LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – On May 10, 2021, extreme adventurer and below-the-knee amputee Jeff Glasbrenner boarded a plane at Clinton National Airport.
Several hours later he landed in Anchorage, Alaska, unaware of what the next 22 days of his life would be like.
“It was just an amazing challenge,” Glasbrenner said. “Denali lived up to everything it was. It threw everything at us.”
Shortly after landing, Glasbrenner made his way to Talkeetna, a staging area for more than 1,000 climbers brave enough to try and climb North America’s tallest mountain each year.
After meeting his teammates, they all boarded a ski plane that took them to the base of Denali, which sits at 7,000 feet above sea level.
“We got the most amazing views coming in and it was just kind of a time to think, ‘Alright, it’s go time,’” Glasbrenner recalled. “All the training, all the preparation is coming down to this moment.”
Over the next two days, the team prepped their equipment, sleds, and ropes. They also checked and rechecked their food and fuel, making sure everything was in order and accounted for.
“The next day we started heading up that mountain, and that’s when it became real,” he said. “The next elevation was only 900 feet up, but it took us three hours to get there because it was a lot of hard work just to move those heavy loads.”
On average, the team climbed five hours a day, each climber carrying a 60-pound backpack and pulling a sled loaded with 60 pounds of equipment. When they reached their targeted elevation for the day, their attention turned to building their tents and campsite.
On day four of their journey, they finally reached 11,000 feet. The weather at that elevation can turn on a dime.
Using a hand saw, Glasbrenner said they cut 50-pound blocks of ice out of the mountain and create a huge ice wall around their tents, “just to protect our tents and our equipment from the winds that we were getting every night.”
It’s a good thing they did. For the next three days, straight 30-40 mile per hour winds battered their tents and campsite.
They were stuck unable to move up or down the mountain, but on the third day, a window of opportunity presents itself. Another storm was heading in, but the team felt they could reach 14,000 feet before it hits.
So, they went for it.
“The wind was going so much that we’re pulling these sleds, and about 30 to 40 pounds in the back at this time, and the sleds are lifting up off the ground. So, it was crazy,” Glasbrenner explained. “It was one of those moments you’re like, ‘Should we be doing this?’”
Over the next few days, the team reached 17,000 feet, and while setting up camp they witnessed something no climber ever wants to see.
“We saw a climber fall about 1,300 feet,” Glasbrenner said.
He explained 31-year-old Adam Rawski of British Columbia was on his way down the mountain when at 18,200 feet he fell more than 1,000 feet.
Glasbrenner saw him fall, “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The National Park Service said in a statement that “he was unresponsive due to multiple traumatic injuries.” As a helicopter removed Rawski from the mountain, Glasbrenner took in the scene and thought about the challenge he faced.
“The hardest part for me personally was watching that guy fall and knowing a few days later I’d have to be on that same mountain making those same steps he did,” he said.
Glasbrenner and his teammates had to refocus and turn their attention from what they just witnessed to the task at hand, though. Another storm was heading their way, and they needed to build an even bigger ice wall.
They finished the job in the nick of time, as later than night 60-70 mile per hour winds slammed their campsite and dropped temperatures to 35 below.
For the next six days, the weather pounded them. Once again, they were stuck. Other teams on the mountain were running low on fuel, food, and patience. So, they retreated down to a lower elevation. But Glasbrenner and his team stayed put, confident a break in the weather was coming.
They were right.
On May 30, the skies finally cleared, and the team leader told them it was go time. It took the team eight hours to reach the summit, and when they did, they were all alone.
“To have that mountain all to ourselves, and to just be there… not too many people have done that,” Glasbrenner said.
There were no cheering fans to greet them or medals to be handed out, but what did greet them was a geological marker at the summit, put there by the U.S. Department of Interior.
Glasbrenner noted there was one other thing waiting for them at the summit, “the most amazing views that you’ve ever seen.”
It was a reward that only a few can ever say they’ve witnessed firsthand.
“I always say, ‘The harder the challenge, the better the views,’ and this was a huge challenge and a huge, huge view,” he said.
Glasbrenner and his teammates spent about an hour on top of the 20,310-foot mountain, then it was time to safely make the descent, which is no easy task. In fact, on the way down they experienced a 6.1 earthquake.
Glasbrenner said he felt the glacier beneath him tremble and feared it would cause a snow slide or avalanche, but fortunately, that didn’t happen.
After two days, the team finally reached the base camp, where they had a cold beer that they buried in the snow before they made the trek up. They then boarded a ski plane and headed home, grateful for the incredible journey and memories.
So, what’s next for Glasbrenner? Well, he’s now one step closer to completing the Explorers Grand Slam, a dangerous and grueling adventure that involves scaling the seven highest peaks on all seven continents and reaching both the North and South Poles.
For Glasbrenner, all that’s left is reaching the North Pole, which he plans on doing in April of next year, and reaching the summit of Carstenz Pyramid in Indonesia, which he plans on climbing in August.
Once he does that, he will become the first physically challenged athlete in the world to have completed the Explorers Grand Slam.
What he plans on doing after that is anyone’s guess.