Zach Hoexter knew exactly how he wanted to spend the three weeks between his final final of his freshman year at Columbia University and the first day of his investment banking internship: climbing Denali.
Denali in Alaska, formerly Mount McKinley, is one of the famous Seven Summits, a mountaineering challenge to scale the highest mountains on each continent, originally accomplished by Richard Bass in 1985. Denali, on a glacier, completely covered in snow and ice, is the third highest peak in the group at 20,310 feet above sea level, although there are many higher mountains in the Himalayas and Karakoram in Asia. For reference, Mount Everest in Nepal/China is the tallest at 29,029 feet.
The other five peaks are Aconcagua (Argentina), Mount Elbrus (Russia), Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Puncak Jaya (Oceania) and the Vision Massif (Antarctica).
Hoexter, 21, a resident of Scarsdale, was always active and ran in high school. While he and his friends were virtual for college in the fall of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to do the New York Virtual Marathon, plotting a route that included New Rochelle, Bronx Road River Parkway and the Kensico Dam to make up their 26.2 miles. Hoexter ran his first real marathon in March 2021 with former teammate Joey Samuels, completing the Rivanna Greenbelt Marathon in Charlottesville, Va., both crossing minutes before three and qualifying for the Boston Marathon, which Hoexter ran April 18 this year. . He had already completed the New York Marathon in November 2021 and Dallas a month later. This fall, Hoexter will compete in Berlin, where he will go for a time of less than 2h50, and in Chicago, two weeks apart, which he knows he is “closer to” in terms of recovery and reconstruction of the strength.
This will leave Hoexter with only London and Tokyo to compete in all six World Marathon Majors.
“I think the marathon seems like the ultimate challenge,” Hoexter said. “Seeing these cities go all out for these races and the buildup to them is a lot more appealing to me than a 10K, 8K or a mile in college, and training for a big challenge, an event, that’s a lot more motivating once you leave high school than running an errand every weekend.
Hoexter didn’t want to be defined as “the runner” and was looking for a challenge after the Boston Marathon. During winter break, he moved to Denali to “find a new ceiling.”
After graduating from Scarsdale High School in 2019, Hoexter completed the “pretty comprehensive” 28-day mountaineering course at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the North Cascade Range in Washington state. There he learned how to pack and unpack equipment efficiently and how to use an ice ax and crampons, which are attached to heavy boots and have metal spikes for digging into the ice.
“It set me up pretty well for this,” Hoexter said. “I promised myself that while doing this mountaineering trip, I would follow and use these skills. I looked on a few websites and found Alpine Ascents International.
He knew timing might be an issue at an average of 21 days for a climb and descent – maybe even 25 if time is an issue – but he decided to go for it anyway.
“Denali is in the middle of a glacier, extremely hot during the day, freezing at night,” he said. “There is no help – unless you are about to die and they come and get you in a helicopter – there are no aid stations like there are during a race , no one is cheering you on. You’re with your team and you can’t just stop and walk to the side. We’ve seen people being evacuated every day because of trench foot, gangrene, being blinded by the snow, and there are also people dying.
What Hoexter had to balance was training for a marathon and climbing a mountain twice as tall and with more difficulty than anything he had encountered in the Cascades three years earlier. Unable to find any experts facing similar training overlaps, Hoexter worked out at the gym for a few hours in the evening with friends and ran at night in Central Park and Riverside Drive, while balancing his schoolwork.
“You can’t ride Boston or Denali because either you won’t finish or you’ll be stuck on the mountain,” he said. “When people talk about the trip, the training was really extremely true.”
Hoexter arrived at the base in Denali on May 14 and left with three guides and eight other older, more experienced climbers. Armed with a 70-pound backpack and a 55-pound sled, he began climbing the mountain, reaching the summit after 14 days, with many challenges in between, including ice walls, extremely cold and scorching temperatures, wind, visibility problems and exhaustion throughout the many stages of the mountain.
“It was a beautiful day with no wind,” Hoexter said. “I couldn’t see it until we were halfway through Knife Ridge. I knew that was it. You get there and see this little circular marker on the floor of the National Geological Survey. You also see that there is literally no place higher than this. The first thing you see are glaciers and mountains as far as the eye can see. We had the best visibility, very few clouds. Not of people, no towns, no roads, no planes, nothing around you.You are there, excited and tired after climbing from 9am to 6pm.
To Hoexter’s surprise, they said they had about 10-15 minutes at the top before they started back down. It was enough time to take some photos and briefly enjoy the view.
“Now I have to do the other six,” Hoexter said. “I never thought about it before I got there.”
The start of the climb was difficult for Hoexter, with the sled “perpetually pulling you backwards. Motorcycle Hill was difficult as there was a steep incline trail. Other bands were taking too long, so Hoexter’s band bypassed them to the side, creating their own tracks. Leaving the 14,000ft camp at the Headwall was a steep 2,400ft climb, part of which was done with fixed lines and tied together on pure ice. They did this route twice, once to cache supplies, the second time with their gear. Then going along the western foothill was a challenge as they had to wait for 35 mph winds while exposed for two hours before deciding to go there instead of heading back down the headwall.
“After the first hour, you’re like, ‘Why am I here? It’s so ridiculous,” Hoexter said. “It hurt to be out in the cold at the time and we were just sitting there hoping the wind would die down. It was a tough stretch. That’s what I’ll remember , sitting there with my team and other expedition teams at the Headwall at 16,400 feet exposed on the ridge. The strong gusts of wind had just hit you. There was nothing you could do. It took a lot of mental strength to get through. You got this far so there was no way you were going to turn back. You think about marathons and where you are in life and you know you can’t give up on this opportunity because you might not have another.
For some of his fellow climbers, it was the second time they attempted the climb, as the success rate is less than 60%. One had even reached the high camp, which was at 17,200 feet, another up to 19,000 feet.
“I couldn’t imagine going that far without reaching the top,” Hoexter said. “I was nervous about it.”
Although it only took two days to get back down Denali as they had a sleepless night, it was one of the most grueling parts of the trip which ended on May 31.
“Especially at the end, everything was at its peak,” Hoexter said. “It was amazing. There’s a part very close to the end – it’s called Heartbreak Hill, ironically, like Boston – and it’s the very last hill before you get to base camp. It’s very high and very long and that part still leaves you a hill and I was out of the water by this point I was starting to get a little dehydrated It was about 5:45am and we had been all night long We were trying to come back to get the plane out of there.
“By doing that hill, you just spent all the reserves you have left. Honestly, it felt forever. You look up the hill and you think you see the ridge and you will do whatever you can to get there. You are walking on flat ground, but that just hides another part of the climb and another. It literally felt like there was no end to this hill. Then all of a sudden, the trip was over.
At the foot of the mountain, Hoexter collapsed. The climbers had a few hours to kill before their flight and back in civilization Hoexter treated everyone to pizza, grateful for the opportunity to be the ‘kid’ of the adventure with just days to go. a summer internship before his senior year of college.
“If you can do five marathons and Denali at 21, those are the expectations you have for yourself at 25,” Hoexter said. “It’s something that I ask myself, ‘How do I go up and make sure I don’t plateau or stagnate?’ It’s about tackling school, work and life and dealing with those challenges. I’m learning from the journey about not giving up and being as efficient as possible with your time and energy, to work hard and to work smart and to find the balance between the two.
“People ask, ‘Why?’ and I ask, ‘Why not?’ I think it’s your responsibility to find out what is the maximum capacity you have to do something in any sport or challenge and once you find that maximum find a way to come up with a plan to training or a method to push that an inch further. It builds character and separates you. It helps you find purpose.
Two marathons and a summit officially conquered… four marathons and six summits to be covered.