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Climbing to New Heights
Written by Ernie Quatrani, Correspondent

Bret Umstead's successful summit of Mount Ranier


            Bret Umstead has already reached great personal, academic and athletic heights in his life, and last month's adventure on Mount Ranier in the State of Washington

Upper Perk High School graduate Bret Umstead at the bottom of 

Mount Ranier in Washington State.  Umstead, with five friends, recently

climbed the 14,000-foot mountain.

was yet another challenge successfully conquered.

            Following the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier Route with five buddies, Umstead, an Upper Perk (2006) and Ursinus (2010) grad, made it to the 14,000-foot summit of the mountain. 

            According to the National Park Service, 1,600 climbers attempt this route every year with a 54 percent "summit success rate".

            "The Emmons Glacier is the largest glacier in the contiguous United States and contains crevasses that can rival the size of those found in the Himalayas," Umstead related. 

             "And although this is the longest route, it is the least prone to avalanche and rock and ice fall.  As long as we were in top physical shape and solid in our crevasse rescue knowledge, we felt this was the safest route with our level of experience."

            The climb began in 60-degree weather with a four-mile hike to Glacier Basin at 1,500 feet. During the second day, the group, carrying 40-pound packs loaded with tents, sleeping bags, stoves and other necessities, climbed to Camp Schurman, the high camp at 9,500 feet.

            "We got to camp a little after noon and had plenty of time to melt snow to fill our water bottles and eat freeze-dried dinners before trying to get to sleep in the afternoon," Umstead recounted.

            The temperature was now below freezing with cold winds buffeting the camp. 

            On "summit day", the group began its trek at 1:30 a.m. using headlamps.

            "Seeing the sunrise from high on the mountain was definitely one of the highlights of the trip," Umstead said. 

            Umstead, who was leading the group, felt that the route was fairly climber-friendly, but it did have its moments.

            "There were a few instances where we chose to travel across snow bridges over crevasses instead of end-running them, but the freezing temps made them feel pretty solid," he said.  

            "There were also a few areas on the route where it was solid ice and a slip by anyone on the rope team would have caused a non-arrestable fall."

            Umstead made sure his fellow climbers were clipped to ice screws at the more dangerous parts of the ascent.

            As they approached the summit, nine hours after leaving camp, breathing in the high altitude and the frigid temperatures (-10 with 50 mph winds) made the climb more and more difficult. The last 400 foot to the summit was a practical crawl.

            "While beautiful, the summit was not the most pleasant place to be," Umstead observed.

            The group started back to Camp Schurman, a six-hour descent, where Umstead slept for 12 hours before heading for the parking lot the next morning.

            Umstead got into rock climbing (and surfing) while living in Southern California with his fiance, now wife, Michelle Wimmer, a 2007 Upper Perk grad.

            "Some of my coworkers at the pharma company I worked for out in California were into rock climbing.  Soon I found myself not only surfing on a daily basis but also taking weekend trips to local rock climbing areas, with longer climbing trips, even including places such as Yosemite," Bret explained.

            Those adventures led to mountaineering and climbs up several 10,000-foot peaks in California and "practicing things such as the ice axe self-arrest, climbing with crampons, and other glacier travel techniques."

            Umstead and his climbing partners wanted more and decided to take on Mount Ranier, which Umstead described as a popular stepping stone for mountaineers headed to the 20,310 foot  Denali in Alaska.

            The Umsteads have moved back to this area from California so training for the Ranier climb was somewhat problematic. 

            "Unfortunately, there are not a lot of mountains in PA that make for good training for something like Rainier," Umstead said.  

            "I was able to climb Mount Washington in New Hampshire this past winter with my wife, as well as going on several long hikes in PA carrying my one-year-old son in a child carrying backpack, but the majority of my training was on the StairMaster at LA Fitness."

            During his time at Upper Perkiomen High School, the AP Biology class taught by Barb Ryan piqued Bret's interest in biological sciences, and he took up biochemistry and molecular biology at Ursinus. While working at a biotech company, PhaseBio, Bret earned a master's degree in Cell Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Sciences in Philadelphia. 

            Meanwhile, Michelle was finishing a physician's assistant degree at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

            Bret is now back working with PhaseBio in Malvern while Michelle is employed by Tower Urgent Health Care.

            Both were also outstanding athletes. Bret played football and baseball at Upper Perk and Ursinus. He was a key member of the 2006 District 1 baseball champs at UP, driving in three runs in the championship game. Michelle starred in field hockey and softball at Upper Perk and field hockey at Ursinus.

            Bret's climb up Ranier was the "single most difficult" thing he's tried, but he also did a 22-hour hike up Mount Whitney, descending in a snowstorm. He and Michelle also tackled a difficult rock climb in Yosemite.

            Bret intends to scale back on his adventures in the near term because Michelle is due with their second child at the end of the year. 

            Temporarily scale back.

             "While my wife and family are probably hoping this was the end of my mountaineering days, it really gave me the confidence that the next level is possible.

            "I'd like to eventually do climbs in the alps such as Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and the Eiger, and maybe even knock off a few of the seven summits.  My ultimate goal would probably be something in the Himalayas."






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