BHS grads scale highest peak in Americas

Dylan Cembalski (left) celebrates with BHS grads Toren and Kelten Johnson atop Aconcagua. - Courtesy photo
Dylan Cembalski (left) celebrates with BHS grads Toren and Kelten Johnson atop Aconcagua.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

What do you do for a challenge if you’ve climbed all the major peaks in Montana?

For 2004 BHS grad Toren Johnson and boyfriend Dylan Cembalski, the answer is simple: you climb Mount Aconcagua, located on the Argentina/Chile border. At 22,831 feet, Aconcagua is not only the highest peak in the Americas but also has the loftiest summit in the world outside of the Himalayas.

The pair graduated from the University of Montana last December and wanted to expand their climbing horizons. Aconcagua quickly emerged as their first choice, even though it was nearly 10,000 feet higher than anything they’d ascended before.

“I always had the desire to go higher,” explained Cembalski, who grew up in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. “Big mountains were my goal. There’s a non-technical route to the top [of Aconcagua]. It was a safe way to climb a bigger mountain.”

While it may have been “safe,” Toren said: “I was definitely a little nervous. I had no idea what to expect.”

And though Toren’s brother Kelten (BHS Class of 2000) had climbed Mount Rainier, the achievement seemed to be the end of his mountaineering.

“I had better things to do,” he said. “Yet this seemed like a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I decided to fly down and do it with them.”

Despite his lack of mountain-specific conditioning, Kelten said, “I’m always in pretty good shape.”

With virtually no advance notice, he once did Ramrod (a 154-mile bicycle circuit of the base of Mount Rainier) in a single day. He’s also done the Seattle to Portland bike tour in just eight hours of actual ride time.

The trio reached Aconcagua’s summit on March 6 and recently returned to Bainbridge for a visit.

The adventure began on Feb. 21 – the first day of the low season for climbing – when they arrived at Aconcagua Provincial Park. From there, they took three days to hike to base camp, located at 14,500 feet. Other climbers often do the trek in a day but the slower pace allowed the Johnsons and Cembalski to get acclimated.

As soon as they arrived at base camp they encountered a major storm. It was a stark reminder of the fact that “safe” in mountaineering is always a relative term.

“We weren’t sure we would be able to make it to the summit,” Toren said.

While there were some rudimentary facilities at base camp, most were reserved for participants of guided climbs. The Johnsons and Cembalski, on the other hand, were completely self-contained. As a result, they spent most of the next five days virtually tent-bound.

“We got to know each other pretty well,” said Cembalski. “We played cards and chess. We had three books [“Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” and “Twilight”] and passed them around. It was a nice diversity of reading matter,” he said.

After the storm stopped, it was time to go with clear skies and the wind dying down. The trio went from base camp to mid-camp the first day, from mid-camp to high camp the next, and then on to the summit – reaching it in late afternoon.

“We were there for 15 to 20 minutes,” said Toren. “It was so windy it was hard to stand up. There are no words to describe it. It was just so amazing.”

Somewhat less amazing was the trek back to their starting point. They used mules to carry their supplies in. Now, with all their gear and food that they’d stashed but not eaten, their packs were in excess of 70 pounds, more than 20 pounds beyond what they’d carried on the way up.

“It was painful,” Toren said of the two days they needed to go from base camp to their starting point.

But not painful enough to dampen the ardor that she and Cembalski have for future climbs.

“I’m looking forward to doing other mountains,” Toren said.

She and Cembalski hope to climb the Cascade volcanoes this summer, with Alaska in their sights next summer.

And, with a nod toward Michael Chabon, perhaps author their own book: “The Amazing Adventures of Toren and Dylan.”

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