Finlandia official to climb Mt. Whitney

HANCOCK – Christine O’Neil has been physically active for years, but something in which she’ll participate in April will seriously challenge her fitness level, so she’s beginning training for it now.

O’Neil, who is the Finlandia University dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of sociology, said she’ll be joining about 60 other climbers, who will attempt to reach the 14,500-foot summit of Mount Whitney in California, the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states. The climb, which is sponsored by Backpacker Magazine, is a fundraiser for Big City Mountaineers, which is a nonprofit organization working with under-served urban youth to instill life skills.

O’Neil said although she did ice climbing in Alaska, climbing Mt. Whitney will be a new experience for her.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said.

In fact, O’Neil said the ice climb she did in Alaska was her only climbing experience. She’s not too concerned about taking on Mount Whitney, however.

“I’m an avid outdoorsman,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about the altitude.”

O’Neil said Tuesday she started a 16-week training regimen created by the climb organizers, which includes cross training and cardiovascular exercises. The training involves carrying weights in a backpack, starting at 20 pounds and working up to 50 pounds for 10 hours at a time.

“It gradually builds up,” she said.

However, O’Neil said locally it’s not possible to really prepare herself for the altitude of the mountain. Most people who have trouble with altitude start to experience difficulty at 12,000 feet.

O’Neil said she knew about Big City Mountaineers because for six years she lived in Denver, Colo., where the organization is based, but she never did any climbing.

“Then I got to Michigan and I realized I liked the outdoors,” she said.

She read about the climb up Mount Whitney in Backpacker Magazine, O’Neil said, and partly because she was embarrassed she never did any climbing when she lived in Colorado, she decided to apply to be in the group making the climb.

Although representatives of the magazine were hoping to get 20 readers to take part in the climb, according to an article about the climb, they actually got so many requests, they had to increase the number of participants to 60.

O’Neil said she wrote an essay about herself and why she wanted to do the climb, including the fact she never climbed when she lived in Colorado. She sent in the essay to the magazine in August and learned she was chosen in October.

When she learned she was selected to be on the climb, O’Neil said she had a fairly strong reaction.

“I was scared to death,” she said.

She was also excited to have been chosen, however, O’Neil said.

“I’m never going to get an opportunity like this again,” she said.

O’Neil said she pledged to raise at least $4,000 for the climb, and so far she has $850 of that amount. Anyone interested in donating, can contact O’Neil at or call her at 487-7328.

For Christmas, O’Neil said she asked for equipment she’ll need for the climb, and with all that and her training, she expects to be ready in April.

“It’ll be fun,” she said.