On Top of the World
He made history as the youngest person to summit the world’s seven highest mountains, has traveled to far-off lands to help those many deem “untouchable” and yet, to the little patients whose lives he is saving, he’s simply Dr. Boo
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It’s known as the death zone, the last 3,000 feet of the climb to reach the top of Everest, the merciless mountain whose unpredictable mix of avalanches, rockslides and blizzards have killed hundreds. By reaching the more than 29,000-foot summit in 2004, Greenwich-native Britton Keeshan, at twenty-two, became the youngest person to climb not just Everest, but the tallest mountains on all seven continents. “The last bit of Everest is very challenging,” he says of the 300 feet of the near-vertical wall of rock and ice known as the Hillary Step. A slip off the razor-sharp edge and it would have meant a 6,000-foot drop into China on one side, a 9,000-foot plunge into Nepal on the other. But taking ten breaths for each step, Keeshan made it to the top of the world.
Once at the summit, he buried a treasured artifact: a picture of himself and his recently-deceased grandfather, Bob Keeshan. Otherwise known as Captain Kangaroo.
Keeshan, now thirty-two, is not only an acclaimed mountaineer, but a pediatric cardiologist and philanthropist who humbly demurs when reminded of his achievements. He laughs when asked if his next adventure might be skydiving.
“I hope to never jump out of a perfectly good airplane. I’m kinda scared of heights.”
Scared. Of. Heights.
“I’m serious. Huge exposure is not something that I’m thrilled with, but I think that it’s something you have to combat.” He admits tackling Everest was “a pretty scary thing to be doing, but I think that’s part of the enjoyment, to combat your own personal fears and put one foot in front of the other.”
Big Mountains to Climb
Keeshan took his first steps in Greenwich. He grew up in Riverside and Cos Cob where he enjoyed running, kayaking and going to the beach. He says he loved attending Greenwich Country Day, but felt “sheltered” and needed to “get out and explore,” a desire nurtured by an inspiring teacher who took Keeshan and his classmates to Botswana, Africa.
His wanderlust ignited, Keeshan signed up for a four-week Colorado River backpacking trip through the teen travel program Road Less Traveled. “It was really just bombing around in a van in the West—Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.” But the trip ended with a rigorous climb of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. Unlike others for whom altitude is kryptonite, Keeshan fed off of the adrenaline. “As we kept climbing, I seemed to get stronger and stronger. It was one of the first times I felt physically in charge of my body, truly independent. I loved that sensation.”
Tackling the Tetons was just the start. A year later, at just fifteen, Keeshan toured the Alaska wilderness, where he spied the 20,320-foot-high Denali/Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, a mountain so large it generates its own weather. Keeshan remembers visiting Denali National Park on a rare clear day when, even though fifty miles away, the majestic mountain peered through the tundra, seemingly standing right before him. “To then drive four hours on a bus into the park and still not feel like we gained any ground I think was what got me.” Humbled by the powerful peak, Keeshan decided he had to climb it. “I believe it is the sheer immensity of these things that help us to realize how small we are in a very big world,” he explains.
And so he dedicated the next two years of his life to the physically grueling and mentally taxing training to scale the daunting Denali. “Mountains are full of lessons and they are always pushing you.” Food conservation was the lesson learned while on a monthlong expedition in British Columbia. Keeshan and his fellow climbers were on a range so remote, they received only one food drop, by helicopter. This meant carrying hundred-pound packs containing fifteen days’ worth of food. Eager to lighten their loads, the climbers ate their way through their food supply—finishing it four days before their scheduled pick-up by plane. “A camp manager took pity on us and fed us a steak dinner,” Keeshan recalls. “I don’t think food ever tasted so good.”
The arduous training paid off and Keeshan scaled Denali. Thinking back to those last steps before the summit, Keeshan says, “This is always the best part for me because it’s then that you know you are going to make it.” And in a largely solitary sport, with team members separated by thirty feet of rope and only one’s thoughts for company, he says “reaching the top is great because you get to be there together.” He felt he was part of a group of individuals all connected by a common goal. “After Denali, it really came down to, where next?” So at seventeen, he set out to become the youngest person ever to scale the Seven Summits: Carstensz Pyramid (Australia), Vinson (Antarctica), Elbrus (Europe), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Denali (North America), Aconcagua (South America) and Everest (Asia).
“Each mountain has its own culture and its own essence,” he says, speaking about his awe of Kilimanjaro. “You’re climbing up the mountains with giraffes and elephants on the trail and then you’re standing on top of the mountain watching the sun rise above the Serengeti.” After tackling Russia’s Elbrus, Keeshan’s group got to sample the local vodka and stay at one of Boris Yeltsin’s dachas; during the ascent of Aconcagua he indulged in the Latin American culture, sampling smoked oysters and wine from Mendoza transported to base camp via mules. “We would climb during the day, but then take our afternoon siesta, literally take a nap at the side of a mountain.”
“I always like to have a little levity,” Keeshan adds, telling the story of cajoling an exhausted teammate up Aconcagua’s last few hundred feet. “I promised her that if she kept going I would do the chicken dance on the summit and make a fool of myself.” She did and he did. The funky flapping became a ritual at the top of every mountain. “I don’t think many people can claim they did the chicken dance on the top of Mount Everest.”
Everest was Keeshan’s most emotionally significant climb and not just because it made him the youngest person at that time to have scaled the Seven Summits. When he reached the summit on May 24, 2004, he buried a picture of his grandfather who had died just four months before. Keeshan says he might have never explored that icy mountain peak if it weren’t for the man who had helped generations of children explore—his grandfather, Bob Keeshan.