Denise Fejtek conquers peaks, valleys
Denise Fejtek insists she's not an adrenaline junkie. She claims, in fact, that she's more pragmatic and resolute than anything, and that she absolutely does not have a casual compulsion to take risks and put her life on the line.
But one thing's for sure: After becoming the first woman and the fourth person ever to complete what is known as the Peak to Heat Double -- summiting Mount Everest and finishing the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii -- she has entered the record books as a special kind of athlete.
"I don't consider any of what I've done extraordinary," Fejtek said. "It just takes discipline and drive and sticking with it to find a way through no matter what."
Rewind to 2002, when Fejtek's life of adventure began with a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro on a trip to Africa to visit a friend in the Peace Corps. Making the trek with her husband, Paul, she cried when they reached the craggy summit at 19,341 feet. She had never done or seen anything like it.
"It was an amazing feeling -- I had gotten there on my own two feet by my own sheer will and determination," Fejtek said. "Later we started to think about what mountain we would climb next."
The idea of climbing the Seven Summits -- the highest mountain on each of the seven continents -- was far-fetched at the outset, but as the Fejteks began spending an increasing amount of their vacation time scaling rock faces and hiking up steep grades, it eventually seemed within their reach.
"After the fourth summit, I just thought, 'Wow, we are already halfway, so we might as well keep going,'" she said.
Crossing over the Khumbu Icefall, Fejtek repeated to herself "heel, toe, heel, toe." At 18,000 feet above sea level on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest, this part of the Khumbu Glacier moves at such speeds that massive crevasses can swallow up climbers with little warning. Weighed down by heavy boots and crampons, and with their movement restricted by cumbersome, full-body down suits, Fejtek and her husband traversed the icefall with precision over and up ladders and across rough sheets of ice and snow.
They had spent the past two months generating red blood cells and letting their bodies acclimate to the punishing altitude. Perhaps the most dangerous section of the climb up Everest, the icefall, was now behind them. On May 23, 2010, they decided to make the final push to the summit despite a typhoon that was gaining momentum over the Bay of Bengal off India, threatening to dump buckets of snow over the region. The wife-husband team left Camp 4 at 26,000 feet at 9 p.m. with a team of three other climbers, 11 Sherpas and two Western guides.
After 12 hours of climbing, the summit revealed itself just above the clouds. Fejtek whooped as they made those final slow, methodical steps to the top, hugging her husband in his matching bright-orange mountain wear. The howling wind whipped around a bundle of Tibetan prayer flags and burned against their exposed skin as they pulled off their oxygen masks to take in the view of the surrounding snowy peaks below.
"I remember how clear it was on one side of the mountain and how stormy it was on the other side," she said. "While we ascended in really nice weather, we descended in a full-on whiteout storm."
They had saved the best for last. Mount Everest was their last peak of the Seven Summits. In her oxygen-deprived focus to simply continue moving forward, Fejtek realized the milestone only as they snapped a few photos at the top and hastily prepared to descend in the icy elements.
Over the course of their Seven Summit quest, a test of both mental and physical strength and endurance, Fejtek and her husband discovered that triathlon training served as a perfect complement to their mountaineering adventures. Having completed one previous Ironman and countless other shorter events, the world championship in Kona, Hawaii, seemed like the most natural next challenge for Fejtek.
At first glance, these two feats have little in common. Climbers endure readings of 40 degrees below zero on Everest, while triathletes compete in temperatures that exceed 100 degrees in Kona. Everest's base camp sits at 17,000 feet, with the summit at 29,035 feet, while Kona's highest elevation is encountered on the bike course at a mere 646 feet. What's more, Everest required two months for the entire expedition, with one epic, 18-hour summit day; Kona takes most athletes between eight and 17 hours.
"Ironman is a race against the clock with the adrenaline pumping through your veins all day long, and mountaineering is everything but -- it's slow and plodding," she said. "Also, on Everest there's no one along the sidelines with cowbells cheering you on."
Still, both require supreme mental focus, cardiovascular endurance, advanced strength and a raw devotion to taking on a grand challenge.
Chief among Fejtek's thoughts on Oct. 12, 2013, as she set out to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run, was the Peak to Heat Double. She knew she was poised to be the first woman (her husband was one of only three men) to stomp to the summit of Everest and collapse over the finish line in Kona, as long as she could make it to that line.
The race began on the chaotic, open ocean, where Fejtek battled for space to stroke while violently fluttering feet kicked from every direction. Next up was biking along the black lava fields of the Kona coastline, known for swift winds and punishing heat. Last came the marathon, during which she remembers being most miserable as her sweaty skin actually cooled to the point of shivers after the sun set.
Then she thought of those winds on top of Everest and, suddenly, things weren't so dire.
"When I finally turned the corner and could see the finish line, it felt almost like my body wasn't touching the ground, like there was this magnetic draw from the crowd," she said. "It was so different than reaching a summit, because at the summit, you're only halfway. At a finish line in a race, you've reached your goal."
Once she crossed the finish line in Kona and completed the Peak to Heat Double, Denise and Paul Fejtek racked up another important achievement. Serving as their most significant motivation in every challenge they have undertaken is raising money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which provides assistance to people with physical disabilities to allow them to pursue active lifestyles. Fejtek's completion of the Ironman World Championships helped the couple reach the $350,000 mark, twice making them the largest individual fundraisers for the organization.
The outpouring of support she has received for her athletic endeavors supporting CAF and the challenged athletes who have benefited help keep her journey in perspective.
"There have been many times I've drawn energy from knowing I was doing something some people could never physically do," she said. "I thought, 'I can endure this. It's only a few hours of temporary suffering.'"