Over the past three decades, Richard Birrer has been busy checking items off his bucket list while crisscrossing the globe. He’s climbed the tallest peaks on all seven continents, reached the high points in each of the 50 states and visited all 193 United Nations countries plus Antarctica and Greenland. But the Locust Valley grandfather of five has at least one more goal he needs to cross off the list.
“I have my eye on Ojos del Salado,” says Birrer, 68, referring to climbing the active volcano on the Argentina-Chile border that stands tall at 22,615 feet. “There’s something about the ascendancy. You are your own measure; you are the only person who can get to the top of whatever it is.”
Birrer, a part-time emergency room physician, is part of an elite group of about 400 mountain climbers in the world who have scaled the seven summits: Denali in Alaska, Vinson Masiff in Antarctica, Mount Elbrus in Russia, the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Aconcagua in Argentina, and Mount Everest in China and Nepal.
But long before the seven summits caught Birrer’s imagination, he set out with his three children and sometimes his wife, Christina, now 66, to “explore the U.S.” Each summer, beginning in 1990, he and his twin sons Richard and Christopher, then 10, and daughter, Danielle, then 8, would gather around the kitchen table to plan their trip. “My dad would decide which states we would go to, and my brothers and I would decide which mountains we would climb,” says Danielle Syvertsen, of Port Washington, 36, and a married mother of two.
By 1998, the trio had summitted the highest peaks in each state. “It was a wonderful way for them [the children] to learn about this great country and to challenge themselves on the climbing,” says Birrer, who also has three black belts in martial arts and is a licensed pilot.
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
After climbing Alaska’s Mount McKinley in 1987 — sans children — Birrer began to add other continents’ summits to his agenda. The name was officially changed to Denali in 2015.
First came Mount Kilimanjaro, followed by Aconcagua and the remote Carstensz Pyramid. On each expedition, Birrer says, he never fell ill from altitude sickness or frostbite and never had a close call with danger until climbing the glacier-covered Chimborazo in Ecuador. Though not a seven-summit peak, it’s Ecuador’s tallest mountain, at 20,564 feet.
“I was with my California climbing buddy and not expecting a difficult climb, so we didn’t have safety ropes when I encountered glare ice — a slippery, glassy surface. My crampons [ice traction cleats that attach to the soles of boots] couldn’t get a grip, and I thought I was going to fall off. We were up 2,500 feet,” Birrer recalls. “If that were not enough, when we got to the summit, we found two climbers who had gone up that day lying dead. They had been struck by lightning during a thunderstorm.”
Birrer acknowledges the dangers and difficulties of mountaineering, but says he is a “calculated risk taker” who uses common sense before attempting a climb. In addition to assessing the weather, gear safety and physical strength, he says it’s important to consider his feelings about making the ascent. “Do I have the fire in my belly to do it and get home safely? You have to be brutally honest with yourself,” he says.
Experts say reaching the summit is only half the journey. On Birrer’s expedition to Vinson Massif, he flew to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, an archipelago off the southern tip of South America, where he boarded a retrofitted military-grade cargo plane on skis to the Antarctic ice shelf and from there a single-engine propeller-driven plane to base camp, a rudimentary campsite on a mountain from which expeditions start out.
CLIMBING MOUNT EVEREST
After summitting Mount Elbrus in 2005, Birrer attempted Everest, the world’s tallest peak. To reach the mountain, he flew to Kathmandu and then Lukla in Nepal and hiked 60 miles over 14 days to base camp, where the team spent two months getting acclimated at the 18,000-foot elevation.
When the group approached the final stretch to the summit, one of Birrer’s tentmates suffered a fatal heart attack. “I was the expedition physician and had to pronounce him [deceased], and we interred him there,” recalls Birrer, who explained that the team would have risked death to recover his body. “It was very demoralizing to the team, and the Sherpas [local mountaineers who serve as guides] felt the death was bad karma and were spooked.” As the weather worsened, he and the team decided to turn around.
An undeterred Birrer planned his second Everest attempt in 2010 at 60 with his son, Richard, then 29, and also a “seven summiter.” On the treacherous climb to the summit, Birrer says he saw the grave of his friend who died on their first attempt to scale Everest in 2005 and several unrecovered bodies of mountaineers. When the elder Birrer finally reached the high point, easily his most rewarding climbing experience, he said “a prayer of thanks, and then another prayer asking God to ‘get me home,’ ” he recalls. “I taught my children, get up there, enjoy what you’ve accomplished, look around, make it an indelible memory, then get off the peak and get home safely.”
Birrer’s friend and fellow climber Michael Davey, 51, whom he met on Everest in 2005, says the former Air Force flight surgeon is a skillful and experienced mountaineer who operates with “military precision.” “He stays in the moment and maintains a laserlike focus on the summit,” the accountant, who lives south of London, wrote in an email.
CLIMBING ON RESERVES
Experts say scaling Everest presents “tremendous physiological challenges” for climbers of any age. “There are all these other things that are side notes to the climb,” said Mark Gunlogson, president and owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a climbing school that offers guided expeditions to the seven summits and other high peaks. “On Everest, you’re climbing 10 to 15 hours on a summit day. And this is after you’ve been on the mountain a couple of months [getting acclimated]. Your body is already beaten down, and you have to pull out the reserves on summit day.”
Birrer credits mountaineering with sharpening his decision-making skills and helping him to “better understand myself” and diverse workplace cultures, which was especially important during his tenure as a physician executive working in Saudi Arabia.
As for scaling Ojos del Salado in the Andes, one of Birrer’s last efforts, his wife, Christina, a retired telecommunications and internet executive, says, “We’ll see about this one. He’s always planning something. He always has goals.”
Birrer admits “the body isn’t the same as it used to be,” but that’s not stopping him.
“In my heyday, I could climb 3,000 feet an hour,” he says. “Now, I’m climbing 1,000 feet an hour. As long as I am physically able, I’ll climb.”
PREPPING TO CLIMB
Dr. Allen Chen, director of physiatry for the Ochs Spine Hospital at NewYork-Presbyterian, knows what it takes to climb a mountain. He has scaled two of the seven summits, and would stress that would-be mountaineers have “excellent cardiovascular fitness.”
“If this is your first time climbing, you don’t have to climb a 19,000-foot mountain to feel you’ve accomplished a significant goal,” he says. “The beautiful thing about mountaineering is that there’s always an adventure, regardless of how high you are.”
Here are his tips to get ready:
- Engage in consistent regular aerobic exercise with short bursts of high-intensity intervals three to four days a week.
- Practice power walks, stair-climbing or hikes at least three days a week with a weighted backpack “to simulate what you would be carrying on a mountain.”
- Older climbers should cross-train to limit wear and tear on hips and knees. “You may want to consider bicycling or swimming as an adjunct to walking and climbing,” Chen says.
— Donna Kutt Nahas