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Seeking the summit

Adventures of Courtland man leads him to mountain tops

The majesty and wonder of nature in wide, open, remote spaces surrounds John Rieger each time he decides to climb another mountain, kayaks through whitewater river rapids or hikes in and out of deep canyons.

Even though conquering the elements can be difficult at times, it hasn’t stopped Rieger from the rigorous challenge of quenching his thirst for adventure.

Born in Minneapolis, raised in New Ulm and now residing in Courtland, the 62-year-old Rieger is retired after a 41-year-career as a railroad carman. Seeking the summit of high places has become an annual quest that began about 18 years ago. It has taken him to mountain tops in Colorado, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Hawaii plus trips to Africa, Canada, Europe, South America and China.

His philosophy for spending his vacations looking for adventure in the great outdoors is simple: “When you stop doing things or being physically active you start getting old,” he said.

His high-altitude experiences began unexpectedly in 1996 when his wife Amy’s boss, Bob Reese, told them he was going on a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and asked if they wanted to go too.

“We thought sure, why not, but he didn’t tell us we were going to climb a 12,200- foot mountain when we got there,” Rieger recalled. On the way to Wyoming the Riegers smacked into a deer in Iowa and damaged their brand new car. “We got the dents pounded out in Omaha, put a new headlight in, and we took off again,” John stated. “When we did get to Jackson Hole and up on the mountain I had to quit at 10,000 feet, I wasn’t ready for it.”

However, from that day forward, a determined Rieger has been on a mission to traverse his next highest mountain. He’s climbed the 14,259-foot tall Long’s Peak in Rocky Mt. National Park, Colo., three different times. “It’s eight miles up and back down so you have to start early, getting up at 4 a.m., because you don’t want to be on the mountain later in the day when lightning or storms can occur,” he explained.

Usually his regular climbing partners are his friends Reese and Charlie Kehne, both of Lakeville. “Charlie usually does the research before most of our trips; we’ve had as many as six others join us on climbs too,” Rieger added. Together they’ve reached the top of Mt. Whitney, which is part of the Muir Trail System in California’s Sequoia National Park. At 14,500 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. Another achievement was scaling Half Dome at Yosemite National Park.

He’s descended into the depths of Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz., twice from each rim. “Once we went during the first week of June, and it was 115 degrees when we reached the bottom. From the north rim it’s 18 miles round trip but there’s water and ranger stations along the way. The south rim is an 8-mile trail but has just one place for water, so you have to be prepared,” he noted.

“The thing about climbing is to remember you have the option of going up but no option of not coming down. Climbing is not a race; you want to pace yourself and be able to finish the journey,” Rieger added.

John says planning, being in good physical condition and carrying the proper equipment is the difference in accomplishing successful climbing goals. “More than drinking enough water you also have to eat well while climbing; otherwise, you’ll get cramps, so eating is crucial even if you’re not hungry,” he stated.

Rieger’s greatest endurance test came in 2005 when he traveled to Africa for the intense personal effort it took to climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, located in northern Tanzania.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa, standing at 19,342 feet, and it is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. It’s a dormant volcano that is part of the Seven Summits challenge.

Rieger and his friends trained nearly every day for six months going to gym workouts, walking and hiking to prepare for the climb. Still, Rieger said he wasn’t completely ready for what waited ahead on the mountain.

“For that kind of elevation it’s 64 miles one way, which takes you about seven days up but just two days coming down,” Rieger explained. “Out of 15,000 hikers who attempt to climb the mountain each year, only 40 percent reach the summit,” he added.

John and his partners were part of a group of 15 individuals, aged between 21-70. “It was an amazing mix of people with diverse backgrounds and a love for adventure,” he said. “We went through four climate zone changes on the way up, and I will never forget the awesome view I had at 16,200 feet when we camped two climbs from the top,” he recalled. “We were above the clouds, and I could see the peak of neighboring Mt. Kenyon which stood at 14,000 feet.”

Rieger marveled at the 40 porters that accompanied the climbers. “They were in phenomenal shape, and if they got a job as a porter on Mt. Kilimanjaro they were recognized as somebody in their village. We climbed carrying 25-40 pounds, and the porters hauled the extra gear,” he said.

Among the duties of the porters was to transport climbers who weren’t able to finish the climb down the mountain on flatbed wheelbarrow-type carts. “I saw one porter who carried 20 to 30 egg flats balanced on his head, and they also were responsible to go down and carry out trash and human waste as we climbed higher,” he said. “We’d always have fresh food as they’d bring back oranges, bananas and fish to cook.”

Another vital service the porters provided was tents that could be inflated full of oxygen for those climbers having trouble breathing. “Those little tents can be lifesavers,” Rieger commented.

And then it happened. Rieger almost became one of those climbers who don’t make it to the top.

“Three days from the summit it rained hard, and I didn’t have my rain gear packed. I got soaked, and there was a howling cold wind hitting us at 15,000 feet. The wind was so strong that we had to place rocks on the ropes to help anchor the tents from blowing away.

“We camped, but I couldn’t get warm. I was feeling bad and couldn’t stop shivering and ready to quit. But the head porter wasn’t going to let me,” John recalled.

“He made me some hot cereal with a stick of butter in it along with a cup of honey to eat. Charlie gave me a pair of dry, battery-operated socks, and another man offered me a super thick puffy jacket to wear. By the middle of the day I was fine again, but the assistant head porter carried my gear bag that day…they don’t want to get the reputation in their group for having climbers go back down because they couldn’t make it.”

The last part of the trip was the hardest, rising from 16,500 feet to 18,500 feet in two miles, with the final 1,000 feet going nearly straight up.

Ironically, Rieger recovered fast enough to be the first person in the group to reach the summit. “It’s pretty euphoric when you stand up there. I really didn’t feel anything at first until you look around and can see for 50 miles and say ‘wow,’” Rieger added.

Kilimanjaro has five ascent routes and six descent trails. Rieger’s party chose the western route, and he said that two years ago five climbers were killed in rock slides when an earthquake hit one of the same sites where Reiger’s team camped.

He said the Kilimanjaro trip took one year of planning and preparations. “You must make sure you have all your medical checkups and bring along medications to take to avoid infectious diseases like malaria.”

Back in Colorado, he’s climbed Mt. Elbert, which is 14,443 feet and the tallest peak in that state, plus the 14,000-foot Mt. Democrat. For the Mt. Hood, Ore., climb his group hired a guide and took advance classes training how to rope together, use an ice ax and wear ice-climbing crampons on their boots.

Once he spent six days climbing mountains in Glacier National Park. “We were 25 to 30 miles from civilization, and if you get hurt out there, you’re basically on your own,” Rieger explained.

And then it snowed so much one night they were forced to get off the mountain the next day. “We had a military guy and an airplane pilot climbing with us, and they led the way down the snow-covered trail. But the grizzly bears closed off our path because they were feeding on huckleberries,” John explained.

“We had to put on an extra six miles to go around the bears.”

Rieger has kayaked the Snake and Green rivers, once traveling in a kayak over rapids going from Colorado all the way into Utah spending five days on the water, which for centuries had carved deeply into the adjoining canyons. In 2007 he had an opportunity to visit China with Amy, and he couldn’t resist climbing a three-mile segment of the 3,100-mile long Great Wall, one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World.

From seeing the Great Wall’s awe-inspiring man-made structure of the Ming Dynasty to enduring the smog-filled, traffic-choked streets of Bejing, Rieger also recovered his lost passport that a cab driver fortunately returned to him at the airport minutes before his flight departed.

In Germany he climbed a mountain with his son James to reach Ludwig’s Castle. In Venezuela he rode the world’s longest tram eight miles to the 10,000-foot level of Mt. Bolivar. At 16,700 feet it’s the tallest mountain in the northern Andes and then he climbed a couple thousand feet more before returning down the mountain on the tram.

While visiting his daughter, who was attending school in Venezuela, Rieger went on a safari nearly to the Amazon River where he caught a 6-foot Cayman (alligator) and piranha fish for lunch. Then he went Anaconda snake hunting.

“Our porters would go through the swamp to try and rustle one out of the water, but they couldn’t find one,” Rieger said. “While we were walking away I saw one crossing the path, and it was just about to slip away until I grabbed it and pulled it down the road. The porters loved that. It was about 6 feet long, and they put it in a sack and took it to Columbia where they can sell them for a lot of money.”

At the nearby ranch where he stayed Rieger also got to watch as ranchers constantly had to vaccinate cattle and horses to present disease from vampire bat bites.

He’s already gone whale watching and climbed an active volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. He said he wants to climb another volcano on his next visit if it’s not erupting, as has been the case recently. Along with Amy, he also plans to climb Diamond Head State Monument near Honolulu, too. “It has about 1,800 steps to climb before you get to the top,” he said.

Rieger, who has also taken hundreds of photographs during his travels, usually collects a rock from the top of every mountain he scales, and he hopes to continue his adventures for as long as he’s able.

“All of us who like to climb have a couple of things in common,” Rieger explained. “We enjoy the outdoors, we love getting away, seeing different things and experiencing other cultures.

“There will never be places to run out of for us to explore,” he concluded.

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