Sophomore Wheeler wrapping up 50 Peaks Challenge

By Ana Clyde | March 28, 2017 4:01pm

Anna Wheeler (left) and her father, Scott Wheeler (right), on the highest peak of Mount Hood. Photo courtesy of Karin Wheeler.

Anna Wheeler looks up, sees the top, and picks up speed.

Her two brothers, Jake and Abe, do the same. Soon all three siblings are racing to get there first.

With about 20 pounds of equipment on her back, Wheeler pushes through the pain and exhaustion of every step. She didn’t want to be there, at first. Whenever her parents started planning one of these trips, she would beg not to go. But as she takes her final strides, she’s reminded why she always ends up going anyway. Wheeler rushes to the peak and gets there after her brothers; she has finished last, but is not disappointed.

“It was just in the last couple steps to the top (that) you realized it’s kind of cool,” said Wheeler, a sophomore at University of Portland. “You’re on top of an entire state. You own the state.”

Along with her twin brothers and dad, Scott, Wheeler has spent the last twelve years traveling state-to-state, working to complete the 50 Peaks Challenge. It’s a challenge that members of the Highpointers Club— an organization for mountain climbers— try to complete for awards and scholarships, but mainly just for fun. The goal is to climb the highest peak of every state in the United States. Wheeler will complete the 50 Peaks Challenge with her family this coming May, as she will face her most difficult climb yet: Denali mountain in Alaska, the highest point in North America with an elevation of 20,310 feet. She will be the only female on the three-week climb, which has taken six months to train for.

Wheeler is one of the youngest females to attempt the 50 Peaks Challenge and just the 53rd woman to climb the Lower 48, the peaks in the U.S. mainland. And at 19, she is the fourth youngest woman to finish the Lower 48.

“A lot of women don’t do it because it is definitely a different experience than a man’s. But it’s mountain climbing; anyone can climb,” Wheeler said. “I feel like just because there are so little women, it’s almost empowering.”

Her family has supported her through this experience, always encouraging her to go on the next climb.

“So, for this (next) one it’s a lot of preparation,” Wheeler said, “Every month (of training) increases in intensity.”

But Anna has really been conditioning for this climb since 2005, when her family started climbing as a way for them to bond after moving from Germany to Ohio. Her dad decided, after looking up activities to do with his family, to attempt the 50 Peaks Challenge and to join the Highpointers Club. The first climb was Ohio’s highest peak, Campbell Hill, which stands at 1,550 feet. With two ten-year-old boys and an eight-year-old Wheeler, they started off easy, climbing the highest points on the East Coast. As Wheeler and her brothers got older and more experienced, they moved up to the more challenging climbs, eventually getting to the Big Five— the five tallest peaks in the U.S.

Today, Wheeler has reached the top of 49 peaks. The specifics of many of those climbs have become hazy, but there are still several that stick out in Wheeler’s mind. One of them was the lowest peak she climbed: Ebright Azimuth, Delaware’s highest point, which has an elevation of 447.85 feet and is at the middle of an intersection. But the most difficult one? Idaho’s Mount Borah (12,662 feet), famous for a narrow pathway called ‘Chicken Out Ridge’ with steep drops both sides and icy conditions. True to its name, the ridge intimidates climbers who decide not cross it.

“Six people stopped and said they wouldn’t (cross the ridge),” said Karin Wheeler, Anna’s mom. “But my husband and the kids were persistent.”

This persistence is what has allowed the Wheeler family to reach the 49 highest peaks in the U.S., and set records while at it. Wheeler and her dad are just the second father-daughter combo to finish the Lower 48. And once they climb Denali, they will be the first combo to complete the 50 Peaks Challenge. Wheeler and her twin brothers are also the second brother-sister team to finish the Lower 48, and are on pace to be the first team to complete the challenge.

Despite setting these records and reaching 49 of the 50 highest points, Wheeler has never been the first one to get to the peak. It has always been one of her brothers who make it there before her.

“Anna would always be the last one up, but she never gave up,” Karin said of her daughter. “She was always slow and steady.”

But with the approaching climb in Alaska, Anna is determined to win her final chance to race her brothers to the top.

“It’s the last one, it’s the tallest one,” Wheeler said, “I have to get there. I have to be the first.”