REACHING THE SUMMIT: GFC grad has climbed six of the Seven Summits

The sun peeks over the horizon at dawn on Mount Kenya. Andrew Towne is already four hours into his climb. His leather construction boots and corduroy pants are a dead giveaway that he has minimal hiking experience and has never climbed a mountain...

submitted photo. Massif Summit

The sun peeks over the horizon at dawn on Mount Kenya.

Andrew Towne is already four hours into his climb.

His leather construction boots and corduroy pants are a dead giveaway that he has minimal hiking experience and has never climbed a mountain.

He feels fine, but that's about to change.

The sun sheds light on the mountain for the first time. Towne looks down and sees a 400-foot ice-packed slope.


If I fall, it's going to be a long, fast ride down and I'm going to hit something hard. It could be a terrible death.

Towne freezes. His knees shake. His pulse skyrockets.

What's he doing here?

After all, he's scared of heights.

As a child, he refused to get on a 15-foot climbing wall in his friend's backyard. Towne sat in the grass by himself and watched everyone else play.

It's not that he wasn't adventurous-Towne spent a year in Germany while attending Grand Forks Central High School and was now studying abroad in Nairobi, Kenya-but heights weren't his thing.

His fellow exchange students convinced him, on a whim, to join them on this weekend adventure. Now, he's on Africa's second-tallest mountain, woefully underprepared, and in the middle of a panic attack.

Towne takes a couple of minutes to collect himself. He takes a step. Then another. Soon, he's ascending again.


Two hours later, in December 2002, Towne and his group reach the trekker's summit. Point Lenana, elevation: 16,335 feet.

"It was such a rush, getting over my fear and getting to the summit," he said. "I wanted to keep doing it."

Three months later, Towne climbed Africa's tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro. After that, it was South America's highest peak, Aconcagua. Then, he summited Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, Denali in Alaska, Mount Elbrus in Russia and Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

The 2000 Grand Forks Central graduate-a national champion rower at Yale, who can speak Swahili and has worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, has reached six of the Seven Summits-the highest points on each continent. Mount Everest is all that remains.

He attempted Everest last spring, but a deadly earthquake shut down climbing operations on the mountain for the year. Nobody reached the earth's highest peak in 2015.

Adventurous spirit

Towne, who was active in debate, speech and acting at Central, credits longtime teacher Bea Berg with helping him find his adventurous spirit.

Berg suggested that Towne spend his junior year abroad, so he went to Germany with Youth For Understanding.


"My year abroad changed my life," Towne said. "It exposed me to a totally different world outside of North Dakota. It made me independent. I came back with a stronger sense of self and a curiosity to get to know other different ways of living and adventure."

At Yale, Towne learned Swahili-a language spoken in Southeast Africa-because, "why not?" Because of his great experience in high school, he wanted to study abroad again. He picked Kenya so he could use his Swahili.

That's when he got into mountain climbing. Towne summited Kilimanjaro (elevation 19,341) twice-the first time in March 2003, the second time in January 2005.

After graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C., with his brother, Jon, and his friend, Bret Schothorst, to look for jobs. His Swahili knowledge came in hand.

"There are two types of people," he said. "One says, 'Why did you waste a year learning Swahili?' The other says, 'When can you start working?'"

Towne started work for the CIA. He worked in Iraq in 2011. His shifts were from 9 a.m. to midnight. Every 90 days, he got two-and-a-half weeks off. During his breaks, he started traveling to climb more mountains.

From January 2011 to August 2012, he reached four of the Seven Summits-Anconcagua in Argentina, Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Puncak Jaya), Denali and Elbrus.

He reached the sixth of the Seven Summits-Vinson Massif in Antarctica-last December.


Different challenges

Each climb provides its own challenges.

Carstensz Pyramid was the most difficult technically and psychologically. His fear of heights kicked in when he had to cross 40-foot section of rope that hung over a 2,000-foot drop. Sharp, jagged rocks were below.

Denali was the most physically demanding. It can be as much as a 21-day trek to the top. Climbers have to carry 80-100 pounds of gear and supplies.

Towne got stranded for three days in a snowstorm on his first attempt to summit and had to turn around. He returned to the mountain a year later and reached the top. It was his most gratifying-and beautiful-summit.

At 22,838 feet, Anconcagua was the tallest of his summits. It was challenging because he was sick during the climb.

"Having a cold is a lot different at 16,000 feet," he said.

Towne's group also got stuck in a snowstorm on the way to the top and spent half of a day trying to rescue a badly ailing climber.


"He and his friends summited during the blizzard," Towne said. "We were moving some of our gear up the mountain so we could lighten the load for the next day. This guy came running up to us and asked of us if we could help his friend down.

"His glasses were hanging off of the end of his nose. He was so dizzy and dehydrated that he didn't realize he wasn't wearing a hat. He couldn't walk in a straight line. He didn't know his own name. It was a risk, because if he starts stumbling and falling, we're on the same line as him. But we felt confident in our route and that we had enough gear packed in case the weather got worse."

They made it back to their camp with the injured climber. His friends soon arrived and brought him the rest of the way down the mountain.

Other climbers weren't as lucky during the blizzard. Towne's group saw a body on their way to the summit the next day.

Getting to Vinson Massif on Antarctica is a challenge in itself.

Towne flew from Chile to Union Glacier-a blue-ice runway on Antarctica. From there, his group had to wait a week for weather to clear enough to take a prop plane 100 miles to the mountain.

It was -32 degrees on the mountain.

"You have to make sure you don't have a square inch of skin exposed," he said. "Because you will be frostbitten in minutes."


Everest next?

Towne survived the 2015 earthquake at Everest's base camp, but never got to attempt to climb the mountain.

He's still hoping to climb it some day and complete the Seven Summits.

Because it takes roughly 40 days to acclimatize to the altitude on Everest before being able to make a run at the summit, Towne will need to save up money and vacation time. He's currently three months into a new job in the Twin Cities after completing grad school at Penn.

The earliest he could try is May 2018 (the mountain is nearly impossible to climb outside of a two-week period in May because of the jet stream and weather problems).

During his last trip, he also used it as a fundraiser for Youth For Understanding to help send another student for a year abroad. Scheels, Happy Harry's, Casual Adventures and Ag Warehouse donated to the scholarship, which went to Grace Carlson of Fairbault, Minn., who will study in Japan.

Towne wanted to give back to the organization that opened his mind to these adventures.

"I never thought that I would be attempting any of the Seven Summits, much less the last one," Towne said. "It's a combination of the fact that I love the Great Outdoors, I like overcoming my fear of heights and I love the endurance challenge against mother nature in some of the world's most beautiful places."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
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