Summit America

Circa 1997

Everything is silent except for the sound of heavy breathing and a rapidly pounding heart. It is taking him three breaths to every one step in the sub-zero temperatures. At 20,000 feet he’s surrounded by snow and ice. He rests his entire body against his ice axe, physically and mentally exhausted, gasping for oxygen. His muscles ache for rest while his mind tempts him to quit. A storm looms on the horizon, which he knows can mean the difference between life and death. He can’t stop now, he must keep going. Quitting is not an option. People must hear his message. As he fights the thoughts of defeat, he forces one foot in front of the other and drags himself toward the summit. He must overcome this challenge.

Climbing a mountain is a challenge. Imagine climbing the highest mountain in each of the fifty states. Now imagine climbing each of these mountains in 67 days-with just one leg!

Todd Huston did just that and shattered a world climbing record in the process. On June 1, 1994 at 5:10 p.m. Todd made it to the summit of Mt. McKinley in Alaska. Sixty-seven days later he stood at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii after successfully climbing the highest mountain in each of the fifty states.

That final summit occurred on August 7, 1994 at 11:57 a.m. On that day Todd Huston became the first leg amputee to climb all fifty highpoints. But the most incredible achievement was the fact that he shattered a record set in 1990 by an able-bodied man.

Life, like a mountain, is a challenge. Sometimes things happen to you in life. Other times you make things happen. Either way, the challenge is to make your experiences positive, even if it seems an impossible mountain stands in your way.

At fourteen, Todd Huston was given a choice to live or give up. After a full day of water-skiing, he went behind the family boat to untie the ski ropes. The gears on the boat suddenly slipped into reverse and sucked his legs into the propeller.

Both legs were badly mangled and his right leg was paralyzed below the knee. For seven years he battled to keep his legs through a series of painful surgeries. Unfortunately, his right foot became infected with a bone disease. He knew it was time to make the decision he had hoped to avoid.

Todd checked into Massachusetts General Hospital in April of 1981. As he lay on the operating table waiting for the local anesthetic below the waist to take effect, he joked with the hospital staff to resist the fear that was penetrating his mind. He knew the time had come, and instantly felt the peace that he had been desperately crying out for in his silent prayers.

Within moments it was over. His right leg was amputated below the knee. He knew that the loss of his leg was just the beginning of a new life.

Todd immediately returned to school to become a psychotherapist. With his degree, he landed a job as the Clinical Director of the Amputee Resource Center at NovaCare in Los Angeles, California.

“Between 100,000 and 180,000 people lose limbs annually. Dealing with limb loss can be very traumatic, not only for amputees but for their families as well. The Amputee Resource Center was established to provide the kind of programs and information necessary to handle each person’s individual challenge.

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The ARC provides a number of services to amputees, their families, and health care professionals. Services include peer visitation. support groups, monthly sporting events, information seminars, as well as education for health care professionals about amputee concerns, and product information.

“The atmosphere here is positive, fun, and upbeat. It is a place for people with or without limb loss to learn what it means to live with an amputation. The major purpose of ARC is to focus on the positive side of an amputation… Yes, there is always a positive side. Through seminars, personal interaction, and activities we provide encouragement and the kind of support necessary to help a person lead a positive and productive life.”

Todd is in the process of establishing a network of Amputee Resource Centers nationwide. He also has future plans to provide financial assistance to people in need of artificial limbs around the world.

Immediately after the amputation, Todd was fitted with an artificial leg. It enabled him to walk, but little else. He grimaced in pain after taking his first steps. There was a burning sensation in his stump and he felt as if a thousand needles were being stuck into the rest of the leg that was no longer there. This phenomenon is known as “phantom pain.” This shooting pain came intermittently throughout the year following the amputation.

Gradually Todd adapted to his new leg, but began to miss the activities he used to enjoy before the accident. He had been active in the Boy Scouts and used to hike and camp. “I really missed the out doors,” Huston reminisced.

Eleven years later a dream came true. He received a new pros thesis from Flex-Foot, Inc. in Aliso Viejo, California. It was a state-of the-art carbon graphite prosthesis called a Re-Flex VSP. It was very light and flexible. “Every time I took a step, it bounced energy back to me, like a pogo stick.” He had tried many other artificial legs but none seemed to endure the activities Todd expected of it. “I never had a leg that I didn’t break!”

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The new prosthesis enabled Todd to run again. “At first, I could only run 100 feet without huffing and puffing. After all, it had been eighteen years since I did any running at all.”

Within months Todd put his prosthesis to work running 12 miles a day, mountain biking, rollerblading, snow skiing, and of course, hiking and camping. “For the first time since I lost my leg I had confidence in my prosthesis. I literally became a happy camper,” he laughed.

In all of his 33 years, Todd never imagined the kinds of challenges he would have to face in life. But after years of struggling and overcoming one challenge after another, he felt extremely confident about embarking on a challenge that would become the most dramatic experience of his life.

“In June of 1993, I heard about a group of people who were going to scale the states’ highest peaks in record time and help bring aware ness to numerous health organizations. I was invited to join them and for almost a year I put myself on a rigorous diet and exercise program. I ran 5 miles a day and worked out regularly with weights. On the weekends I would practice rock climbing.”

As Todd eagerly awaited for the expedition to begin, he got wind of some disappointing news. “I received a phone call from the organizer of the project, and he told me the funding had fallen through. It was only two months before we were set to leave. We had no equipment and no money, and the project abruptly folded.”

“But I knew in my heart that I had to still go out there and climb. Not because of all the training time I had put in, but because of all the people who knew me and were inspired by what I was doing. I knew my message had to be told, and I was determined to find a way to put that message out there.”

“Throughout my life I had overcome my challenges through faith in God and in the abilities, he had given me. I wanted to practice what I preached, so I decided to put a new expedition together and make it happen.”

The record for climbing all the fifty peaks the fastest was 101 days, set by a man named Adrian Crane in 1990. Only 31 people had ever done this before. As a matter of fact, more people have climbed Mt. Everest. And no one had a disability. “I realized if I could break the record, I would be able to show people firsthand that whatever challenges they faced in life-mental or physical that they could be overcome.”

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“The first step is always just that the first step. I needed to get some sponsors. In a matter of weeks, I lined up enough sponsors to get the expedition on the road. Next I needed a car. My father let me borrow their Ford F-150 pickup truck. In the meantime, a friend, Whit Rambach, volunteered to be my climbing partner. He proved to be invaluable on the road and he literally carried the bulk of the weight as we climbed mountain and mole hill. Another friend, Lisa Manley, said she would help me with the rest of the fundraising and publicity. With a little bit of luck and hard work, she garnered the financial resources through the sponsorship of Hooked on Phonics.

“One evening as Lisa was selling T-shirts on Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California to help with the publicity and fundraising, a man jogged by her T-shirt stand. He stopped to inquire about the expedition, and asked her how much it would cost to complete the climb. The next day she was in the office of John Shanahan, the jogger and CEO of Hooked on Phonics. He cut her a check for thousands of dollars and from that point on became the primary sponsor of Summit America.

John Shanahan understood the connection between Todd’s message and the philosophy of Hooked on Phonics. Shanahan knew what it meant to overcome challenges. “Any mountain can be a challenge. whether that mountain is McKinley or learning to read,” he stated. However, there are ways to overcome those challenges and make it fun in the process. Todd created Summit America to find an interesting way to bring encouragement to others with challenges. We created a series of audio cassette reading tapes to make learning to read easy and fun.”

The record began on June 1, 1994 at 5:10 p.m. on the summit of Mt. McKinley in Alaska. McKinley is the highest mountain in the United States (and North America). The record begins at the top of the first mountain and ends on the summit of the last mountain.

As Todd gazed up at the cold, jagged peaks he knew that McKinley, also known as Denali (an Indian name meaning “The Great One”) was to be the most challenging of all climbs. “We were flown to the 7,000-foot base camp by bush pilots with planes outfitted for glacial landings.

“Besides Whit, we had two other mountaineers join our McKinley expedition. They were Mike Vining, a U.S. Army climbing instructor, and Adrian Crane-yes, the same man whose record I was out to break.

“We were very fortunate to have good weather follow us up. This was not a good year to climb. By the end of June only 38 percent of the climbers made it to the top of the mountain.”

“We made it to the summit in just 12 days. The last 1,000 feet were the most difficult. It took me three breaths for every step to make it up those last few hundred feet. I was never so happy to get to the top of a mountain, and never so happy to leave it as fast as I could.”

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“I had never been that frightened before, and I thank God that we all made it up and back safely. Like I’ve always said, ‘When you’re on the top of the mountain you’re only halfway there.’ The descent is often more dangerous than the ascent because of fatigue or weather on the mountain.”

“On our descent, at 14,200 feet, two body bags were dragged right in front of us by the search and res cue team. We quickly found out that the people who died were Koreans who had frozen to death, one of them with a radio held up to his ear.”

After finishing the climb on McKinley, the Summit America team attended the funeral of the two Korean climbers.

The high point itinerary was very rigorous. They began with the Midwest, then New England, the Southeast and finally the Western states. As they pushed their bodies to the limit, they would sometimes make it through a couple of states in one day. Their current record for the number of states climbed in one day is five!

The climbs could be never ending, such as the 40 mile hike to reach Gannett Peak in Wyoming. Or they could be short triumphs, like in Delaware. They had to dodge cars to reach Delaware’s high point Ebright Azimuth because at 442 feet it was located in the middle of a busy street.

“We had to run out three times before we could stand long enough to take a picture.”

The highest, most intimidating mountain peak was Mt. McKinley in Alaska at 20,320 feet. The lowest point was Britton Hill in Florida at a mere 345 feet. The most beautiful climb was Gannett Peak in Wyoming, while the hottest climb occurred in what seemed to be an inferno on Guadalupe Peak in Texas at a sweltering 118 degrees. The most miserable climb was on Mt. Katahdin in Maine where stinging “Black flies” swarmed all around them, drawing blood and leaving huge welts all over their bodies.

The most heart-rendering climb was on Mt. Hood, Oregon. A week before Todd and Whit were to climb that mountain, two people were killed there. The guide service that had been booked to take them up cancelled out at the last minute. Emotions were high as they faced their biggest dilemma-to climb anyway or walk away from a potentially life-threatening situation. After carefully considering all the factors involved, they decided to tackle what had a potential to be the most dangerous climb of all.

A high school friend of Todd’s named Fred Zalokar flew in from Reno to guide them up the mountain. Fred had years of climbing experience and had climbed Mt. Hood many times before. He realized the potential danger, but he also knew that Todd had gone too far to give up now. Fortunately, all the conditions were in their favor and all three men successfully made it to the top!

“The most enjoyment I got from the climb was meeting the people along the way. After I would explain the message of the climb, they would begin discussing the challenges they had to face in their life. I met people going through divorce or separation. A woman in Wyoming discussed how difficult it was for her to overcome the death of her father. An elderly man talked about his recent stroke, another about his hip replacement. On one climb we were invited to have dinner with a family that had adopted a Russian child who was born without legs.”

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“Many people heard about what I was doing. They stopped me on the trail and told me how much this climb had inspired them.”

The encouragement Todd received from the people he met all across America gave him the faith and support that he needed to push forward at those moments when the climbs became painful and exhausting.

Support seemed to follow Todd as his message began to stretch across the nation. Todd remembered giving a talk to a group of grade school children on top of Black Mesa in Oklahoma. “The class asked me to climb down with them. to their bus. During the descent, the school teacher fell and broke her ankle. Whit then carried her down the mountain while I watched the children.”

“They were fortunate that we were there,” said Whit. The Summit America team received a letter from the teacher calling them “the good guys” that people need to know about. Todd was encouraged. “I couldn’t have received a better compliment.”

On August 7, 1994, Todd Huston achieved the impossible! He shattered the record by reaching the final summit in only 67 days! Who would have ever believed that a record set by an able-bodied man in a physical and dangerous sport like mountain climbing could be shattered by a man with one leg by 34 days! Not only did Todd take on and overcome the challenge, he accomplished his goal of being able to encourage people across the country to take on and overcome their personal challenge!

With the expedition finally over, Todd has many plans for the future. He is currently traveling the country while giving a slide show of the climb and discussing how to overcome challenges. He has a book being published by year’s end as well as scheduled television appearances, “I want people to know that they can overcome their difficulties, no matter how challenging they may seem.” As for Todd’s next climbing endeavor, “I plan on climbing the highest point in each country. It’s one ‘feet’ that’s never been done before.”

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