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Locals summit tallest peak in Americas

SUMMIT COUNTY – The raging blizzard and reports of death and illness that tumbled off of 22,841-foot Aconcagua upon the arrival of four Summit County mountaineers did nothing to discourage the group’s resolve to reach the Summit. The adversity, in fact, better prepared the group for the attempt.

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center Executive (BOEC) Director Rich Cook and part-time Summit County residents Tom Burke and Jacques Juilland reached the top of the Argentinean peak – the highest in North and South America – Jan. 30. Rich’s wife, Lisa, made it to within 1,500 feet of the summit. By then, the storm had dumped more than three feet of snow on the mountain and left a week of bluebird summer days in its wake.

Cook will share his experiences, through words and photos, at a March 28 lecture at the Breckenridge Recreation Center about getting started in high-altitude mountaineering. The talk is part of a new local lecture series called the Breckenridge Outdoor Recreation Education and Adventure Series (BOREAS). Cook is also planning a slide show on the trip later this spring.



“It’s something we’d always wanted to do,” Cook said. “It’s one of the great mountains of the world. It’s a beautiful peak.”

Aconcagua had been on the group’s proverbial “list” for years, and a trip by then-BOEC employee Lisa Seaman two years ago – an all-diabetic expedition – helped keep the peak on Cook’s mind.



“I was coaching Lisa quite a bit and trying to help her prepare for that trip,” Cook said. “Whenever anybody close is getting psyched up and geared up for a trip, you always get the jones going.”

The group pulled the trip together quickly. It wasn’t until December that the foursome noticed a window in their schedules for late January. Burke was the last to purchase his plane ticket, doing so on the way to Janet’s Cabin on New Year’s Eve day, just three weeks before the group’s Jan. 21 departure to Mendoza, Argentina.

“There were a lot of different things going on in our lives,” Cook said.

Cook was wrapping things up for the year at the BOEC, Burke’s wife was in the early stages of pregnancy, and Burke’s mother was going through treatment for cancer. But things came together for the group, including remission of Burke’s mother’s cancer.

When they arrived at base camp, a stream of weary and sick climbers, some of whom had been stuck for several days on the peak during the snowstorm, started to come off the mountain. There were also reports of a death on the mountain.

“It was sort of a grim start,” Burke recalled. “It makes you pay attention to each other a little bit better. All the stuff we saw was preventable by people being smart, understanding their body and listening to it. The illness and the tragedy of it, it was all preventable.”

As the group approached the upper camps, the storm cleared and gave way to sunny summer skies. On a mountain known for scree, wind and dust, the new snow made for a pleasantly surprising climb.

“The snow made it a totally new kind of mountain and one we totally enjoyed,” Burke said. “We expected to climb scree and dust, and it ended up being a beautiful snow climb.”

Cook, Burke and Juilland reached the Summit Jan. 30. on a cold, blustery day. Despite the new snow, they couldn’t avoid some loose scree at the top.

Cook said of standing on the summit, which was an altitude record for the entire group: “It’s just spectacular. You’re looking out over the entire Argentinean and Chilean Andes, and it’s just peaks in all directions. With the (new) snow, it was impressive.”

See and hear what Cook means during his lecture March 28 at the Breck Rec Center. Call (970) 547-7889 for more information on the speaker series.

Jason Starr can be reached at (970) 668-3998 Ext. 231 or at jstarr@summitdaily.com.


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