Climbing to the top of the world on every continent
“People say, ‘Why do you do it?’ Well, the beauty is awesome,” explains Gregory A. Konrath, MD. “You get views that you never see anywhere else, but you’ve got to not mind being cold and miserable at times.”
Dr. Konrath is an avid mountain climber who spends much of his free time traveling the globe looking for his next challenge. He grew up in the geographically flat Midwest but took a trauma fellowship with Michael W. Chapman, MD, at the University of California–Davis, in Sacramento, Calif. The experience left an impression that went far beyond orthopaedics.
Dr. Chapman—an avid outdoorsman—introduced Dr. Konrath to mountain climbing. One of the first large peaks he climbed was Mount Shasta—a 14,000-foot pinnacle in the Cascade Range.
“It was great,” he enthuses.
“I climbed Mount Rainier and Mount Whitney, and just went from there.”
Dr. Konrath returned to the Midwest and set up practice in Indiana, a state not known for its mountains. To keep climbing, he had to travel and began planning longer trips. He “graduated” to taller mountains such as Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska—the highest summit in North America.
“That’s a big deal,” he says of his Denali trip. “It’s about a 5-week expedition in really bad weather. It’s very demanding physically and mentally. That was probably my first really big test.”
Dr. Konrath is well on his way to completing the Seven Summits tour—climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents. So far, he has completed six out of the seven, including Denali and Mount Everest. His final challenge should turn out to be one of the easiest.
“It’s literally a half-day hike,” he explains. “It’s the tallest mountain in Australia, and they don’t really have tall mountains there. It’s about a 7,000-foot hill. I’m taking my 10-year-old son along.” They planned the climb for Dec. 28, 2008.
Tragedy on the mountain
The variety of nature documentaries shot at high altitudes may lull some into thinking that modern mountain climbing is a straightforward, relatively safe activity. The truth is, however, that no matter how extensively one plans, climbing remains dangerous and sometimes random—a fact driven home during Dr. Konrath’s experience in New Zealand.
“We were climbing Mount Tasman. It’s a technical climb, so there’s a one-to-one guide-to-client ratio,” he recalls. “My guide was very experienced. He led the largest team on Mount Everest to the summit in 2007. But he forgot his crampons, which are those spiked things you wear on your boots. You can’t climb ice and snow without crampons. ”
It would take 3 hours to get the guide’s crampons from base camp via helicopter, and the other six climbers elected not to wait. Dr. Konrath and his guide stayed behind until the crampons arrived, then began following the trail of the other climbers.
“We almost caught up,” says Dr. Konrath. “We were about 20 or 30 minutes behind them. But when the other climbers reached the technical portion of the climb, they were hit by an avalanche and knocked about 3,000 feet down the mountain. We saw these colored dots at the base of the mountain and weren’t even sure they were alive.”
Four of the climbers did not survive; one had bilateral acetabular fractures. “If my guide hadn’t forgotten his crampons, we would have been hit as well,” says Dr. Konrath.
A good surgeon, a good climber
Because he is an orthopaedist, Dr. Konrath is often asked to diagnose and treat small maladies that occur during a climb.
“Obviously, you’re limited,” he explains. “You don’t carry arthroscopy equipment on your back.”
He did bring cortisone and splinting materials on his Mount Everest climb. The cortisone, however, was more useful to the local Sherpa population than to the climbers. One older gentleman, in particular, was in need of a knee replacement that he would never receive.
“He had a terrible knee,” says Dr. Konrath. “It was in varus. It was swollen. I gave him a cortisone shot and some anti-inflammatories. I treated several people while I was there. You simply do what you can with what you have.
“I think the qualities that make a good surgeon also make a good climber,” he continues. “Climbers joke that climbing is 70 percent mental and 40 percent physical. A good orthopaedic surgeon is aggressive, but smart. You can’t be tentative, but you also have to be cautious; you have to be intelligent. You have to find a balance, just as in climbing.”
Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Although Dr. Konrath finds mountain climbing exhilarating, heights don’t have the same effect on Richard A. Brown, MD, who submitted the following story:
“For most men, the prospect of spending 16 consecutive hours with four very attractive, energetic, physically fit, engaging women would be nirvana. I was ridden with anxiety. The difficulty was my fear of heights—I was part of a group that would be climbing Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48.
“I grilled everyone possible about the exact details of the Whitney trail. They said it was like a highway. I chose to discount the fact that most of these people think nothing of running or cycling 200 miles before each work day and that they eat mortals like me for lunch.
“The path to Whitney’s summit is eternally and inexorably up. And it is not a highway. Long before I had the opportunity to get scared, I was exhausted. We hit the famous 97 switchbacks and I had my first moment of dread. The transition from the switchbacks to the final ascent involves a short section with drops on both sides. I sat down and decided that I had reached my endpoint.
“A 26-year-old French woman in our group promised to guide me through. With her help, I negotiated the bridge and moved on. About 90 minutes later, we made the summit. I still refused to go anywhere near the edge, but it was nice to be up there.
“Flush with confidence, I started back down. Then it started to rain, then hail, then thunder, then lightening—problems that really will kill you on an exposed mountain. Somehow this didn’t bother me. I was already beginning to focus on the perils of the drive back. We made it back safely and I can absolutely say that I am a better (or at least different) person, having slain this dragon. I even suggested to my wife that we tackle Mt. Rainier next year.”