Ford pickup driver, offering the man 50 pesos to take him down the rest of the mountain to a hotel.

“I basically hitchhiked with my IV and my day pack,” Pannell said. “I will never forget it. I was sitting in the back of the truck thinking how am I going to explain this to everyone.”

With the risk of edema higher in those who have previously had it, Pannell chose to skip the Denali trip but says he hasn’t ruled out rejoining his fellow firefighters should they achieve their dream of climbing all the summits, including Mount Everest.

“This is killing me not to be able to go with these guys,” he said.

‘It’s kind of addicting’

Reaching a mountain’s peak is an exhilarating hell.

“It’s an awesome feeling but it’s very short-lived because you know now you have to turn around and it’s not easier going back down what we just came up,” Magoffin said.

The air is thin. The oxygen lacking.

“It feels like you’ve taken 10 shots of tequila and you’re expected to do hard, manual labor,” Gandy said.

If the men’s health and the weather allow, they’ll spend a little time taking in the summit view and snapping some photographs. In one picture atop Kilimanjaro, Magoffin dons a zebra-striped Snuggie.

“We were about to head down when it dawned on me, I brought my Snuggie,” Magoffin said. “Why I have it, I have no idea.”

On Aconcagua, a storm blew in just before the men summited, making the dissent back to camp even more treacherous.

“It was hell on earth just trying to get back to camp,” Brewer recalled. “We were cold. We were tired. but we had summited so in our minds, it was ‘Bring it on.’ It sucked but it was literally downhill at that point.”

For Magoffin, that day represented both the best and worst time of his life.

“You’re still at 20,000 feet to sleep that night and there’s 70 mph sustained winds all night long,” Magoffin said. “I’m in a tent with this guy [Brewer]. You can’t explain how miserable you feel. You look over and you see your buddy there and you know he’s feeling just as bad and it helps. It’s just a cool experience to go through together.”

All the men hope to someday save up the vacation time and raise enough money to climb the rest of the summits, including the granddaddy of them all, Mount Everest.

“Once you’ve seen one good mountain, to accomplish a feat like that, it’s kind of addicting,” Bays said. “You kind of want to push yourself further and see what you can do. Absolutely, that’s a goal. We’ve all pretty much set a bucket list and we’re all pretty much trying to knock it out one by one. We’re starting now rather than, of course, retirement.”

Interesting Denali facts:

Though it was once deemed to be 20,320 feet tall, a 2012 survey of Denali using special radar determined the peak’s height is actually 20,237 feet — 83 feet lower than first believed.

It is called Denali – or the high one – by locals, but a gold prospector named the majestic mountain Mount McKinley in 1896 after then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who would become our nation’s 25th president. Through the years efforts have been made, most recently by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to rename the mountain Denali but not without opposition from legislators in Ohio, McKinley’s home state. Alaska’s Board of Geographic Names recognizes the mountain as Denali while the United States Board on Geographic Names refers to it as Mount McKinley.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram