Root's trek to Denali caps 18 years of mountaineering

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Bridger Root sounds like an old sage when he thinks back on a lifetime of mountaineering, trying to pick his most memorable climb from hundreds of Alpine ascents.

Except Root just turned 18 Thursday and the "definitive climb" for the long-haired, wiry and quick-witted kid who grew up on the Lowell Whiteman School campus happened when he was only 10.

It was 13 hours and 12 miles to the Longs Peak summit and back.

"That's when I decided," Bridger said of the lofty goal that tied his future to our nation's tallest peaks.

Root already had a few 14,000-foot peaks in the bag, having summited his first at age eight, but it was after the climb up Longs that he decided to knock off all 54 Colorado fourteeners before he hit 14.

On, Aug. 24, 2003, during the summer he turned 14, Root finished that list with Culebra Peak. A year later, he had reached the summit of all 15 of California's fourteeners.

"It just progressed into wanting to do the whole lower 48, and then when I graduated high school, my goal was to do Denali," Root said.

So after Root graduated, when he and his father Brick set out to summit Mt. McKinley (Denali) in the beginning of June, everything came full circle.

"We took these two Mountainsmith sleds with us for our gear," said Brick Root, a 54-year-old math and science teacher at Lowell Whiteman.

"It was funny because when he was a kid, we used to do a lot of backcountry day trips to huts and we used to put him in it. And there he was, pulling the same sled up Denali."

Once Bridger could walk, he was on skis.

John Culberson said his first memory was going on a winter hike with a pint-sized Bridger who insisted on breaking trail uphill. Culberson is a family friend of the Roots, Bridger's godfather and a more-than-qualified mentor.

Culberson guided for the American Alpine Institute for 15 years and "had the good fortune to get to climb all over the world," highlighted by a trio of expeditions to the Nepalese 8,000-meter monsters of Dhaulagiri, Makalu and K2.

Culberson has helped Bridger through, "a progression of technical skills, mountaineering peaks leading up to Denali."

Although the 45-year-old said his life of pioneered routes in distant ranges, "seems like a lifetime ago," now that he works as a health care professional in Park City, Utah, Culberson made sure he was there when the Roots headed off for their crack at our continent's tallest peak at 20,320 feet.

By day nine, the threesome had reached 17,200 feet, where they camped to prepare for the final 3,100-foot summit push in the morning.

Bridger estimated that out of 80 big summit attempts in his life, weather has turned him around only once and he brought the same luck to Alaska. The clear skies and fresh snow that allowed for easier ascending through the glacial fields of the approach continued and the group topped out June 15, taking a mere 10 hours to summit and return to camp.

Two days later, when the group was down the mountain and back in Talkeetna, Brick called his wife, Margi, who reminded him that it was Father's Day.

"It was a father-son plan we had in the works for quite a few years," Brick Root said.

The icing on the cake for Bridger was that he was selected July 16 as one of nine youths awarded as Outdoor Idols by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. The presentation for this third installment of the semi-annual award will take place August 10 at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market tradeshow in Salt Lake City.

The awards are designed for athletes who fit the two-fold criteria of embracing the spirit of outdoor recreation and acting as ambassadors of their sports to the younger generation.

"We used to do ski hut trips and rock climbs, now he's taller than me and leading the climbs," Culberson said. "It's neat to see him grow up and progress. He's been building up a resume to do, and lead all his own climbs now. He can climb the rest of his life with the skills he's got, but he's got a big transition now."

In the fall, Bridger heads from Lowell Whiteman to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where he'll "have great access to the Cascades."

So what's the next goal, and the next route for Root?

A good indication is in the way his eyes light up when he talks about untouched ski lines in Fish Creek Canyon, or ski mountaineers like Chris Davenport, who he said, "was (his) inspiration right there" upon seeing him on Denali, looking down the biggest peaks from the top.

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