At play with Keith McDowell
Vice president’s pastime yields many rocky mountain highs
Above 12,000 feet, mountain climbers share a common experience, says avid climber Keith McDowell, UTA vice president for research and information technology.
They stop talking.
“Even though part of the experience is who you’re with, at 12,500 feet it’s just you and the mountain,” he says. “It becomes a very individual thing, and you just focus on slugging it out to the summit.”
Reaching the summit is an accomplishment Dr. McDowell has achieved more than 500 times since he made his first climb 30 years ago while a graduate student at Harvard University. At the invitation of friends, he scaled Mount Lincoln in New Hampshire and recalls the exhilaration of reaching its highest point of 5,108 feet.
“When we came on to the summit, all we saw were peaks sticking up through the clouds all around us. It was beautiful.”
From that moment on, the former high school football player, wrestler and hiker became a “peak bagger,” a climber whose objective is always attaining the mountaintop.
“Even though part of the experience is who you’re with, at 12,500 feet it’s just you and the mountain. … You just focus on slugging it out to the summit.”
– Vice President for Research Keith McDowell
He has endured temperatures of 30 degrees below zero, the common foot injury of black toe, blizzards with 100-mile-per-hour winds and a footrace with lightning.
Yet he finds peak bagging a stress reducer.
“I am very task oriented,” he notes, “and I think that is part of it. It [mountain climbing] is a task that is very hard, but you can get to the end of it. And it’s always a thrill to look around and see what you have done.”
Danger, he admits, is also part of the appeal.
He has had a few close calls, but the closest occurred at arguably the best rock climbing site in the United States, the series of cliffs in the Shawangunk Mountains (also known as the Gunks) between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River in New York.
Although attached to another climber with a rope, Dr. McDowell suddenly began to fall at a point where, on the climbing scale of difficulty, the ledges are only about a quarter-inch and where “you either are sure you are going to fall and you don’t, or you’re sure you are going to fall and you do.”
After ripping off several fingernails and clawing his way back onto the vertical cliff, he reattached himself and finished his ascent. “There was no going back down at that point,” he says.
He once spent a long night between two peaks during a blizzard that required members of his party to take turns shoveling snow off the tents.
And during a climb of Bierstadt in Colorado last year, he and his sons literally outran a fierce thunderstorm. “We began counting the seconds between the lightning and thunder, and at one point the count was only 1001.”
Dr. McDowell’s sons, Andy, 24, and John, 22, are his regular climbing companions, and all three have their sights set next on Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot glacier peak and active volcano in Washington.
Colorado is Dr. McDowell’s favorite spot with 55 peaks of 14,000 feet or more where he says he has experienced many a gorgeous mountain climbing day, defined as “a day with not much wind, crisp air and clear, blue sky and a touch of snow.”
Despite all the rugged terrain he has encountered, his wild animal interactions have been limited to raccoons, including one that joined the campfire circle one night and wasn’t noticed until someone passed the critter the Jiffy Pop popcorn.
He also recalls a “UTA moment” at about 12,000 feet. After a seven-hour climb, he was on his way down, near a trail, when a four-wheel-drive vehicle stopped and the driver shouted, “Are you from UTA?”
The driver had seen the UTA hat and told Dr. McDowell
that his daughter is a student at the University. Dr. McDowell gave
the man one of his business cards and advised him to call if his daughter
ever needed assistance.
– Donna Darovich