Brent Okita did something Tuesday afternoon that’s not likely to happen again.
The 55-year-old Enumclaw resident became the second person to make 500 trips to the 14,411-foot summit of Mount Rainier. Okita, who has guided for Rainier Mountaineer Inc. since 1986, joined International Mountain Guides’ George Dunn in the exclusive 500-summit club.
Okita celebrated Wednesday morning by pouring himself a bowl of cereal, mowing his lawn and playing with his dog, an Australian shepherd named Foster.
“I think it might be a bigger deal to other people than it is to me,” Okita said Wednesday morning. “I just want to let my feet mellow out.”
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He reached the summit with friends Tuesday at 2:02 p.m. They celebrated quickly then, to make the trip even more memorable, they skied down via the Edmunds Headwall. The route has pitches as steep as 55 degrees and at one point requires a short rappel.
“It’s definitely a no-fall zone,” said Okita, who helps managed the Crystal Mountain ski patrol. “It was one of my highlights. I will definitely always remember it.”
Okita and his friends hiked back to their car to complete a 14-mile day and he was home by 2:30 a.m. His wife, Julie, greeted him with celebratory bacon and eggs. As news of his landmark summit spread, Okita received congratulatory messages from fellow climbers.
“He is so consistent,” Craig Van Hoy said by cellphone Wednesday from Camp Muir, situated at 10,188 feet on Mount Rainier. Van Hoy was the senior guide on Okita’s first climb in 1986. “He’s not turning around unless it’s unsafe.”
Van Hoy figures Okita will likely be the last person to reach the 500 mark. He should know. Van Hoy, a 58-year-old guide for Alpine Ascents International, appears the mostly likely next candidate. He was working on his 425th summit this week.
“I have no desire to get to 500,” Van Hoy said. “I’m aiming for about 450 and getting back into the top three.”
Phil Ershler of IMG is currently third with 447 summits, but he has retired from climbing.
Reaching Columbia Crest 500 times requires climbing 9,000 miles and 4.5 million vertical feet. That doesn’t include hundreds of trips in which he didn’t reach the summit.
Okita goes back to work next week and will lead a trip that could result in summit No. 501. Dunn’s record was 515 as of Wednesday.
Okita, whom RMI owner Peter Whittaker said keeps the “pace of a 20-year-old guide,” could attempt the summit 20 times this season. In May, shortly before a trip to Alaska that resulted in the summit of Denali for the 24th year in a row, Okita took time to field a few questions about his life in the mountains.
Q: Was 500 a goal or was it just a byproduct of a long career on Mount Rainier?
A: It’s something that just came my way from staying the course and being fairly lucky in finding a career and an endeavor that I love doing. I’m fortunate to have longevity and good health.
Q: So, most of the guys with huge numbers on Rainier, slowed down by the time they were in their 50s, or spent more time climbing elsewhere. What keeps you still so active on Rainier?
A: I made a conscience decision back in my early years. I didn’t want to go the way of owning my own guide service. I wanted to keep my life simpler, I guess. I didn’t want to be buried in administrative stuff. I enjoy climbing and my love for guiding has increased over the years.
Q: What about climbing the same route so many times as a guide, did that ever get boring?
A: Certainly when I was young and full of myself and doing all of these other things like guiding in Europe, there might have been a part of me that had that same sentiment. But as you get a little older you start realizing it’s not just the route you are on. It’s the experience you have with so many people. It’s a really positive thing and it’s kept me going.
It’s always different.
Q: How often do you climb on your own compared to work trips?
A: I don’t do it on my own very much anymore. My first 10 years, every day off I was scrambling to find partners to do another route on the mountain or go rock climbing or do another peak in the Cascades. But after having done this for so long, I have developed other interests like cycling.
Cycling allows me to keep on that edge of fitness that I want to be on without destroying my knees like running might do. And it’s super fun.
If I get in a climb per year with a friend, I’m doing well.
Q: So George Dunn has 515. You climb more than he does these days. When do you think you’ll catch him?
A: I’ll probably get there at some point, but it’s definitely not something I’m trying to do. I’d be happy if George had the record forever and ever. He’s a real close friend of mine and was one of my mentors when I first started guiding. I worked for him back in the day.
Q: Do you think anybody else will ever catch you and George?
A: A guide told me once he didn’t think anybody would ever catch us. People don’t climb Rainier anymore the way we used to. But, we’ll see. Never say never.
Q: How many times does somebody need to climb Rainier for you to think that’s an impressive number?
A: For guides, that first big milestone is 100 and that’s huge. You have to be working on the mountains quite a bit – six to seven years – to get 100. You have a lot of guides with 40, 50, 60 and they are great guides who know the mountain super well, but that 100 mark is a testament.
I remember when I got my 100th, I thought I got this mountain down. That being said, even at 500 if you go into it thinking you have this mountain down pat, it’s probably going to spank you. I always keep a healthy respect for the mountain.
I play by the rules and stay conservative as much as you can.
Q: Any close calls?
A: The biggest thing is happenstance and luck of the draw. I think the closest call I had up there was descending down the Kautz Route. It’s a beautiful route, but unfortunately there is a little bit of ice fall up above.
I remember descending down one time (about 15 years ago) and having these humongous chunks of ice the size of a Volkswagen bus coming at us. It’s just like we train for those evasive moves. Look up and jump out of the way at the last second.
There was a chunk coming at me the size of a sofa and I had to jump out of the way. One of the guys got hit in the calf by a smaller chunk. Somebody else got hit in the back of the arm. But no broken bones and we were able to self-rescue and hobble out.
And weather is always one of the big things.
Q: So what do you remember about your first Rainier summit?
A: Climb No. 1 was as a guide in 1986 with my good friend Craig Van Hoy. I’d moved out from the East Coast and had some rock climbing under my belt, but none of the big mountains. I was fairly green when I started. I had some basic skills down and I was strong and willing and had a good attitude.
Q: What’s the most important attribute for a guide?
A: You can train people to be good climbers, but you can’t train them to have a good disposition to work with people. To be a nice a guy, somebody you wouldn’t mind spending three weeks with in a tent on Denali.
Q: How much do you train?
A: Back when I was young I didn’t train as hard as I do now. Now, in some ways, I’m in better shape than I was when I was 30 or 25 but I don’t have youth on my side. But I certainly put more time into training. I want to be able to keep up with these young studs on the mountain. And if a rescue happens, I want to be a valuable resource. And it’s what I owe my clients, too.
Q: What are some of your other favorite mountaineering accomplishments?
A: I did Everest in 1991, and I went back on the Mallory and Irvine search in 2001, and my partner and I found their high camp.
I spent about 13-14 years guiding for George in the Alps. … My last five years in the Alps I did trips in the Dolomites, probably the most fun trips I’ve led. The beauty of the Dolomites and exposure of being right on a limestone cliff with 4,000 feet down to the valley below and all the while staying in huts and eating great Italian meals and drinking great Italian wine. Nothing could be better.
Q: Do you ponder retirement?
A: I guess you have to retire at some point. I guess it really depends on the body and so far the body is doing great. I figure I still have a few good years left.
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THE 300 CLUB
Only eight men, all of whom launched successful guiding careers on the slopes of Mount Rainier, have reached the 14,411-foot summit 300 or more times.
George Dunn, IMG
Brent Okita, RMI
Phil Ershler, IMG
Craig Van Hoy, AAI
Paul Maier, RMI
Jason Edwards, IMG
Gary Talcott, RMI
Robert Link, Mountain Link
Notes: Van Hoy’s total does not include a summit attempt he made this week. Talcott, retired, was unavailable to confirm his current summit total. His listed total is as of 2010. The most likely next addition to the club is Eric Simonson of IMG, who has 290 summits and says 300 is a goal.
What they’re saying about Okita
“I’m really happy for him. He’s a good friend and I applaud him for his achievement.” - George Dunn, holds record with 515 Rainier summits.
“Brent is a mentor, leader and above all an inspiration to all mountaineers. The fact that Brent has challenged himself on this mountain for 30 years and successfully summited Rainier 500 times is extraordinary. Even more amazing, Brent continues to climb at the pace of a 20-year-old guide and will likely climb Rainier another 20 times this summer. ... His endurance and fitness are unmatched.” - Peter Whittaker, owner Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
“He is an animal. For him to maintain his level of fitness at his age says a lot about him. That dude always trained really hard.” - Robert Link, Mountain Linke and SlingFin, 303 Rainier summits.
“He will push himself to the point where it is no longer humanly possible before he turns around.” - Craig Van Hoy, 424 Rainier summits.
“I can certainly respect how much effort has gone into it. It’s a life’s work. He deserves a lot of credit for hanging in there and staying healthy and strong over all those years. A lot of people are able to crank out the numbers when they are younger, but it gets harder as you get older.” - Eric Simonson, 290 Rainier summits.
“Brent has had a singular focus of climbing Rainier 500 times to the summit for years, and it’s awesome to see friends achieve such cool things. Brent and I have climbed on Everest and on Rainier together many times, and I imagine he’s got some new goal up his sleeve that he will soon pursue. Right on Brent!” - Jason Edwards, 327 Rainier summits
“What else can you say other than the guy likes to be tough. And he is. We don’t say that about each other that often but everybody does say it about Brent.” - Paul Maier, 393 Rainier summits.