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Class of 2009 Profile: Ryan Childs and Austin Harkness, Texas MBA Full-Time

Austin Harkness and Ryan Childs atop Mt. AconcaguaThere’s a term in mountain climbing called “summit fever” that describes the moment when otherwise sane climbers get so close to the summit that they’ll do anything to get to the top, regardless of altitude sickness, bad weather or other dangerous conditions that would normally halt the climb. It’s a purely psychological affliction, but it can be deadly. And it’s just one of the hardships that Austin Harkness and Ryan W. Childs, both MBA ’09, are willing to battle in order to feel the exhilaration of standing on top of the world.

“If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun, and everyone would do it,” Childs says. “We feel fortunate to be able to do this.”

“This” is their mission to climb the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Their first stop was Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, which they climbed during spring break of their first year at McCombs. Last December they traveled to South America to conquer Mt. Aconcagua, which, at 22,836 feet, is the highest peak in the world outside of Asia.

Childs and Harkness traveled 44 hours just to arrive at the foot of Aconcagua, in the Andes mountain range in western Argentina. “It was almost an act of God just to get there,” Harkness says. It was then a three-day, 35-mile hike to base camp with their nine-person climbing group, each person carrying 80 pounds of gear.

With a wind chill of 35 degrees below zero, they each dressed in a moisture-wicking top and leggings, full-body fleece suit, Gore-Tex® pants, a fleece shirt, parka,  Gore-Tex jacket, liner gloves, mitts and boots that can withstand temperatures as low as 50 below.

Of course no amount of Gore-Tex can compensate for the fact that human bodies aren’t built to endure that kind of environment. Childs says his pulse reached 180 beats per minute, and they were taking four or five breaths with each step. Their blood oxygen saturation level went as low as 65 percent. Off the mountain, that would have landed them in the emergency room.

“Once you’re at a certain altitude, your body is basically wasting away,” Harkness says. “Anything above 19,000, you’re dying” Childs adds. In fact, two members of their group got severe altitude sickness and were rushed down the mountain. Another climber collapsed of exhaustion at one of the camps.

And if the altitude doesn’t get you, something else just might.

Several days after their hike, another expedition got caught in a blizzard, killing three of its climbers and stranding others. The survivors were rescued the next day, but all had severe frostbite. Two days after that tragedy, another climber collapsed on the summit and died of an apparent heart attack.

The day of the climb to the summit had Childs and Harkness setting out at 6 a.m. They were expecting an 8.5-hour trek to the summit and three to four hours going back down, so they wanted to give themselves plenty of time to complete the journey. At 2:26 p.m., after months of preparation and 17 days on the mountain, they finally reached the summit. Because it was winter (mountain-climbing off-season) in the Himalayas, they were likely standing higher than anyone on the planet at that moment.

“We always say ‘This is going to be our last mountain,’ but then you get to the summit, and you remember why you do it,” Harkness says. “It’s a huge amount of gratification, especially being able to share it with my best friend.”

After a few hugs, satellite phone calls to family and shooting some photos and video clips, it was time to turn around and head back down the mountain. Two down, five more to go.

This June, Harkness and Childs will attempt their third summit, on Mt. Elbrus in Russia.

By Tracy Mueller

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Comments

#1 I know these guys are

I know these guys are awesome--I watched them 8/9th of the way up Kili and met them at Mweki when they came down! Good luck on Elbrus guys. JJ

#2 Wow, You guys are awesome.

Wow, You guys are awesome. I really hope you are able to do Asia and Antarctica. After Aconcagua, I have confidence that you two can climb the peaks of the other three continents. Good luck on reaching the zenith of the world's peaks and your educational goals.

#3 You guys are totally sweet.

You guys are totally sweet. Apple martinis on me.

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