CLAY CITY — A few casual hikers enjoying Thursday's springlike weather on Pilot Knob Trail couldn't help noticing a gray-bearded man who charged up the hill at a pace that clearly said he wasn't out for leisurely recreation.
Martin Douthitt, the mountain-climbing man from Breathitt County, is burning up hiking trails in and around the Red River Gorge these days, preparing for perhaps his biggest challenge.
Douthitt leaves Kentucky in late April for what he says probably will be his last — make or break — effort to climb Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. If he succeeds, he will realize a 12-year dream of conquering all of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of Earth's continents.
"I know it's a long shot," he says. "But I have to try."
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Douthitt has planned for Everest for years but has been disappointed repeatedly. He aimed to tackle the mountain in 2010, but knee problems kept him at home. He made an exploratory visit in 2011, going only as far as Everest's base camp at about 17,000 feet. He intended to try for the summit last year, but painful knees again forced him to cancel.
Douthitt's knees are better now, after surgical repairs. But the Everest trip will cost about $75,000 for transportation, equipment and fees. Douthitt, 67, has had to borrow money and is trying to line up sponsors to help cover the expense.
If he doesn't get to the summit this time, he says, he'll probably hang it up.
"It's probably a one-shot deal," he said. "The expense is the main thing. But I can also tell that I'm not as strong as I was. I've lost a little bit physically, so I'm afraid to wait another year. Now is the time."
Douthitt will have plenty of support on his quest.
Four friends — Dale Torok of Lexington, Robert Cornett of Georgetown, Robert Dungan of Jackson, and Mary Clay of Paris — have accompanied him on his training hikes. The four plan to follow Douthitt all the way to the Mount Everest base camp and see him off for the summit.
"They'll be able to mingle with some of the best climbers in the world and get a taste of what it's really like," Douthitt said. "It will be a great experience for them, but I know they're going because they want to support me. It's really special."
Torok has known Douthitt for several years.
"I think he may view this as his legacy or his life achievement," Torok said. "He has a burning desire to accomplish this, and he's just stubborn enough to push himself as far as he can. You have to admire him having the gumption to try to complete a dream that he started off with 12 years ago."
Douthitt took up mountain climbing in 2000. The Jackson businessman was soon crisscrossing the world, determined to climb all of the Seven Summits. To date, at least 345 climbers have managed to do it.
Douthitt has knocked off six of the summits: Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, 19,340 feet; Russia's Mount Elbrus, 18,519 feet; Aconcagua in Argentina, 22,841 feet; Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, 16,535 feet; the Vinson Massif in Antarctica, 16,067 feet; and Denali in Alaska, 20,320 feet. That leaves only Mount Everest, the most demanding of all, rising 29,035 feet above the Himalaya Mountains on the border of Nepal and Tibet.
Just a few months back, Douthitt doubted that he would be in condition to climb any mountain this year. He had partial knee-replacment surgery on both knees in May at the University of Kentucky.
"There was no cartilage left in either knee," he said. "The operation was successful, but the rehab afterward was really slow."
Gradually, however, Douthitt regained his strength. Last fall, he managed to hike the Red River Gorge's nine-mile Rough Trail in four hours flat. He'd never done it before in less than 4 1/2 hours.
"I went straight home, called up one of the mountain guide companies and said I wanted to try Everest this year," he said.
Douthitt has maintained an arduous training regimen since then.
He hikes with a weighted backpack several times a week. He hired a nutritionist to improve his diet, started working out with a personal trainer in Lexington, began doing yoga, even took up meditation.
"I need every advantage I can get," he says.
Douthitt has been thwarted on high mountains before but has always bounced back. It took him two tries to climb Aconcagua. He fell ill trying to climb Denali in 2007 and had to be evacuated off the Alaska mountain. He returned two years later and reached the top.
Everest, however, has a mystique unlike any other mountain.
British surveyors identified the peak, which Tibetans call "Chomolungma," as Earth's tallest mountain about 1859.
No one reached the top, until Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay got there in 1953. Since then, a few thousand climbers have reached the summit, but estimates vary and the number changes annually.
When Douthitt first began his quest for the Seven Summits, he often said he'd probably never attempt Everest. It was too high, too far away, too expensive, too dangerous. But his resistance gradually faded. "Never" became "maybe," and eventually it was, "I'm going."
"It's a lot safer than it used to be," he says.
Modern electronic equipment can monitor weather on Everest and warn climbers before potentially deadly storms approach.
Despite such advances, Everest remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. More than 300 people have died trying to climb it, and about 200 bodies remain on the mountain, frozen in the ice. Ten climbers died last year.
Douthitt will be climbing with guides from IMG, a highly regarded mountaineering firm. He says he understands the risks and thinks he can deal with them.
"If I can make it, I think I'll be the oldest American to do Everest and also do all Seven Summits," he said. "But age records don't last very long. I just feel like I have to go.
"I worry about being on my dying bed and regretting that I didn't at least try it."
Six down, one to go
Douthitt has climbed six of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continents:
Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, 19,340 feet.
Europe: Russia's Mount Elbrus, 18,519 feet.
South America: Aconcagua in Argentina, 22,841 feet.
Australia: Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, 16,535 feet. *
Antartica: Vinson Massif in Antarctica, 16,067 feet.
North America: Denali (also called Mount McKinley) in Alaska, 20,320 feet.
That leaves only Asia, Mount Everest, 29,035 feet.
* There are two lists of Seven Summits, the Bass List and the Messner list. Messner considers Indonesia part of the Australian continent.