Only after he had traveled to Nepal, only after he had climbed to the top of Mount Everest, only after he had survived a near-death experience, did the GEM community of faculty, staff and students hear about his accomplishments.
“I’m just not good at self-promotion,” Christensen said. “A lot of people are on social media, but that’s just not me. I just didn’t feel the need to tell everyone about it.”
Christensen’s story is no longer a well-kept secret. With the successful ascent of Everest, he has now climbed six of the world’s “Seven Summits,” the highest mountains in each of the seven continents, including Denali and Mount Kilimanjaro. When he completes the final summit, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, he will join an elite group—only about 400 people in the world have climbed the Seven Summits. But had it not been for a fast-acting Sherpa on Everest, Christensen would never have had the opportunity to finish his quest.
‘You go slowly’
Christensen began the GEM program, a blended-curriculum, in-person and online Master of Science degree designed to develop future leaders in energy, in 2012. At the time, he was working for an energy company in Colorado, but after he relocated for a new position in Massachusetts, the flexibility of the degree allowed him to continue his studies at CU Denver.
“I love it,” he said. “Each term, you have four intense days of class, networking and meeting your teams, and the rest is online with frequent video chats. It satisfies my need for professional advancement and personal curiosity.”
The flexibility of the degree also allowed him to take nearly two months off in spring 2017 to tackle Everest. He left Boston on March 31, in what he described as “the best shape of my life,” after spending months working out six days a week, sometimes twice a day, lifting weights and doing cardio. After arriving in Nepal and China, he began a multi-week process of acclimatizing, adjusting to increasing altitude and decreasing oxygen.
“You go slowly, going up about 1,000 feet a day,” he said. “You just let your body get used to it.”
Christensen chose to climb the North Side of Everest, a route that is slightly less dangerous but in some ways more difficult. The need to acclimatize means that ascending Everest is not a single, steady climb up. He spent five days at base camp at 17,000 feet. Then he made the 12-mile hike to advanced base camp at 21,000 feet. After two nights at advanced base camp, he returned to base camp. From there, he traveled back to advanced base camp, and then on to camp one, at 24,000 feet. As his body adjusted to the lack of oxygen, he climbed back and forth between multiple camps on the mountain, finally starting oxygen just before he reached camp two at about 25,000 feet. The conditions were brutal.
“I was wearing a full down one-piece suit, so I looked like a marshmallow,” he said. “You can’t breathe, it’s crazy cold and the wind is wild.”
After weeks of moving between launch camps, Christensen arrived at camp three, a steep, rocky and exposed ridge at 27,400 feet. From here, he and his group would begin their final ascent to the top of Everest, a long night and day that would lead him to make a near-fatal misjudgment.
‘It wakes you up quick’
Christensen, his tent mate and the rest of the team were scheduled to begin their summit push at approximately 10 p.m. on May 15. As they were resting in their tents preparing for the climb, their guide radioed that he was receiving reports of incoming bad weather from his managers back in Great Britain. They were ordering the group back down.
Christensen and his tent mate, who had become his good friend, sat in their tent distraught at the idea that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish their dream after coming so close. “After 15 minutes of discussion and reflection, my buddy said, ‘This is my life, and I’m going right now,’” Christensen recalled.
Christensen hesitated only briefly, before deciding to join his tent mate in attempting to summit the mountain, with just the two of them climbing before the bad weather arrived. The pair left their tent shortly after 6 p.m. Worried about the weather report, their Sherpas, guide and approximately 20 other climbers stayed behind at camp three.
As they climbed, the pair had the mountain to themselves. Standing higher than anyone else in the world, they watched as the sun set over the Himalayas. “It was an experience that can’t be described,” Christensen said. Now, he was climbing in the “death zone,” where there is not enough oxygen to sustain life. Guided by ropes, he made his way up the mountain, stepping over previous climbers who had failed to conquer Everest.
“I walked by three bodies,” he said. “It wakes you up quick.”
‘Motivated, driven person’
Christensen had left camp with two tanks of oxygen to get to Everest’s summit and back down. When he was about halfway to the summit, he planned to lighten his load, leaving the half-used tank of oxygen on the mountain and switching to his remaining fresh tank. He figured the full one would get him over the summit and back down to the spot where he dropped the used tank. It was, he admits a “gamble”—and it proved to be a mistake.
“The summit was further than I thought,” he said. “I got to the top, but I ran out of oxygen.”
At Everest’s summit, slightly over 29,000 feet, going from having oxygen to no oxygen is the equivalent of someone turning the lights off in the brain. Christensen remembered feeling immediately disoriented and uncoordinated. He fell, and if he had not been clipped into the fixed ropes, he would have slid down the mountain.
“I just wanted to sit in the snow and go to sleep,” he remembered.
Fortunately, he had a rescuer. The Sherpas who had stayed behind because of weather reports had started climbing after the reports improved, leaving three hours after Christensen. Even with that delayed start, they had managed to catch up with him. A Sherpa saw that he was in trouble and rushed over with an extra bottle of oxygen.
Looking back on it, Christensen said simply, “That was the closest I have ever come to dying.”
Christensen climbed for 36 straight hours on the day of his Everest ascent, finally ending the day back at the advanced base camp. Later, he celebrated his achievement with “the second best beer of my life.” (He said he drank the best beer of his life after returning from his first 15- month tour of duty as an Infantry Officer in Iraq.) To the best of his knowledge, he was the first American to reach the top of Everest in the 2017 climbing season.
Now, he is planning his ascent of Vinson Massif, the final of his seven summits. But before that happens, he plans to finish his degree at GEM and put it to good use as a project manager for NAES, a company which provides services to oil and gas, pulp and paper and manufacturing industries. The same drive that sent him up Everest and some of the most challenging peaks on seven continents led him to choose GEM, a program and degree that will enhance his credentials as an energy professional.
“I’m just a motivated, driven person,” he said. “I want to challenge myself.”