Snow blows climber's quest for summits
Near the top of Eastern Oregon's nearly 10,000-foot Sacajawea Peak, Steve Kominsky of Medford found himself staring at an all-too familiar barrier between himself and Oregon mountaineering history.
A 25-foot snow cliff, slickened under the mid-summer sun, shouldn't be there in July. But there it was, the last impediment to reaching the top.
One slip and he'd tumble 1,300 feet or more, and then his name would soon grace a memorial plaque near the trailhead.
He thought of his pregnant wife, Heather, his 15-month-old son, Dawson, and how to proceed became obvious.
"It was one of those moments of, 'What do I really need to do here?' " says Kominsky, 28. "No summit is worth that risk."
That credo has been disappointingly redundant this past week for Kominsky as the elements — and not stamina, injury or questions about his sanity — have kept him from reaching his goal of climbing Oregon's 10 tallest peaks in six consecutive days.
His personal "Oregon 10-in-6 Challenge" ends atop Mount Hood today as something of a bust, with the uber-athlete able to reach the summit at only four of his high-altitude quests — assuming he is successful today as expected.
Gnarly, way-above-average snowpacks have forced him to turn back at six others, even when he stood as close as 300 feet from the top of Middle Sister on Wednesday.
"It's honestly disappointing," Kominsky said Wednesday as he climbed down South Sister after reaching its summit. "There's no doubt in my mind that the 10-in-6 is completely doable.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do about the conditions," he says.
Kominsky's obsession with Oregon's acmes under such a dizzying deadline began 11/2 years ago along the banks of the Rogue River when he and a friend started talking about such a feat.
Bumping around the Internet, Kominsky found references to people conquering the 10 top Oregon peaks, but no one claimed to have done it in fewer than nine days.
A former Olympic rowing hopeful, Kominsky says he was spurred by Dawson's birth to seek a new physical challenge.
So he started strapping Dawson in a backpack and began hiking. Kominsky took on a near-vegetarian diet of primarily locally grown foods to fuel him.
His big splash came in late October, when he went public with his planned feat as a way to gain donations for the Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics, which teaches outdoor skills and methods for enjoying backwoods places without leaving a negative human imprint.
And the splash part? He'd climb Mount McLoughlin three times in one day.
But Mount McLoughlin had a different plan.
The first storm of the fall brought 60 mph winds and 4-foot snowdrifts to the mountain east of Klamath Falls, forcing Kominsky to abort his try after two failed attempts to reach the peak.
"Maybe I should have seen it coming," Kominsky says. "The snow stopped me then, maybe it will stop me now."
And boy, howdy, it did.
On Sunday, his plan was to scale four peaks in the Wallowa Mountain range: 9,845-foot Matterhorn Mountain; 9,833-foot Sacajawea Peak; 9,775-foot Hurwal Divide; 9,702-foot Aneroid Mountain.
Nature sucker-punched him on all but Hurwal Divide.
So he climbed nearby Chief Joseph Mountain, which is not on the list — just for the hell of it.
"There should have been no snow in June in the Wallowas," he says. "You take the snowpack of March and the heat of July, it makes the conditions way too unsafe."
While driving with his family from peak to peak, his hope of setting a mountaineering record became a broken record, with snow and ice leaving impassable obstacles almost daily.
"It's just not the year for it," Kominsky says. "That's what's so disappointing. The risks just weren't worth it."
But he did bring a lot of attention to the Leave No Trace mantra, stopping for talks in and around Bend and seeing his story splashed across the West.
Tired but not sore, disappointed but not broken, Kominsky is convinced now more than ever that the 10 peaks in six days is doable, but not necessarily by him.
"Will I try again?" he says. "That's something you'll have to ask my wife."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email email@example.com.