Between a rock and a hard place

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He looks across the horizon, watching the sunrise come over the summit. Peering down into the valleys, he sees little farming villages built directly in the crevices. The capital city of Quito stretches across in the horizon. The lights of the towns look like a yellow sheet, softly laid down between two steep ridges.

“It’s something special, [that] knowing what I’m seeing has probably not been seen by many people on the planet,” Decatur math teacher David Custer said.

A mountaineer since 2008, Custer has climbed mountains up to 19,000 feet.

Custer began climbing after an invitation from a Swiss friend who missed the training he once did for the military.

“One thing led to another, and he decided we would go out to Mount Rainier and try [climbing],” Custer said.

Dan Judy, his best friend, has backpacked with Custer since they were teenagers.
“After all the backpacking trips, we were looking for something a little different, that would provide a new challenge,” Judy said.

Custer’s most recent adventure was to Quito, Ecuador, during the February break. In Quito, he and his team of nine climbed three summits, Rucu Pichincha, Cerro Fuya Fyua and Cayambe.

The climbs were dangerous and technical, but they made it to the summits by sunrise.

“The best feeling is standing on top of something that you just abused yourself to get to the top of,” Custer said. “Sometimes [climbs are] crappy. You’re cold. You’re frozen. Then you see the early morning lights. When the sun is coming up, it’s something amazing.”

Iconic mountain climber Jordan Romero understands the draw towards climbing, after seven years of doing it. At 13 years old, he climbed to the top of Mount Everest. Romero finds climbing very beneficial to his life.

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“You are doing what you love and then sharing your experiences with others,” Romero said. “There are risks, and the training can be hard, but reaching and achieving a goal you set for yourself is worth it.”

Reaching their objective, no matter the strain, is worth it.

“It’s like a marathon. You want to see what you’re capable of and how you handle stress at that level,” Custer said.

The stress of climbing isn’t the only obstacle in Custer’s way. When gone, he leaves his wife and two daughters for days, sometimes even weeks.

“There’s kind of a strange peace that comes with being the spouse in this situation. I surprise a lot of people that I’m not scared when he is hiking or mountaineering,” Christina, Custer’s wife, said. “Absolutely everything in life is a risk, and it’s about choosing the most responsible way to take the risks that matter to you.”

Either way, his absence does not go unnoticed. Custer’s oldest daughter, Evie, is three years old, but still is “aware of when he is gone.”

“When David got back from Ecuador, one of the first things she said was ‘Daddy, you need to go up a smaller mountain next time,’” Christina said. “On the other hand, she draws all these amazing pictures of daddy climbing a mountain. Their dad is showing and telling them that they can train their bodies to work hard. There is no mountain too tall for them to climb – it just takes a lot of determination.”

If Custer ever lost his derermination, or couldn’t make it farther, he has a roping team of fellow climbers with him. Having a group provides comfort yet pressure.

“It’s not just you anymore. If you slip and fall, there’s a chance you could pull [your team] down too,” he said.

When climbing, Judy understands the importance of safety.

“We’ve been in some difficult, uncomfortable, [and] sometimes dangerous situations together over the years,” he said. “[We] always look out for one another and make sure we both come home safely.”

Custer and his team climb smart, using proper gear and knowledge of when to stop or slow down.

“Nobody on our team wants to risk being washed off a glacier, by an avalanche, into a crevasse,” Custer said. “There are people who are so intent on reaching a summit that they would take that risk, but that’s not who I choose to climb with.”

For climbers, Romero has one big suggestion.

“Assemble a good team. You should, and will have to, trust everyone you are with as if your life depended on it,” he said. “Sooner or later, it will.”