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Pleban journeys to top of continent

He understood the risks involved with an expedition to Mount McKinley. After all, Scott Pleban has been adventure racing in multi-day, multi-sport events for more than a decade. Outdoor adventure is part of his lifestyle. He has 13 United States Ski Orienteering Championship titles and won medals at the World Masters championships in 1999 and 2008.

But this expedition was something different. It would test him physically and mentally and at every turn it seemed, he was being reminded of how precarious a task climbing the Alaskan mountains really was.

Pleban, a native of Cheektowaga who went to West Seneca East High school and was captain of the University at Buffalo track team in 1986 and 1987, ascended Mount McKinley this past June. The peak, also known as Denali, is 20,320 feet making it the highest point in North America.

The climb is not easy even for the most experienced, a fact which hit Pleban just days before his trip when he heard of two deaths of climbers on the mountain.

"You want to do it safely, but there's always a risk," Pleban said. "It puts it into perspective. How bad are you willing to suffer to do this? You start thinking that you paid all this money to do this, but you have to keep your priorities straight."

Pleban, who works as a mechanical engineer for the Navy in Virginia, made the trip with racing friends Pete Spagnoli, and Brian Reiss. It was Spagnoli's second attempt at Mount McKinley. Two years ago, he spent 10 nights at the final camp, unable to reach the summit because of bad weather.

Spagnoli organized this expedition and Pleban was determined to try for the top with his friend.

In order to be prepared to hang in when the going got tough, Pleban spent the better part of a year training. He would drive nearly five hours from his home in Virginia to spend the weekend in the snow of West Virginia. He would train for skiing on Saturday, do some heavy-pack snowshoeing then camp out in the cold with the idea of mentally preparing, as best he could, for the sub-freezing temperatures he would face on Denali. Sunday he would snowshoe for a few more hours before heading home.

In the summer, Pleban, taking the advice of the mountaineering guides who work Denali National Park and Preserve, engaged in some unconventional training. See, Pleben didn't have to just endure the physical climb, the cold and the mental strain. He also had to carry more than 60-pounds of gear up the mountain with him.

"Mid-week I would find a chunk of sandy beach near where I live and put my backpack on with 65 pounds in it," Pleban said. "Then, I'd rig a tire to my climbing harness and drag the tire around the beach, cutting into the sand while I had 65 pounds on my bag."

The group left for Anchorage, Alaska on May 21 and began their journey on May 24 with a flight up Kahiltna Glacier. They made their way up the mountain with two guides from the Alaska Mountaineering School -- Nate Opp and Kirby Senden. Adventure racing friends Shari Hymes and Mary Sheerer began the climb, but abandoned their attempt at 11,000 feet, electing to return back to base camp.

The culmination of the trip is Summit Day, but it took Pleban and his group two nights of waiting at camp at 17,200 feet before making their attempt. The climbers needed a good weather day and by the time Pleban was ready to attempt to summit, the camp was packed with other climbing groups anxiously waiting for their turn, too.

The key was to time it properly to get in as much sun as possible (it was minus-7 degrees when the team started out) but not to get caught behind other groups to slow the pace. There was fear of not making the summit due to time, weather and the increasing number of other climbers on the route. But Pleban and his friends pressed on, climbing the final 3,000 feet in one day, reaching the summit on June 6. It capped a 14-day journey to climb to the top. Then it took three days to descend the mountain.

"The anticipation of just being able to make the attempt was burning in my head the whole time," Pleban said. "It's a gamble. You put your money down and wait and keep hoping. When the girls had to go down early and I saw people from other climbing parties going down, I started to wonder if I was good enough to do this. There's all this buildup and when you finally are able to have your chance at going for the top, it's almost a big relief.

"At the top, you are so fatigued, you just want it to be over and you're happy you're there. You have a fantasy of spending an hour up there to eat lunch and look at the mountains, but it's not a place to stop for very long. It's 20-below zero and there are other people still trying ascend and you've got to keep moving. We took in the scenery, but we were only there for about five minutes. Then we had to hustle out.

"This was the coolest adventure of my athletic career and it definitely was even harder than I anticipated."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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