When Kent Willoughby and Doris Spencer reached the top of Mount Elbrus, Russia’s highest peak, Willoughby put Spencer on his shoulders so she could be the tallest person to ever summit the mountain.
This is probably the best example of how the two Summit County locals work as a team as they climb mountains across Colorado and around the world. It’s always together, it’s always a challenge and it’s always fun.
Although he’s been doing it now for 15 years, mountain climbing wasn’t always a part of Willoughby’s life. He conquered his very first Fourteener (a mountain with elevation higher than 14,000 feet) at age 60 when he entered the Pikes Peak Marathon. Now, at 75, Willoughby has crossed more than 400 mountains off his list, including all of Colorado’s Fourteeners, the centennials (top 100 highest peaks in the state), all but one of the bicentennials (the next 100 highest peaks in the state), as well as mountains in all 50 states, Europe, Russia, South America and Africa.
He credits all of it to Spencer, now 67, who was a mountain climber when they met 18 years ago and who encouraged him to take on Pikes Peak. The challenge proved addictive to the competitive Willoughby, who has been an athlete all his life, playing college football in Louisiana and holding three degrees in fitness and health. But, he insists, Spencer is an indispensable part.
“For me, it’s Doris,” he said of his motivation to climb. “I stay close to Doris. I follow her.”
Climbing for Spencer began as a challenge both physical and mental. She moved to Summit County in 1988 and found herself living at the base of Quandary Peak. Several back injuries plagued her, including recovery from spinal cord surgery. Though she was told walking would be difficult, she couldn’t get the nearby peak off her mind.
“I kept looking up at Quandary and kept thinking, ‘I’m going to climb that,’” she said.
Using ski poles, she re-taught herself balance and taking the right steps to go uphill. “After two years, I finally made it to the summit,” she said, a trek that took five and a half hours. “I cried like a baby and became a peak bagger that day.”
“Peak bagger,” she explained, refers to people who collect peaks, making it a goal to summit as many as possible. Summiting the state’s Fourteeners is a common goal, for example.
Spencer and Willoughby are ultimate peak baggers. Not happy with just knocking off the Fourteeners, they started in on the centennials. They also traveled to peaks in Europe, Nepal, Africa, Mexico and Argentina, among others.
This summer they finished the centennials, reached 99 of 100 bicentennials and made inroads on the tricentennials.
Because they’re retired, Spencer and Willoughby are free to devote the majority of their time to their passion. During the summer, they hardly take a break, Spencer said.
“When we start climbing mid-June — we do not love backpacking, but you have to backpack to get to the mountains that we want to climb. We backpack in, we climb, we backpack out, we come home, we do laundry, we unpack the food, we re-pack new food and we head out,” she explained, estimating they stay home for about two days before heading out to the next mountain.
Now that they’ve hiked most of the mountains in the northern part of the state, the rest of their list takes them south to the San Juan mountain range. They do this so often that they have season passes on the Durango-Silverton train and the conductors know them by name.
The climbs the two choose are not easy. Though many Fourteeners have well-marked and fairly well traveled trails, the centennials and bicentennials usually do not. The climbs are often technical, requiring ropes and rappelling. For the particularly difficult ones, the two will hire a guide to lead them on the best route and help with the rope work. They are adamant that they could not have accomplished their impressive list of peaks without the help of others, including guide Mark Miller of Durango and Rich McAdams, lead climber of the Colorado Mountain Club.
They almost always use a guide when traveling abroad. They prefer to avoid large tourist groups, as lower level climbers slow them down and they have worked out a good system as a team over the years. Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, for example, involved a team of 13 people to help just the two of them. The two laugh about the experience.
Not every mountain they climb has led to a summiting, however. Sometimes the weather proves too much, as it did at Aconcagua, Argentina’s highest mountain. Other times it’s something unforeseeable, such as their second attempt on Aconcagua, when Spencer was struck with high-altitude pulmonary edema — life-threatening case of fluid in the lungs. They had nearly reached the top when her oxygen level dropped to 47 (normal level is around 96), requiring an immediate return to lower altitude.
She encouraged Willoughby to continue on to the peak without her, but he wasn’t having it.
“No, no. Never,” he said, shaking his head at the suggestion.
The mountain that both agree they had the most fun on was Mont Blanc in France, where they took the ice wall route, which requires an ice axe, crampons and ropes to cross over a glacier and up the mountain.
So what is it that compels Spencer to keep climbing?
“For me, it is religious. It’s where I feel close to God,” she said. “It’s not backpacking, it’s at the summit, and I think it’s because of my first time to climb Quandary. It goes back to that. It was something that I wasn’t supposed to be able to do physically, and I was able to do it.”
Though neither Spencer nor Willoughby look their age, it’s something that they think about from time to time. They said they’ve noticed they aren’t quite as fast as they used to be, but they are still just as strong and see no reason to stop climbing just because of a number.
“This isn’t the end of our climbing,” Willoughby said. “I’m going to go as long as I can.”
Rain has put an end to their summer climbing, but they’ll keep in shape this winter with their favorite activity, skinning, which they do almost every morning.
Then as soon as the snow melts they’ll be back out, crossing mountains off their list. The last of the bicentennials, Peak 15 in the San Juans, will be first.
“It’s already booked,” Spencer said with a smile.