This story originally ran in the Summer 2015 issue of Arcadia magazine.
Brady O’Mara ’97M stared at the Alaskan wilderness from 20,320 feet, a razor-sharp wind cutting through him. He was one of four who made it to the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain, out of an expedition team of eight. The others had given up.
Trudging through below-zero temperatures with 100 pounds between his backpack and sled, O’Mara was in agony for much of the climb. At 16,000 feet, a wind storm charged through, bringing frostbite with it and halting the expedition. As the team crammed into emergency tents, O’Mara almost lost hope of reaching the summit. “If you can’t climb Denali today, you can never climb it,” their guide said the next day. With that in mind, O’Mara committed to reaching the peak.
“Knowing the suffering involved in reaching that summit,” said O’Mara, “is something that brings a grown man to tears.”
O’Mara ran his first marathon in 1992. Seven years, eight marathons, and one triathlon later, he shattered his tibia into 12 pieces while skiing in Utah. After three surgeries to repair the knee, he was advised to give up his marathon career. Determined not to become a couch potato, O’Mara switched gears to hiking.
In 2004, he hiked Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro with six of his friends. After reaching that top, O’Mara set his sights on the rest of the world’s highest mountains, collectively called the Seven Summits. Throughout the years, he has trained six days a week with a combination of running, hiking, biking, lifting with the P90X regimen, and bikram yoga to reach his goals.
Weather, injury, emotional strain, and sickness can derail an expedition. Temperatures dip as low as minus 70 Celsius on Antarctica’s Vinson Massif, while snow storms, winds, and fog can create white-out conditions on Russia’s Mt. Elbrus within minutes. Thinning air at high altitudes causes headaches and fatigue. In serious cases, mountaineers can suffer cerebral edema, or brain swelling.
“To reach the summits of these high peaks requires patience, luck, teamwork, and stamina,” said O’Mara. “For your family’s sake, getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory!”
Every year, O’Mara’s physical therapy practice, Seven Summits Therapy & Fitness in Wayne, Pa., hosts the Turkey Trot, a November fundraising race. Inspired by a video on Arcadia’s Physical Therapy department’s Stroke Camp in Jamaica, Guatemala, and Peru, O’Mara decided that the proceeds of the 2014 Turkey Trot would assist the PT International Pro Bono program. Despite a few inches of snow the day before, the event raised $13,450, money that will help send students and faculty abroad.
You can do amazing things through the power of the human spirit, but it won’t happen if you’re on your couch.
As the sole physical therapist of Seven Summits, O’Mara meets with as many as 15 patients a day, most of whom have experienced orthopedic injuries and diagnoses. Having sustained his own life-altering injury, he can sympathize.
“Prior to that injury, I still had the feeling of invincibility that many in their 20s and early 30s may feel,” said O’Mara, who earned a master’s degree in physical therapy from Arcadia in 1997.
O’Mara encourages everyone to remain active. He recently ran 8 Tuff Miles, a race in the Virgin Islands that begins and ends at sea level and has an elevation of 1,000 feet, alongside adults in their 70s and 80s and children as young as 7.
“You can do amazing things through the power of the human spirit,” said O’Mara, “but it won’t happen if you’re on your couch.”