Former OSU, NFL player Hanneman reaches peak in life
At base camp€sˇ former Oregon State defensive lineman Craig Hanneman awaits the rest of his ascent last month to the top of 29,035-foot Mount Everest.

Football was once Craig Hanneman's bailiwick. Then it was farming and the forest industry.

Now, though, the former star Oregon State defensive tackle's passion is mountain-climbing -- and not just of the garden variety climbing.

On May 26, Hanneman was part of a group of 10 that made it to the summit of the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest, on an International Mountain Guide expedition that came with what most might consider more risk than reward.

Hanneman, who turns 63 on July 1, is believed to be the first former NFL, NBA or major league athlete to scale the 29,035-foot mountain in the Himalayas on the border of China and Nepal. He also is one of the more senior members of the 5,000-plus "I Climbed Mount Everest" club since Sir Edmund Hillary pioneered the feat in 1953.

Hanneman's achievement came despite bouts of near-debilitating illness and as those in the IMG party sidestepped two bodies of climbers who had succumbed to the conditions the previous weekend.

When the Salem resident reached the highest point on earth some six weeks after beginning the long, painstaking journey, what was Hanneman's feeling?

"One of relief," says the All-America lineman on Dee Andros' Giant Killers team of 1967 at OSU. "Nothing more, nothing less."

Actually, Hanneman's emotions were a bit more wide-ranging after conquering the Holy Grail of climbing.

"There is a sense of pride," he says. "My kids, my wife -- they feel very proud. By way of extension, so do I.

"I derived enormous amounts of energy from the support I got from my family and friends. It sounds kind of corny, but I had never felt that before in my life. I knew how interested and supportive they were, and I felt that."

Hanneman's ethereal experience may never have come about if other athletic pursuits had been more enticing.

"I'm a crappy golfer," he says with a laugh. "If you can't golf and you don't like to fish, you migrate toward what you do well and enjoy with friends. I discovered late in life that climbing was a natural for me."

After a four-year career ended with a catastrophic leg injury during a Monday night game while playing for the New England Patriots in 1975, Craig and wife Kathy moved back to Oregon and bought a 223-acre farm west of Salem. They grew cherries and pears before selling all but 25 acres to a vineyard developer.

Hanneman farmed and logged until 1985, when he began a career in forest products that spanned more than 20 years and included a stint as a Polk County commissioner.

By the time he retired in 2009, Hanneman was knee-deep into climbing. It started in the mid-1990s with walks during the lunch hour with former OSU teammate Scott Freeburn.

"At some point we said, 'Maybe we ought to just climb a mountain,' " Hanneman recalls. "We thought it would be a cool thing to do."

Hanneman, Freeburn and friends began with treks up Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood and Mount Rainier, "and then we started climbing bigger mountains," he says. "You want to try something a little higher and more difficult. It progresses."

Four or five years ago, Hanneman says, the thought popped into his mind about a run at Mount Everest.

The financial commitment is somewhere between high and staggering, though, "plus I figured Father Time had caught up to me, and I wouldn't do it," Hanneman says. "There were plenty of other mountains."

Last summer, Hanneman climbed the Grand Teton in the Rocky Mountain Range with a Denver resident named Jim Walkley, who told him he had plans to climb Everest. It would be the final leg of Walkley's "Seven Summits" -- scaling the tallest peak on each of the world's seven continents.

"There's room for one more on our climb," Walkley told Hanneman.

"It was intriguing," Hanneman says. "It dominated my thinking and our conversation for the time we were there."

Hanneman called his wife of 38 years for an opinion.

"Do you want to be 75 years old and wish you'd done it?" Kathy told him.

"She totally embraced it," Hanneman says. "You don't want to climb a mountain like this and not have the full support of your loved ones."

Everest is not only a sacrifice of time but of expense. Cost for the climb, six weeks from start to finish, maxes out at $100,000 with IMG. Hanneman's bargain rate for what is called the "classic climb" was $38,500.

Only a few hundred climbers a year summit Everest, though the number has grown slowly since 1996, the year 16 people died on the mountain -- eight on May 11 of that year. Corvallis native Jon Krakauer, who survived the ordeal, wrote about it in the bestseller "Into Thin Air."

"I think that book precipitated the increase in numbers," Hanneman says. "The dirty little secret about mountaineering is the higher the risk, the greater the reward.

"You read these accounts and it almost perversely triggers something inside you like, 'I want to go try that.' "

The summit period for the southeast ridge at Everest is narrow, a two-week window from about May 10-25.

"You're collaborating with the forecasters," Hanneman says. "It's a complex thing. On May 16, we had identified the 26th as being a perfect day.

"Miraculously, it turned out to be the best summit day of the season. We hit it just right."

Hanneman did no special training to prepare. The 6-3 former defensive lineman, who weighed 240 during his NFL years, began the trek at 205, though he lost more than 20 pounds through the climb.

"I was already in pretty good condition and had the base level of fitness that I wanted," he says. "One of the biggest misconceptions is you have to be in tiptop physical shape. That's not going to get you to the top of Mount Everest. It requires much more than that. It's almost a liability, because you tend to go too fast instead of at a measured pace. That's how you start tearing your body apart.

"The most important aspects are the mental and the emotional. If you don't have that proper balance and put it all together, it's not going to happen for you. I saw that with people not just on our team but on other teams. They weren't prepared psychologically to deal with it."

A mind-over-matter philosophy, along with experience on the mountain, worked well for Hanneman.

"You know what it's like when you're cold and isolated and dealing with misery and there's no communication with family," he says. "It's a very primitive existence. Rather than complain about it, you have to learn to embrace it.

"When it's cold, you get into a warm sleeping bag and think, 'This is nice,' instead of whining about the temperature or the wind conditions."

Hanneman began the climb in a confident frame of mind, in part because of his Sherpa guide, Phu Nuru.

"IMG's track record is unbelievable," Hanneman says. "And when I was matched with Phu Nuru, I knew the odds were much better for me than some others."

Hanneman flew to Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 26 to join a group of 16 climbers, 10 of whom would eventually make it to the summit. Six were Americans, joined by representatives of Norway, Latvia, Mexico, Germany, Norway and Singapore.

Four days later, after gear checks and other preparation, the group flew to Lukla, Nepal, where a 35-mile, 12-day trek to base camp at 17,500 feet began. Pace was critical.

"You want to force yourself to not walk too fast," Hanneman says. "You build up your red-blood cell count so you can start dealing with the altitude.

"That was the part of the two months I gave the least amount of thought to, but turned out to be one of the most fascinating and important aspects."

Each climber had a Sherpa, Nepal natives who offered both guidance and help in carrying the load of supplies, which include clothing, water, food and 17-pound oxygen bottles. Hanneman connected immediately with Phu Nura, who was making his sixth summit.

"I drew the long straw," Hanneman says. "He was the de facto leader of the Sherpa group. An amazing man. I was with him every day for a month and a half. We developed a close relationship. He spoke very good English, was strong, smart, experienced, a good guy with a genuine interest in me."

Before Hanneman's climb, there had already been 10 deaths on the mountain that year, including four who had lost their lives the previous weekend. Two hours into the climb, the group encountered the first of two bodies, this one a Canadian woman lying only inches from the party's fixed line.

"You had to be careful not to violate the space of the deceased, to move very carefully not to step on the body," Hanneman says.

Removal of the bodies at such an altitude is all but cost-prohibitive.

"I remember getting a body-disposal form in February," Hanneman says. "There were three choices -- cremation on the mountain, ship the body home or leave it on the mountain.

"More often that not, the bodies are left on the mountain. It's a reminder how Mount Everest is in control, not you."

After reaching base camp, the group spent a week climbing to Mount Lobuche, elevation 20,000 feet, for its first acclimatization test. The climbers then returned to base camp and 17,500 feet on April 20.

"You climb high, expose yourself to the elevation, and sleep low," Hanneman says. "We were at an elevation where our body and muscles were being eaten up. That's necessary to build the red-blood cell count so you can make it to 29,000 feet.

"Up, down, up, down. It takes almost two months to get your body ready for that final summit push. Everything is building up to five days and one shot to go to the top."

Above base camp, there are four camps at higher levels where the group slept at night. At camp one, about 20,000 feet, Hanneman fell victim to the dreaded "khumbu cough."

"About half the climbers get it," he says. "I had it for three weeks. It's a very sick feeling, but you kind of deal with it."

When the climbing party reached 24,500 feet, Hanneman dropped to 13,000, "because my Sherpa insisted we go down and get some fresh air and recover," he says.

"Your skin cracks open and nothing heals," Hanneman says. "We needed to spend four or five nights in the relatively thick air. Eight of our team members went down and enjoyed the good, thick air and got healthy. Then we went back up to base camp to wait for our summit bid."

The IMG party left base camp on May 22. Seven went directly to camp two, spending a day of rest there. The third day they arrived at camp three, elevation 23,500.

"That's where you go on low-level oxygen for the first time," Hanneman says. "It's on 100 percent from that point on. You have to be judicious. If you miscalculate and use too much, you run out."

The fourth day, May 25, took the group to camp four, the beginning of the "death zone" at 26,500 feet.

"It's wasteland, a bunch of rock and a lot of debris (left by climbers) of years past," Hanneman says. "At that point, you're waiting for that night to begin the summit bid. There's not much you can do but rest."

Hanneman said he went the last two nights without sleep.

Soon came another issue for Hanneman, already dealing with the effects of the khumba cough. With weather conditions a go, the decision was made to begin the final ascent to the summit at 8 p.m. Four hours before launch, he began to encounter "horrible" gastrointestinal issues that had already forced two members of the team to abandon and head back down the mountain.

Hanneman chose to keep his illness secret from guides who surely would have forced him to turn back. He took some Imodium, which caused stomach cramping.

"It made every minute of the rest of the climb and coming back down one of misery as a result," Hanneman says. "I couldn't take a step without having to deal with that going on. It wasn't much fun, to be quite honest."

At 8 p.m., for better or worse, Hanneman began the final ascent. At 4 a.m. on May 26, the group reached the top.

Hanneman planted a pair of flags -- one for his son, Paul, a member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces (Green Berets), the other in honor of our country's prisoners of war and missing in action. The group stayed for 20 minutes before heading down.

Three days later, Hanneman and seven others on the climbing team were in a helicopter from Pheriche, Nepal -- elevation 14,600 -- to Khatmandu, more than ready for the long flight home.

Last Friday, Hanneman arrived in Salem, mentally and physically exhausted. He slept in for the first time in months.

"I didn't realize how sleep-deprived I'd become," he says. "You go on adrenaline during the summit period. You forget you have to sleep sometimes.

"It was so good to be home, to have a shower, a bed and toilet. The combination of those three, that's a luxury."

Hanneman has done what is considered the three most difficult legs of the "Seven Summits" -- Mount McKinley, Mount Vinson (Antarctica) and now Mount Everest. Completing the set is probably not in the offing. More climbing is, however.

"I'm not on any mission," he says. "That's not my mindset now, and never has been.

"But there are other mountains I want to climb. My biological clock is ticking. There is a mountain or two I want to do before I get too dang old to do them."

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