Dr. Jon Kedrowski was boot-packing the final push up Mount Adams in Washington, 150 yards from the 12,276-foot summit, when his spidey sense kicked in. Danger was near. His neck hair stood on end, sending chills down his back. Thunderheads had been building all day, and now it was certain they were here to stay. Lightning charges electrified the air. Determined to make it to the top, the climber pushed onward, breathing heavily as sweat beaded on his brow from the effort to beat the storm to the peak.
Moments later at the summit, Kedrowski pulled off his gloves and laid down his pack. Brushing his hand across his ice axe, he noticed the shaft was hot with electricity. Time to get off the mountain—fast. He grabbed his skis—which were also hot and buzzing—and jammed them into the snow to remove his skins. Then… crash-flash-boom! Lightning struck the ground around him and flowed through his skis. “That was a close call,” he thought. “Time to go!”
Kedrowski clicked into his skis and bombed down 3,000 feet in a narrow escape. The mountain had spared him. It was just another day in the life of a determined mountaineer who was charging hard to knock out back-to-back volcanic peaks.
The man on the mountain was on a quest to touch the tops of the Pacific Northwest, a hotbed of Earth’s molten fury, with more than 20 volcanic cones that surpass 8,000 feet—three higher than 14,000 feet. Hikers, climbers, and skiers flock to this region to explore, then swap stories over microbrews. No one had set the audacious goal of climbing 20 of the highest volcanoes in 30 days, sleeping on as many as possible, and skiing down. Until Dr. Jon Kedrowski came along.
He’s an adventurer of a special sort. After sleeping on top of all of Colorado’s 14ers in 2011, Kedrowski set his sights on ski descents from the lava tops. Bold, brilliant, or berserk—it could be any of the above, but the mission is complete. He started May 1 on Mount Shasta and finished on May 31, when he woke up on Mount Baker and ripped his final turns.
All said and done, Kedrowski attempted 22 peaks, summited 20, slept on seven, and skied down all of them for a total of 102,000 vertical feet. Lightning, wind, storms, and long slogs couldn’t stop him.
How did he pull it off such a fast-paced feat? For one, he has legs of steel from living in Vail, Colorado, where he spends all winter climbing mountains, leading backcountry ski tours, and tackling at least one big objective each week.
He carried just the essentials—an ultralight sleeping bag and tent, lightweight sleeping pad, two liters of water, ice axe, headlamp, thin down jacket, waterproof jacket, extra long sleeve top, and camera gear, of course. He brought crampons and a stove only when he knew he’d need them.
A Ph.D. in geography also came in handy. Formerly a professor, Kedrowski is well versed in mountains and climate. Working with weather is key.
“A lot of times there’s a reason you shouldn’t be up on a mountain,” Kedrowski told me. “When you’re actually able to be up there, it feels like you’re getting away with something.”
It seems Kedrowski gets away with a lot, even with his impressive pedigree. Yet he also carries a healthy respect, choosing his timing carefully. During one stretch of bluebird skies, he knocked out volcanoes like candlepins, climbing five peaks (sleeping on two) in a three-day push that covered 48 miles and 21,500 feet. After topping out on North Sister at 3:00 p.m. on the third day, he still faced a six-hour schlepp back to his car. My legs start to shake just thinking about it.
Kedrowski also knows that mountain moods can be unpredictable, so he prepares for the worst, making mental notes as he climbs so he can retreat on a mountain’s whim. Before he bunks down, he plans an escape route, sometimes memorizing every handhold he can grab blindly in the pitch-dark night.
Weather forced Kedrowski to make a hasty descent from Mount Thielsen, whose top is just a craggy spire—not suitable for a bed. In order to overnight as close to the summit as possible, he spent two hours chopping out a tent-sized platform on a 30-degree slope, 15 feet above the entrance to a couloir. Hours after bedtime, the angry sounds of wind and snow yanked him from sleep. Thick fog shrouded the surroundings, obscuring even the view of his hand in front of his face. Had he not memorized his escape route, he might not have made it off the mountain alive. Yet Kedrowski managed to crab-walk down to where he could safely start to ski.
As Kedrowski says, the mountains decide when you’re supposed to be on them. It’s best to heed the call when they say go home.
Now that’s it’s all said and done, Kedrowski says the hardest part wasn’t the physical challenge, it was fleeing the lightning storm at the top of Mount Adams. What irked him was having to retreat from a mountain where he really wanted to sleep. By the time he got down to safety, the storm had passed, and the peak shone bright under clear skies, taunting him.
I suppose it’s no surprise that the mental game was the toughest part—with the pressure to move quickly and the disappointment of defeat. It took serious motivation to keep charging all that time.
There’s no doubt Kedrowski is a man with motivation. This mountain maniac is already cooking up his next adventure. I can’t wait to see what he’s got up his sleeve.
In the meantime, stay tuned for Kedrowski’s book about his volcanic quest, expected spring 2015. And check out his Climb Your Everest blog.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.