Views from Columbus CEO’s trip to climb the highest peak in North America
When he stood on the highest point in North America last week, a 51-year-old Columbus construction company CEO was among only 23 percent of about 500 climbers to reach Denali’s 23,310-foot summit this season.
Todd Ammerman now has scaled two of the Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on each continent. But the significance of the ascents for him, the lesson he takes home to Lake Harding and his River City Contracting business in Fortson, comes from the moments when the bad weather means he must wait to climb:
“I’ve really become a different person,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer during an interview in his office. “I’m very charged, very motivated, very — around here — probably challenging. I don’t like grass to grow underneath me, so to speak. But when I get on these climbs, everything just slows down.”
He hopes that patience has helped him in his business and family life.
“I think I’ve gained a better perspective,” he said.
His wife, Janette, the office manager, laughed and interjected, “You want me to poll the employees?”
Todd continued, “I think I’ve become a more tolerant person, a more understanding person.”
The mountain climbing trips take him away for weeks at a time, so Ammerman has developed more trust in his staff and eased his tendency to micromanage.
“You have to begin to delegate, to mentor and foster them,” he said. “Three or four years ago, that was a problem, to let go. … There are probably still days I fall short, but I do feel like I’m a better manager.
“I’m extremely proud of the people in this organization because I can go away with confidence that the company is going to be in good shape when I come back.”
That patience was tested big-time last Christmas. His expedition was delayed for a week at 18,000 feet while they waited for 75-mph wind to subside for a chance to summit 22,838-foot Aconcagua in Argentina, the tallest peak in South America.
“It just didn’t happen,” he said. “… I was in perfect physical condition. I was in perfect shape. Everything was stacked in my favor, except for the weather.”
His ascent ended about 1,200 feet short of the summit.
“I’ve got to go back and do that one again,” he said.
Todd grew up in LaGrange, but during summer breaks from Auburn University, he worked on ranches in Colorado and Wyoming and fell in love with mountains. On his days off, he and a buddy would drive until they saw a peak and said, “That looks pretty cool. Let’s go climb it.”
Todd had to let his passion for the mountains simmer while he climbed the corporate ladder as a construction product salesman. But he went through “too many moves in such a short span” and returned to the Chattahoochee Valley to start his business in 1998.
Then an accident helped rekindle his passion.
In 2000, Todd was zooming down a hill on a scooter while teaching his daughter, McKenzie, how to ride a bike. He was paying more attention to her than the rock that abruptly stopped his scooter, catapulting him into the air. The landing blew apart his left knee and broke his lower left leg in three places.
His company had finished building an office for an orthopedist six months earlier, so Todd knew which doctor to call. He ended up being on crutches for 30 weeks, sidelining him from competing in the bike races and triathlons he enjoyed.
“I got pretty frustrated with myself,” he said.
He set a goal as it took him another a year to get back in shape: When his leg was fully recovered in 2002, he went sheep hunting in the Brooks Range of Alaska.
It offers what are considered the most severe conditions for hunters. You have to fly into Anchorage to get there — and that’s where Todd got his first glimpse of Denali.
“Just wow,” he thought of the vista.
A few years later, on another hunting trip to Alaska, another view of Denali prompted him to think, “One day, I want to climb it.”
Fast-forward a decade later, when McKenzie was attending the University of Colorado. She caught the mountain climbing bug in the state that has 58 peaks over 14,000 feet.
Her dad set another goal: If she finished her degree in four years, he’d take her on a trip. By 2016, when she graduated, she chose the destination: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the tallest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet.
In September 2017, they joined a guided group of about eight climbers for what’s considered the easiest of the Seven Summits. The guides carried most of the gear.
“It’s more of a trek than a climb,” Todd said. “The biggest obstacle is just the altitude.”
They handled it without complications.
“It was pretty special,” he said. “It was a great father-daughter time.”
Reaching that summit made him hunger for more.
“I guess I kind of became a little bit of an altitude junky,” he said.
The high he gets is the satisfaction of achieving a challenging goal, testing himself physically, mentally and emotionally, and soaking in spectacular scenery.
Asked why he climbs, Todd said, “It goes back to the leg injury I had. At that time, I didn’t know I’d be able to do it again. It sounds kind of corny, but I kind of got my life back. … Every mountain kind of gets a little emotional to me. It’s not that I’m a danger seeker, but I like the challenge.
Todd prepares for his climbs for about six months by swimming 1 to 1.5 miles almost daily and hiking, mostly on the Pine Mountain Trail, 4 to 9 miles per day with weighted packs of 30 to 70 pounds and the full 23 miles on the weekends.
To simulate the sled-pulling Ammerman had to do on Denali, he tied a tire onto his backpack and walked up and down Lick Skillet Road for 9 miles.
“My confidence continued to build and my comfort zone,” he said. “I’m pretty calculating. To me, it’s not really a risk because I’ve prepared. To them, it’s crazy and they don’t understand it.”
Janette still doesn’t understand it.
“He slept in negative-20 and negative-50-degree weather,” she said. “I mean, I know it’s his thing, so obviously we support him and we’re proud of him, but I think it’s crazy. I just don’t get that.”
A permit from U.S. National Park Service is required to climb Denali.
“You must submit a resume and go through a climber orientation,” Todd said.
Joining such an expedition costs $8,000-$10,000, he said.
“A lot of people, they’re looking to do it as economical as possible,” he said. “. . . I’m looking at doing it as foolproof as possible. If that means a few extra bucks, then it means a few extra bucks.”
Todd’s journey up Denali started with delays. His group needed three attempts to fly into base camp before the weather cooperated .
“So we had two sightseeing trips before we actually had our real fly-in,” Todd said with a smile. “… We kind of faced the same conditions trying to get out.”
In between, he reached the top of the continent.
They had 30 days worth of food and fuel, but they needed only 22 to complete their trip, with eight major climbing days of 8-12 hours per day. They summitted on day 18.
“If we didn’t,” he said, “we probably would have been sitting in tents for another week because of the winds and the weather.”
Around 8:30 a.m. on summit day, Todd’s 12-member group left the camp at 17,200 feet in ideal weather. But three hours later, it started to snow and the wind started to blow. The temperature plummeted from minus 20 to minus 50 degrees.
He was on the verge of missing another chance to reach his second of the Seven Summits because his lead guide was considering returning to camp. The team that reached the summit ahead of Todd’s group suffered two cases of serious frostbite because their faces weren’t fully covered.
Todd already had early signs of frostbite on his cheek and his nose, so his group stopped to put on appropriate gear. But he had to take off his gloves to do that, and he got frostbite on his pinky — despite his hands being exposed for only a few minutes.
Wearing five layers of clothing on his upper body, including two parkas, and long underwear, climbing pants and mountain boots on his legs, Todd never felt cold, but he often had to shake his arms to keep the blood flowing into his hands, and the condensation from his breath froze over his mouth.
“It was almost like you were suffocating,” he said. “I had to kind of reposition everything.”
The final 3,000 feet to the summit typically takes 9-12 hours, Todd said, but his group needed 13.
At the vertical section called Pig Hill, just before the summit’s ridge, “the wind was blowing so bad (35-40 mph),” Todd said, “I was actually saying little prayers.”
By the time his group reached the ridge, his prayers were answered. The wind had subsided.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “At that point, I knew there was no way we weren’t going to get to the summit.”
When they did reach the top, a whiteout blocked their view, but it didn’t spoil Todd’s mood.
“I’m here,” he recalled thinking. “I did it.”
After 15-20 minutes of taking photos of each other at the summit, they returned to camp, where Todd was so exhausted, he slept with all his gear on.
Todd doesn’t take any device on his mountain climbing trips to communicate with folks back home. He relies on others in his group who have that technology.
During the Denali trip, one of the guides posted daily updates on a blog. That helped Janette have a vague understanding of their progress, but only a few times during the 22-day journey did she receive direct communication from Todd, when he used another climber’s Garmin satellite device to text her.
The day Todd’s group was supposed to reach the summit, Janette was tracking them via a website that displayed a signal from that climber’s Garmin. Around 5:30 p.m. EDT, Janette noticed the Garmin was stuck at 18,200 feet.
“It hasn’t moved in a while,” she thought. “Something is going on.”
Around 9 p.m., Todd’s brother called Janette and told her the Garmin had returned to the camp at 17,200 feet.
“We’re all in panic mode,” she recalled. “Something happened. They didn’t make it.”
But around 2 a.m., Janette finally got a text from Todd on the Garmin, announcing his group indeed had reached the summit. Turns out, the climber with the Garmin was the only one in the group that returned to camp before getting to the top.
Todd said in the text, “Today, this middle-aged man completed the hardest thing of my life. I summitted Denali, and I am now safely back at 17,200 camp. Love to all.”
Janette recalled, “Oh, my gosh! I was so excited!”
Todd has registered for a 2020 expedition to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia, the tallest peak in Europe at 18,510 feet. But before then, he said, he might return to Argentina in January for another attempt at Aconcagua.
And, he disclosed, “My family’s not going to be excited, but right now I’m on a 2021 Everest expedition.”
At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest spans Nepal and China is the tallest in the world. At least 11 climbers died on Everest in May. Janette read and heard those news reports about Everest while Todd was on Denali.
“It’s just a real uneasy feeling,” she said, “but you’ve got to have faith.”
Those deaths haven’t caused Todd to change his plans.
“You’ve got to have goals,” he said. “. . . I’m a much better person because of climbing. As long as I can, I’m going to climb.”