Central Valley native and Mt. Whitney guide to Summit Denali

Zack Fisher started hiking trans-sierra treks to Mt. Whitney while a student at Bullard High School, in Fresno, Ca at the age of 15. With several seasons under his belt, he has been on Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft.) around a dozen times and counting. The last three years he’s been a TSX guide on our trans-Sierra treks. If you’ve hiked with him, you know he’s an amazing person, and extremely focused. Right now he’s pursuing a degree in Outdoor Leadership at University of Alaska in Juneau, and this month, he and a select few classmates are preparing to summit Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska – 20,322 ft.

We’re super excited for Zack, and to track his progress on this blog on our social media. Here’s a short Q&A with Zack to learn more about his experience and what’s in store.

Q&A with Zack Fisher

Chris:  So how are things going in Alaska, Zack?

Zack:  The program in Alaska is exactly what I was hoping for and my training here is helping me reach my dreams faster than anticipated.

Chris: When is your trip?

Zack:  We get started this May.  On May 5-6 we’ll depart Juneau, travel via ferry to Haines, drive through Canada to Talketna on the Glenn and Alaska Highways.  May 7 we’ll brief with the National Park Service, weigh gear, fly on to the Kahiltna at 7,000′.  May 8-14 we’ll move to advanced base camp (ABC) at 14,000′.  May 15-21 we’ll move to High Camp at 17,000′, and then our goal is to summit and descend between May 22 and May 28.

Chris:  What a month!  How many people will be with you?

Zack:  I’m going with 9 people from the University of Alaska Juneau, which includes two guides that are teachers here at the University and two students who are finishing their degrees and are going as assistant guides.

Chris:  Who is doing all the organizing and planning?  

Zack:  This is part of a Capstone trip, similar to a final project, for my bachelors degree in Geography and Environmental Studies.  The outdoor studies program here had our class decide where we wanted to go for 3 to 4 weeks where we will earn 3 to 4 college credits towards our degree.  It is up to the students to put everything in place and self prepare for the trip.  Yes, we have instruction and help to get us on the way, but over all its our decision to put in the training, food planning, and gather most of the equipment for the trip.

Chris: It seems like a pretty involved prep process, about how long will it take?

Zack: This trip to Denali will take 24 days on the mountain.  Part of that time will be spent acclimatizing and moving gear up higher on the mountain as we wait for a favorable weather window to summit.

Chris: How many people summit Denali each year?

Zack: Last year, around 600 people reached the summit.

Chris: How many people attempt to summit each year?

Zack: Last year around 1,150 attempted the summit.  Basically only half of the climbers that attempt to summit make it.

Chris: So what are you doing to prepare yourself?

Zack: The first thing I did over my winter break was go to Yosemite with my long-time climbing partner and spend two days on the Washington Column south face, climbing a 5.9 A2.  I’m back in Juneau Alaska attending class, taking 18 credits and working at the local climbing gym.  I spend early mornings training; waking up at 4:30 a.m., cooking some eggs with a tall glass of milk, and hitting the road by 5:30 a.m. to go off on a run.  I also hike or take my split board out and skin up a peak and snowboard down.  The hardest, but most important, thing is that I have to be in class by 10:20 a.m.  I’m out in the field training 4 times a week, at a minimum, and in the climbing gym 2-3 times a week.

Over this semester I’ve been taking my Avalanche Certification, Glacier Navigation, Crevass Rescue, Ice Climbing and Mountaineering courses to tie it all together.  This is in addition to my own personal training outside of school.

Chris: Dude, you are intense.  Sounds like you’ll be well prepared.  Will you have acces to direct communications when on the mountain?  Can you send us some pictures?

Zack: Our group will have satellite phones but no direct communication on the mountain.

Chris: What sparked your interested in climbing and backpacking?

Zack: Rock climbing has always been a huge part of my life.  I was climbing the couch as a toddler then I graduated to climbing trees.  At the age of 7, I first stepped foot into a climbing gym. Once I was 10 the local climbing coach saw I was starting to be a strong climber and wanted me on the climbing team. By age 13, I made it to the American Bouldering National Competition in Colorado, and placed in the top 20.  I went again when I was 15.

Once I started climbing I was invited to climb outdoors.  Seeing the climbing lifestyle at a young age, I grew to love climbing and backpacking to the high places of our world.  Its turned into a romantic philosophical relationship of adventure that keeps me inspired and motivated to see what’s out there to climb and explore.

Chris: What is the biggest difference in preparing for Denali versus other climbing or backpacking trips?

Zack: This trip is a “No Joke” serious situation… ha ha. You’re spending lots of time in the backcountry carrying 80 lbs of gear at a time, at high altitudes, with temperatures of -40 to -10 every day and the need to keep a high morale for the entire group.  I usually don’t need to train much for backpacking, but on Denali you’re dealing with glaciers.  The gear and systems all need to be in check.  Every move has to be based on reaction so you’re not learning it on the mountain. That takes up precious time and can be dangerous.  This is one mountain that won’t let you summit unless “mother nature” wants you to.

Chris: What kind of special gear will you require?

Zack: Everything for ice, ropes, climbing harnesses, pickets, ice screws, and a split board… yes, we’re going to be snow boarding or skiing from 14,000 to 11,000, and if we have time, we’ll hit some lower summits!

Chris: What are your long-term goals?  What’s next?  Everest?

Zack: People say Everest… this is not a Mountaineers mountain. The past few years there have been a few controversial events that have happened between Sherpas and climbers who were not using commercial guiding companies.  Everest would have been a goal if it were not as commercialized.

I have my eyes set on First Fitz Roy Royal Flush 7a A0 within the next year or two years.  To start to prepare myself for this after my Denali trip I plan to come back home to do the Evolution Rock Climb in the High Sierras – summit 8 peaks in a 9-mile ridge traverse – then get on the nose of El Capitan, and finally head out to Bishop to work on my project of Ecstasy 5.13a.

After Fitz I will set my eyes on K2.  Training harder than ever to accomplish this.  This is my dream, my aspiration, my goal. I will not have a guide on this mountain, I will tackle this with my own team to push for the summit.

Chris: I’m exited for you Zack.  What else would you like to share?

Zack: If you have a dream, you need to go after that dream.  You will always have people that will say “it won’t work” or that “you’re crazy”.  You have to fight, fall on your face in ice-cold water… sometimes literally in my case… and get back up.  Keep trying!  When you fail you’re only giving it half of what you’ve got.  Your latest and greatest failure will make you that much stronger to get back up and strive to be the greatest person you can be.  There is no difference between you, me and a professional, except work ethic.  Change your life and live your dreams.  I live my dream every day I wake up in the morning.

___

Editor’s note:

Zack, aka, Superman, will be guiding on three Trans-Sierra Xtreme Challenge treks this summer: July 26-Aug 3, Aug 7-15, and Aug 21-29.