49 peaks and climbing

BROOKLYN DIPPO | Editor in Chief

Graduation isn’t the only milestone that Jake Wheeler has to look forward to this May. The USD senior will also attempt to summit Mt. Denali in Alaska, completing his quest to climb the highest points in all 50 states.

Wheeler’s adventure started in 2005 when he was just 10 years old. His dad packed up the car and Wheeler, his twin brother, and his sister hopped in for the long drive from California to Ohio for their first of 49 summits to date.

“We started in Ohio, and the high point in Ohio is just like a hill. And Indiana, Illinois, it’s all very flat,” Wheeler said. “It was tons of time in the car, and we weren’t a big fan in the beginning. But then, as we were getting older, it’s cool because you get to see places that no one visits ever because there’s no reason to, and you get to experience all the travel.”

Growing up, they often broke up these road trips into regions of the United States, and the family would climb a few high points on each trip. Wheeler’s favorite climb was at Mt. Katahdin in Maine during an autumn tour of the Northeast. There, he had the chance to experience the season like he never had in Southern California.

“It was still pretty high, but the conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t that hard. You still have to strap on a day pack, but then it’s just an enjoyable hike. It was nice being in the Northeast and the leaves had all changed colors,” Wheeler said. “It’s also where the Appalachian Trail ends, so we ran into a couple of guys that were finishing the Appalachian Trail, and that was really cool to see these guys who are skin and bones who are finally finishing this huge accomplishment, and just to hear their stories.”

From an accomplishment perspective, Wheeler is most proud of their climb at Rainier.

“We almost didn’t make it when we did Rainier,” Wheeler said. “I think there were six rope teams that tried to summit on the day we did, and only two of them made it, and one of them was us.”

The family has been lucky to summit at every attempt so far, and their mom has joined them for 38 of the 49 peaks. The biggest challenge, according to Wheeler, isn’t actually the physical aspect of climbing. He laughed as he explained that the hardest thing to overcome on the trail is boredom.

“It’s a long time with a lot of weight on your back, and that’s all you do all day every day,” Wheeler said. “Unless you really wanted to, you don’t hike in [with] books or electronics or anything like that, because you want to stay light. And there will be days when you are stuck in a tent.”

Though there is little to distract him from the climb, Wheeler did talk about a few funny moments on the trail. Whether it’s his younger sister falling and letting go of her icehacks yard sale style, or bizarre encounters with nature, they have had plenty of laughs along the way.

“One time on Granite Peak in Montana, we heard this rustling outside our tent, so we open it up, and it’s just this mountain goat that’s right in front of our tent,” Wheeler said. “And it just looked at us, and we just watched him. And it was super cool, it was way up close and really cool to see.”

The only state that Wheeler hasn’t visited is Alaska, and reaching the highpoint there is by far the most ambitious and largely dependent on the weather.

“The scale of it is a whole new world compared to what we’ve done before, because the highest point in the continental U.S. is Mt. Whitney, which is 14,400 feet or something, and then Alaska is like 21,000,” Wheeler said. “So you’re passing that point before you’re going for the summit. So it’ll be interesting to see how the altitude feels.”

The family is prepared to spend nearly a month on the mountain. They will take the climb slowly and carefully, having to acclimate to the coldest temperatures they’ve experienced yet and very thin air. Wheeler caught a glimpse of the challenge that is ahead of him on a recent flight over Alaska.

“[During] winter break, I studied abroad in Shanghai, and, on the way back, we flew over Alaska at night, and I was looking down on it, and it’s a total wasteland,” Wheeler said. “You see the little lights down there of people camping, and it was just, like, ‘Wow, that’s going to be me.’ You have to be ready for below zero degrees every day for weeks and weeks, and just having whatever you hike in on your back, and you have a sled, too.”

Wheeler has less than two months until his departure on May 19. He will miss his own graduation in an attempt to accomplish something he has been working toward for much longer. In between classes and studying, Wheeler has been ramping up his physical training to prepare for the challenge.

“I’ve been doing at least 120 floors on the stairclimber every day, [but] I need to bump that up,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been going on runs. I do weights, like I have before, six days a week typically. I swim sometimes. Otherwise it’s just the stair climber, and I definitely need to ramp that up.”

He added that he might also have to go out on some hikes around San Diego.

“I need to start walking around in the boots—you don’t want to be putting those on the first time on the mountain,” Wheeler said. “So I’ll need to do that and go on some hikes— maybe Potato Chip Rock is in my future.”