In the cold half-light the snowflakes dropped, soft and only partly formed, while Arctic winds plucked at and slapped the dome tent. Inside, condensed breath that had frozen on the nylon ceiling during the night loosened and fell onto four sleeping bags and the climbers inside them.
One of the climbers, Todd Huston, was awake, and reels were running through his head: a fellow climber disappearing into a crevasse right on the airstrip. Another climber, just back from a failed attempt on the summit, dully describing the glove he saw locked in the ice, the owner's hand still tucked inside, the glove's design 20 years old. A rescue team discovering two Koreans who had been surprised by a storm, one of the men dangling upside down from his rope, the other sitting on a rock and holding a radio next to his head, both men frozen.
Later that morning, in the blue-white glare of early day at 17,200 feet, Huston was readying himself for what he hoped would be a push to the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park. Earlier, expedition leader Mike Vining had told Huston, "This will be the hardest day of your life." Vining, 44, is a no-nonsense sergeant major in the Army with forearms so developed he is nicknamed Popeye. He was not impressed with Huston. "He had no prior mountaineering experience," Vining would say months later, recalling the climb. "He had no winter camping experience. He had no idea what he was doing. That seemed an unusual background for a serious climb."
No surprise, then, that Huston was obsessed with death, specifically his own. He thought about dying often as he and his team inched their way up Mount McKinley last summer, launching a madcap, record-breaking 67-day spree in which Huston climbed to the highest point not only in Alaska but also in each of the other 49 states. Huston knew more than he wanted to know about death, having already almost died in a serious accident 20 years earlier. This had made him cautious—and willing to admit that he was frightened.
"I must have asked a jillion questions on the way up McKinley," says Huston. "If we do this, can we die? Can we slide into a crevasse and never be seen again? Basically I went up that mountain whining every step of the way."
There's no hesitation or whining today. Huston, 34, whips his Ford Taurus into the most convenient parking space. He peers up at the handicapped sign and shuts off the car. He begins to assure you that during his cross-country high-points blitz he never once parked in a handicapped spot, but Huston has a nagging conscience. "Well, maybe once or twice," he says. "You park in a handicapped spot and go climb a 13,000-foot snow-and-ice mountain, and then you get back, and you're like, 'Gee, I'm sure glad I don't have to walk across the parking lot.' "
Should he be accosted for allegedly parking illegally, Huston can simply roll up the right leg of his pants, as he does later this afternoon when he plops down on the couch in his apartment in Newport Beach, Calif. "Man, I'm sore," he says, rubbing his thigh just above the knee, then removing the lower part of his leg and setting it next to him on the couch. He regards the appendage briefly and with disdain.
"I have another leg that's a lot more comfortable," he says. "But my good leg is in the shop." Surveying his right thigh, he says, "There's the actual stump that climbed McKinley."
And McKinley was only the beginning. Huston's high-peaks adventure claimed its first victory last June 1, when he stood atop Mount McKinley's South Summit, and its last on the morning of Aug. 7, when he drove most of the way up Hawaii's Mauna Kea. Huston broke by 34 days the record set in 1990 by Adrian Crane, a mountaineer who walks about Modesto, Calif., on two legs. Huston's task was dubbed Summit America, and with it behind him he is moving on to grander things. On April 12 he climbed Australia's 7,310-foot Mount Kosciusko, launching a journey that he hopes will eventually see him reach the high point in each of the world's 186 countries. That shopping list includes some horrifying heights: Argentina's Aconcagua (22,831 feet), Antarctica's Vinson Massif (16,864 feet), Russia's Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet) and Nepal's Mount Everest (29,028 feet), peaks that have stymied, and killed, plenty of adventurers. Those were able-bodied climbers. And Huston is...well, ah, you know....
"Amputee, disabled, handicapped, physically challenged, a one-legged gimp," says Huston. "I don't get caught up in this politically correct stuff."