LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Denali is the highest mountain in North America. It stands 20,310 feet above sea level and is a beast to summit.
More than 32,000 people have tried, but only half of them have made it to the top. The biggest obstacle isn’t the terrain, but the weather. Temperatures have reached 75 below and blinding storms can roll in at any minute.
Training for such a dangerous trek is no easy task – even for the most seasoned adventurer. But imagine doing it as a below-the-knee amputee.
Training to go from Arkansas to the top of the world
It’s a warm sunny day in West Little Rock, 77 degrees to be exact, and Jeff Glasbrenner is getting ready for his daily workout.
The first thing he does is strap on his backpack, which is loaded with 52 pounds of weights. He then attaches two ropes to the waist part of his backpack. Those ropes are hooked up to two 20-pound tires, and then the fun begins. At least it’s fun to him.
Using hiking poles, Glasbrenner hikes up and down gravel roads in his neighborhood – miles at a time. He also climbs up and down Pinnacle Mountain with a heavy backpack, all in an effort to prepare himself for his next biggest adventure – scaling Denali.
I watch in amazement while scratching my head because it begs the question. Temperatures on Denali can reach well below zero, and it’s 20,310 feet tall. So why in the world are you training in 77-degree weather in Little Rock, Arkansas?
He laughs and simply tells me, “Yeah, that’s a problem.”
‘You always try to make the best of your abilities’
If you truly know Glasbrenner you know that it’s NOT a problem. This guy is a beast and has a mental and physical toughness that can’t be matched. Tell him he can’t do something, and he will say, “Watch me,” and then do it.
“You try and mimic the best that you can, and this is the best I have,” he said. “You always try to make the best of your abilities and so Pinnacle is definitely that for me.”
That mental fortitude has been part of his DNA since he was 8 years old.
He grew up on a farm and helped his father out in the fields. One day his dad asked him to hop off the tractor and clear the blades.
The engine was off. Glasbrenner had done this many times before and didn’t hesitate. His father assumed the task had been completed and that his son was far away from the tractor. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and when his dad fired up the tractor his leg got snagged in the blades.
Doctors would later tell him to stay away from sports, fearing he would injure himself or others. But in true Glasbrenner fashion, he ignored their advice.
Tackling challenges in competition and life
He went on to become a three-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball, a 25-time Ironman finisher, and the first American amputee to summit Mount Everest. He has a photo of him on the summit in his house and has been featured on HBO Real Sports and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I asked him if that was his greatest accomplishment, and he doesn’t hesitate to respond.
“No, not even remotely. My two gold medals are my kids, Gavin and Grace,” Glasbrenner replied. “So, climbing Everest is cool, it’s fun, but the real pride and the real fun is being a father to them.”
As for scaling Denali, Glasbrenner does have concerns.
“It’s definitely not one of the most dangerous, but it’s a very difficult mountain because it’s really close to the Arctic circle,” he explained. “So, it’s very cold and the weather is a big factor.”
Besides the weather, he will be making the trek with others, and he has no idea what their background is or level of expertise.
“For me, I want to be the strongest teammate,” Glasbrenner said. “I know when they look at me, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, this guy is missing a leg. We got a weak teammate.’ But little do they know they are going to have the strongest teammate.”
The intense training he does on Pinnacle and up-and-down the gravel roads has a purpose. Not only does it get him physically fit, but the tires he lugs behind him mimic the sled he’ll be pulling up the mountain with all his gear and equipment.
“When we get to about 14,000 feet, we lose the sled, and from there it’s just the backpack and then we’re in our summit mode from that point forward,” he outlined.
Making matters even more difficult is the fact that at some point, Glasbrenner will have to stop and address his prosthetic.
“The cold is always a big factor for my leg,” he explained. “So even if it’s 20 degrees below zero, I’ll still have to take my off and do maintenance on it to be able to correct it as I go higher up the mountain.”
And when the conditions are that extreme, timing is everything.
“It usually takes me about a minute and a half to change my leg, dry the sweat off and then get ready to go again. If it’s anything longer than that I could get frostbite on my stump or on my hands if I have my gloves off. And if I get frostbite on my stump, it’s going to be a rescue situation,” Glasbrenner said.
Reaching rarified air – the Explorers Grand Slam
What makes this adventure even more impressive is that when and if he conquers Denali, he will be that much closer to completing what few in the entire world have+ been able to complete – the “Explorers Grand Slam.”
It’s the most challenging and dangerous adventure one can attempt. Simply put, a person must scale the seven highest mountains on each of the seven continents and reach both the North and South Pole.
Glasbrenner has already reached the South Pole and conquered five of the summits. Denali will be his sixth. After that, all he had to do is climb Carstensz Pyramid in Papa, New Guinea and reach the North Pole.
Once he does, he will become the first physically challenged athlete in the world to have ever completed the Explorers Grand Slam.
But first things first, Glasbrenner is focused on Denali and what he needs to do in order to reach the summit. Physically and mentally he’s ready. But he also realizes the dangers he could face.
“I know that’s a possibility, but I train that that hopefully won’t happen,” he said. “But accidents happen every single day. I’m a testament to that. But I don’t want that fear to hold me back.”
He also understands that the mountain itself is ultimately in control and he’s not afraid to call it off – if and when things take a turn for the worse.
“For me, the mountain is always going to be there. I want to be able to stand on that summit, but I also want to come back home to my family.”
Kevin Kelly will be following Glasbrenner’s trek up Denali and will post updates on the FOX 16 News Facebook page.