Climb heightens name controversy

Martin Douthitt, the mountain-climbing businessman from Breathitt County, is heading for Australia to climb a peak named after a Polish general who was a hero of the American Revolutionary War.

Douthitt and his friend Dale Torok of Lexington left Monday for Australia, where their plan to climb Mount Kosciusko also might land them in the middle of a brewing local controversy about the mountain's name.

"I guess you never know what might happen when you go mountain climbing," Douthitt said last week. "But it's a pretty unusual story."

It goes roughly like this.

Mount Kosciusko is named for Tadeusz Bonawentura Kosciusko, a Polish army officer who joined the Continental Army during the American Revolution and befriended many American patriots, particularly Thomas Jefferson. Kosciusko died in 1817.

Then, in 1840, a Polish explorer named Paul Edmund Strzelecki became the first to climb Australia's tallest mountain, which he named in honor of Kosciusko.

Recently, however, a proposal has surfaced in Australia to give the mountain a name more in keeping with the country's own history.

But that idea has not gone over well with the country's sizeable Polish-Australian community, whose members are determined to keep Mount Kosciusko name.

Enter Douthitt and Torok.

Douthitt decided some months ago to tackle Mount Kosciusko as part of his quest to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on Earth's seven continents. Under the rather obscure rules of that quest, climbers may challenge Oceania's Kosciusko in Australia or Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea.

Douthitt reached the top of Carstensz in 2005 but also wanted to add Kosciusko to his total. He decided to do it this year and asked Torok to come along.

But what began as a routine climbing trip has taken on a whole new character.

When Polish-Australians learned that two Americans were coming all the way from Kentucky to climb their beloved Mount Kosciusko, they saw a chance to promote their efforts to preserve the mountain's name.

Among other things, they've arranged for Douthitt and Torok to carry American and Polish flags to the mountain's summit, and they're sending along a film crew to document the climb. They've also found a guide to lead Torok and Douthitt up the same route that Strzelecki climbed in 1840.

Banquets, tours and speaking engagements also are planned.

"They're really rolling out the red carpet for us," said Douthitt, who added that he and Torok plan to make a cash donation to support the group's cause.

Kosciusko, a captain in the Polish army, hurried to America in 1776, enthused by the colonists' bold effort to throw off British control and establish a democracy. Offering his services to the fledgling nation, he became the Continental Army's chief engineer. Kosciusko — there are several ways to spell his name in English — was promoted to brigadier general and participated in many battles. But his longest-lasting contribution might have been his planning of the defensive works at West Point, which later became the site of the U.S. Military Academy.

Among the Seven Summits, Douthitt has not climbed Mount Everest and Mount McKinley. (His attempt to climb Mount McKinley in 2007 was aborted on the first day because he became ill.) As for Torok, Kentucky's 4,145-foot Big Black Mountain is the biggest climbing challenge he has undertaken.

Kosciusko, however, is supposed to be an easy climb. At 7,310 feet, it isn't that much taller than Big Black Mountain. The main question might be the temperature.

According to Torok, daytime temperatures at the foot of the Australian mountain have been running well above 100 degrees in recent weeks. But it should be much cooler on the mountain, and Torok noted that the climbers will have to camp out at least one night on their way to the summit.

"Whatever happens," he said. "It's going to be a trip to remember."