The wind chill factor of 50 degrees below zero at the summit of Mount Vinson in Antarctica dictated that the subdued celebration would last only a few minutes, creating such a brief experience that Michael Hannan would wonder, “Was I really there?”
The Cottonwood Heights resident’s stories of worldwide climbs evoke all kinds of other questions: How? Why? And, how old are you, again?
The answers are both simple and complex, stemming from losing his job as an airline pilot due to a heart condition and becoming motivated to keep moving forward. That’s how in January, shortly before turning 75, Hannan became the oldest climber to reach Mount Vinson’s 16,050-foot summit.
His perseverance during the trek led an Argentine member of the group to tell Hannan, “I am going to call you 'Legend.' ”
Hannan relates that conversation in a more self-effacing way than those words appear. “He’s modest and quiet,” said Carol Masheter, of Taylorsville, a climber and author who’s known as the oldest woman to have reached the world continents’ Seven Summits and advised Hannan about Antarctica.
Hannan likes sharing the story of how this phase of his life followed the implant of a defibrillator in his chest. The procedure in 2000 disqualified him — to his surprise — as a Delta pilot, by Federal Aviation Administration rules (he then taught in Westminster College’s aviation program).
Hannan went from being grounded to ascending peaks. He turned an initial feeling of being “doomed” by the diagnosis to accomplishing more than he could have imagined in mountain climbing. “The message is to live the life that you would like to live,” he said, “so when you get to a certain point, you don’t look back and say, ‘I wish I would have done that.’ ”
That won’t happen with Hannan, although summiting Mount Everest is not part of his legacy, unlike Masheter’s. He’ll happily settle for a base camp view, as he intends to experience in September, while organizing Utah hikes and climbs with the Wasatch Mountain Club and continually updating his goals.
“To be obsessed with lists is a bad thing,” Hannan said. “I try to avoid the word 'obsession.' I'm just very enthusiastic.”
This explains how he keeps track of having stood at the highest elevation of every county in Utah and Nevada, climbed the top peak in more than 20 states, reached 46 of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado and conquered the Seven Summits destinations of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Elbrus in Russia. At some point, he said, “I kind of got the bug for doing some bigger things.”
Fulfilling that ambition requires significant expense (the Antarctica trek cost $42,000) and effort in the planning and execution.
“When he sets his mind to doing something, he doesn't just [impulsively] go out there and do it,” said Lana Christiansen, a climbing partner in the Wasatch Mountain Club. “He does his homework.”
And he trains thoroughly, a practice that carried over from the era when he would run 110 miles a month. Hip and knee troubles led him to move from running to climbing, and he has kept going into his mid 70s with no sign of slowing down, much less stopping.
His weekly regimen is hiking 10,000 vertical feet with a 20-pound pack. The 5-foot-11½, 145-pound Hannan trained with a 25-pound tire to prepare for the Mount Vinson expedition, which included a seven-mile stretch of pulling a sled loaded with equipment. He made it through that phase, and then was thrilled to go from the low camp to the high camp — from 9,500 feet to 12,500 feet, with a 40-degree slope at some points — while carrying a 50-pound pack.
With 24 hours of daylight in Antarctica in January, Masheter said of her experience, “I felt like I was on a different planet.”
Reaching the high camp evoked “a feeling of elation that I wouldn't compare to anything,” Hannan said, “even being on the summit of Kilimanjaro.”
He's name-checking one of the Seven Summits with that frame of reference, but he's just as eager to talk about some of his destinations in Utah's counties: Signal Peak in the Pine Valley Mountains north of St. George, Bull Mountain in Box Elder County and Mine Camp Peak near Fillmore. They're not well-known, he acknowledged, but “they deserve to be hiked.”
He’s respected in the Wasatch Mountain Club for organizing Utah treks that expand other member’s abilities without endangering them, Christiansen said. Hannan likes to quote a saying that reaching a peak is optional, but returning safely is mandatory. As one example, Hannan and his son, Kimball, turned back before the 22,800-foot summit of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, due to snow. He’s willing to accept what the conditions allow, applying to his planned summit of the 20,300-foot Island Peak in Nepal this fall.
“If we don’t make it to the top, it’s OK,” he said. “I’ll be happy with having tried.”