On June 13, Kelliher, 18, of Norwich, Vt., became the youngest female to “highpoint” (climb the highest peak) in all 50 states when she reached the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley (a.k.a. Denali). At 20,320 feet, McKinley is a daunting challenge for even the most experienced mountaineer; four Japanese climbers died there while Kelliher was making her record attempt. In October 2011, she set another mark by becoming the youngest female — by more than 12 years — to highpoint in all 48 states in the continental United States. Kelliher hopes to become a professional guide and will attend Bates College in Maine this fall.
Q. Has your new record been officially recognized?
A. It has, by the Highpointers Club [in Colorado]. Their annual convention happened to be going on while I was stuck on the mountain at 17,000 feet, waiting to summit.
Q. Do you do any special training for this climb?
A. In March, I did a weeklong crevasse rescue training seminar on Mount Rainier [in Washington] working on basic mountaineering techniques.
Q. What specifically did you practice?
A. Self-arresting. Reading mountain weather patterns. Studying terrain and identifying potential hazards. Learning about high-altitude sicknesses. Lots of things, really.
Q. Was this more technically difficult than your previous climbs?
A. Absolutely. Only four or five of those peaks were technical at all, including Rainier and Mount Hood [in Oregon].
Q. In February, you checked off Hawaii by reaching the top of Mauna Kea, correct?
A. Yes, but it wasn’t anything special. The trail had been closed, so we just walked up the road from the visitors’ center. The biggest danger was from cars.
‘Right before we reached the summit, the weather turned. . . . We spent maybe two minutes at the top. I sat down and said, “Can we go yet?” ’
Q. There’s increasing concern about weather instability on mountains like McKinley, plus the large number of climbing expeditions taking people up. Were you worried?
A. I really trusted my lead guide, who took me up McKinley last summer. Crevasses are definitely an issue, though. Nobody in my group fell in one, but we were always talking about what we’d do if that happened. Also, a lot of climbers are getting cockier. They think, Oh, I did this mountain. I should definitely be able to do that one. So they go for it. I’d like to go bigger and higher myself, as fast as I could. But that’s not a safe choice.
Q. How many were in your group?
A. Three guides and nine climbers. Five were unable to continue, for one reason or another.
Q. Biggest physical challenge?
A. On summit day, we got a late start, which made everything at the altitude colder and trickier. I got severe leg cramps and wasn’t sure I could continue. I’ve never been in so much pain.
Q. How did you fight through that, physically and mentally?
A. The guys on my rope team gave me lots of encouragement. I could not have done it without them.
Q. How cold was it?
A. Right before we reached the summit, the weather turned. We were told it was about negative-25 degrees, with winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. I was wearing every piece of clothing I had.
Q. Could you see anything?
A. No. We spent maybe two minutes at the top. I sat down and said, “Can we go yet?” I wasn’t, like, Yeah! I reached my 50th! On the way back down, my goggles fogged up. I had to put them on my head and wound up with frostbite on my right cheek.
Q. How do you look back on this achievement?
A. Best thing I’ve ever done. On the mountain, we talked about the two types of fun: Type 1, which is fun when you’re doing it, and Type 2, which is not fun while you’re doing it, only in retrospect. For me, those last couple of days on the mountain were definitely Type 2 fun.
Joseph P. Kahn
Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.