Craig Hanneman: STILL ASCENDING
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part story about Craig Hanneman's climbing each of the Seven Summits and about his life after being diagnosed with ALS, which makes up Part 2 of the story. Part 2 will appear in print and online on Dec. 19.
The Craig Hanneman story is worth telling if only for the fact he has summited the highest mountain peak on each of the seven continents — one of about 500 people in history to do it. He is believed to be the only former NFL, NBA, NHL or major league baseball player to achieve the feat.
The former Oregon State football great and West Salem resident also is one of the oldest ever to accomplish what is known as the Seven Summits.
He was 54 years old when he climbed Mount McKinley (now Denali) in Alaska in 2004 and 70 when he made it to the top of Mount Kosciuszno in Australia last month.
But that's only part of the story.
In July 2016, Hanneman was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). To that point, Hanneman had reached four of the peaks associated with the seven summits.
In 2019 — three years after his diagnosis and likely several years after he first contracted ALS — Hanneman completed the final three legs of his journey. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) in June, Mount Elbrus (Russia) in August, and Mount Kosciuszko (Australia) in November.
"Amazing," said Bob Berger, an experienced climber from Boulder, Colorado, who made the final of the Seven Summits with Hanneman. "I've climbed most of my life — more than 40 years — and never heard a story like Craig's.
"There are people who amaze you, and then there is Craig. And he did this on his own. He had no help, up or down any of the mountains, even after the illness set in. That's a complete testament to his athletic brain. That's why he's been so successful at just about everything in his life. He's my inspiration. It was my honor to be on that last climb with him."
Indeed, it may be the final climb for Hanneman, though all bets are off for a man with his steely grit and determination.
"Being 70 and dealing with ALS, I feel closure," Hanneman said. "(Kosciuszko) is probably the last mountain I'll climb."
In his next breath, there is a qualifier: "But I'll always have an interest (in climbing). And I have no doubt on some January day when the sun is shining and (close friend) Scott Freeburn gives me a call and says, 'Do you want to go up on the mountain and snowshoe?' I'll go up, and we'll start all over again."
For more than three years, Hanneman chose not to tell his story in the media. He never told his mother, who died two years ago. "There was no need to worry her in her last years of life," he said.
Perhaps a reporter's persistence finally wore him down.
"I wanted to live as normal a life as long as I could," said Hanneman, a man of humor, humility and dignity. "When you go public, that dissipates. That's why I said no. I'm still a little apprehensive about exposing to the western free world that I have ALS."
• • •
On a recent morning, Craig and his wife of 45 years, Kathy, met with a reporter at their house on a hill in rural Polk County, a bucolic spot on a 25-acre plot of land where they have lived since 1977.
The Hannemans initially owned 223 acres, which was half timber, half agricultural land. They converted much of it to farmland and grew cherries and pears before selling most of the property to a vineyard developer.
On a clear day, the Hannemans can look out from their living room and see Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson in one wide swath of scenic beauty.
Craig has been retired for a decade after serving as executive director of the Oregon Forest Industries Council. After his four-year NFL career ended in 1975 following a catastrophic leg injury on Monday Night Football, Hanneman returned to Oregon and farmed his plot of land 13 years. He also served a four-year term as Polk County commissioner and spent 12 years as director of government affairs for Willamette Industries.
Living in the wide-open spaces is part of Hanneman's DNA. He grew up in rural Turner, nine miles south of Salem, the son of a forester who owned a 55-acre tree farm.
"When you're exposed to that way of life, you live that way of life," Hanneman said. "All of my family loved the outdoors."
He transferred to South Salem High for his senior year and was a standout fullback/noseguard for the Saxons, attracting the attention of OSU coach Dee Andros, who offered a scholarship.
The 6-3 Hanneman, who bulked up to 240 pounds by his senior year, was a three-year starter at defensive end for the Beavers from 1968-70, earning second-team All-America and first-team All-Coast and All-Pac-8 honors as a senior. He was defensive MVP and voted the team captain that year by his teammates, who called him "The Dude."
"The biggest honor of my career," he said of being elected captain by his peers.
"Craig was just a phenomenal athlete," said Rich Brooks, Hanneman's position coach at Oregon State, who became a lifelong mentor. "Back in those days with Dee, we recruited a lot of quarterbacks and fullbacks who ended up playing other positions. Craig was one of those guys.
"I remember watching him break a 60-yard run in a freshman game and thinking, 'Oh, hell, I don't know if I'll ever get him (with the defensive line).' Luckily, I did. He was just an outstanding player, a very tough guy. I still say Craig and (NFL Hall-of-Famer) Dave Wilcox have the strongest handshakes I've ever seen."
Hanneman played two years apiece with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1972-73) and New England Patriots (1974-75) before the leg injury ended his career. He settled into life as a non-athlete and made the move back to Oregon, always looking for a way to scratch that competitive itch.
In the late 1990s, Hanneman decided on mountain climbing as a pursuit. It began with Freeburn — a friend since grade school and a D-line teammate of Craig's at Oregon State — and a few friends hiking on Mount Hood. After summits of Hood, St. Helens and Rainier, Hanneman had the bug.
Then Kathy got him a book about the Seven Summits.
"I was thinking he might want to try it," she said. "I was confident he'd do all seven."
It was the perfect challenge for Hanneman, who had slimmed down to 205 pounds after his NFL days and still relished a good physical challenge. There is a mental part to it as well.
"Craig is a wonderful athlete who has kept himself in great shape," said Freeburn, a retired environmental engineer who lives in Albany. "He is a naturally gifted climber, but he also works very hard at it. He has spent a lot of time improving his talents as a climber, not just the ability to go uphill, but to have technical climbing skills. He has taken on some very hard mountains and been sort of defeated a couple of times and come back and conquered them.
"If it's a matter of willpower, it's going to get done with Craig involved. He's just powerful that way. Pain and suffering and difficulty are things he can deal with better than anybody I know."
The first of the Seven Summits came for Hanneman in 2004, when he scaled the 20,320-foot peak of what is now known as Denali. Over the next decade, he added to the list with Mount Vinson (Antarctica), Mount Everest (Nepal) and Mount Aconcagua (Argentina). At that point, though, Hanneman was in his mid-60s and no longer had his heart set on completing the Seven Summits.
That changed, though, with the diagnosis that hit the Hannemans, as well as those close to them, hard.
• • •
Hanneman's mortality has been tested before. In 2013, he survived a scary fall into a crevasse while hiking the Jefferson Park Glacier in the Cascade Range. He was buried in snow for 45 minutes.
One of his climbing partners, Mark Morford, spearheaded the rescue effort with help from Jim Walkley and Bob Alexander, all three experienced climbers.
"It took a while to get down to him and to dig him out," said Morford, a Portland attorney who has been on perhaps 100 climbs with Hanneman over the years. "I was sure he had broken his neck. He was in a lot of pain."
Hanneman came away relatively unscathed from the incident, though, and it did nothing to deter him from continuing to pursue his favorite pastime.
"Craig exudes confidence," Morford said. "He is one of the most 'can-do' persons you meet. At first, I misunderstood that for competence on the mountain. It's been fun building climbing skills with him. Now 15 years later, his skills and competence are in many ways better than mine."
The Jefferson Park Glacier incident "had a profound effect on my life," Hanneman said. "I don't want to say it was life-changing, but it gave me a different perspective. After that, every day was a bonus. I truly did not expect those guys to be able to perform their heroic rescue. They did something that physically few could have done."
Nevertheless, Hanneman returned to his favorite pastime. He, Morford and Alexander were climbing the west face of Mount Stuart in the Cascade Range of Washington in August 2015, when Craig noticed a weakness in his limbs.
"For three days, I had a dickens of a time keeping up with them," said Hanneman, then 66. "I had been feeling good. I had just climbed the west rib of Mount Denali (his second time climbing the mountain). We had a fabulous climb, as good as I'd ever had. I was preparing for another Denali climb a year later, but I just couldn't move."
During the fall of 2015, Hanneman had difficulty completing his Pilates classes. Part of that was due to back issues that he had been dealing with for some time. Along with longtime friend Malcolm Snider — a North Salem High grad who played offensive line at Stanford and then for six years in the NFL — Hanneman went to see a movie. Ironically, the film was "Concussion," the true story of a forensics pathologist who battled the NFL on the head trauma issue. Snider is a retired orthopedic surgeon.
"Malcolm noticed I was wobbling as I walked," Hanneman said. "I wasn't conscious of it. He said, 'I'll get you an appointment with a neurologist.'"
In January 2016, Hanneman underwent back surgery in New York City. Hanneman had dealt with back pain for years and had taken epidural injections before finally giving in to the idea of a surgery. While on the operating table, he suffered a spinal stroke and experienced temporary partial paralysis. He eventually recovered, "but I still have some numbness on my right side," he said.
As it turned out, the back issues were the least of Hanneman's worries.
(Part two: Dealing with life changes)
Craig Hanneman negotiated the Seven Summits
• 2004, age 54, Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, North America (Alaska)
• 2008, age 58, Mount Vinson, 16,067, Antarctica
• 2012, age 62, Mount Everest, 29,029, Asia (Nepal)
• 2014, age 64, Mount Aconcagua, 22,841, South America (Argentina)
• 2019, age 69, Mount Kilimanjaro, 19,341, Africa (Tanzania)
• 2019, age 70, Mount Elbrus, 18,510, Europe (Russia)
• 2019, age 70, Mount Kosciuszko, 7,310, Australia
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