On Top of the World: Mountain climbing with Hartselle’s Victor Fentanes

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

The summer of 1987 — a summer when Victor Fentanes became the youngest Mexican to climb Mount Huascaran, the highest tropical peak in the world — remains fresh in Fentanes’ mind.

“It was a fantastic summer. It is a summer living in my memory,” Fentanes said. “That summer I fell in love with mountain climbing.”

Now, at 54, that passion remains and Fentanes, founder of the Hartselle Mountain Hikers, shows no signs of slowing down. The Hartselle man has led climbing trips in 2015, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023, visiting the North Cascades National Park in Washington and the Sawtooth Range in Idaho. He reached the summit of Thompson Peak, Sharkfin Notch, Mount Terror and Forbidden Peak.

“I found myself through mountain climbing. When I started mountain climbing, I understood just how small I was in terms of the magnitude of Mother Nature. When you are out there among these huge mountains, you realize how insignificant we are,” Fentanes said.

In July, he will return to the North Cascades National Park — one of his favorite climbing spots — to tackle a route only four other groups have tried.

“It’s not that it is so very difficult. It is just not visited a lot,” Fentanes said.

And, in 2025, Fentanes plans on traveling to Alaska.

“It will be my first time in Alaska. Alaska is a different animal. Airplanes drop you in the middle of nowhere. It is wild space. There are no trails. We will only have our maps and compasses,” Fentanes said. “It will be a huge test of our navigational skills and survival skills. Because of the bears, we will have to be very careful about how we store our food.”

While discussing past and future climbing trips — the successes and the challenges — excitement fills Fentanes’ voice.

His interest in mountain climbing began 40 years ago while flying in an airplane from Veracruz, Mexico, where he spent his summers scuba diving among the coral reefs, to his home in Mexico City.

“While we were flying back, I looked out the window and saw the summit of a massive volcano. The surface was covered with ice at the time. I said to my dad, ‘One day, I’ll be there on top of that platform of ice,’” Fentanes recalled.

The next year he started mountaineering school and began training. He learned about the importance of selecting the right shoes.

“It sounds silly, but before you go climbing, you need to learn how to walk. Everything starts at your feet. If you don’t have good solid footing, you can’t do anything. If you have shoes that are too small, you are going to get your toes smashed and by the second day of the trip you are done.”

He also learned how to properly pack a backpack and use hiking poles.

“If the backpack is not properly loaded, if it is heavier on one side than the other, 2 to 3 miles down the road, your hips and shoulders will be screaming,” Fentanes said. “Poles are also important. Some people may think, ‘I don’t need poles.’ Once you use poles properly, you will love them because you have four points on the ground instead of two. You will understand why your dog is so happy.”

In 1986, the volcano Fentanes saw from the airplane became his “battleground” and “playground” for training as he learned how to rope climb and ice climb. The summer of 1987, a climbing group Fentanes helped form traveled to Peru for a month to climb the Cordillera Blanca, the White Range.

“It is part of the Andes. You have mountains 21,000 feet high there that are the highest tropical mountains in the world. It was so beautiful because it is really close to the Pacific Ocean so there was a lot of snow and ice. Of course, things are changing now because of climate change,” Fentanes said.

In December, the group traveled to Chile and Argentina to climb mountains, including the Cerro Aconcagua. Standing 22,837 feet tall, the Cerro Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere.

“Back then, we felt like a different race from mortals. We felt like superheroes. Now you see the type of people ascending the mountains, they are wearing sneakers and doing the trip in one day, running like cheetahs in the mountains. They are so powerful and athletic now. It is a very different time. When we climbed the mountains, we carried very heavy equipment and it was a long trip,” Fentanes said.

After the “magical” year of climbing in 1987, Fentanes’ participation in the sport lessened for more than 20 years as he concentrated on school, his marriage, work and his son. During that time, he immigrated to the United States on a work visa and eventually became a full citizen along with his wife, Elizabeth, and his son, Victor.

Fentanes credits his son, who joined the Boy Scouts in 2012, for reigniting his passion for mountain climbing.

“After one year of him going on hikes to the Bankhead, Sipsey Wilderness and Cheaha, I said, ‘Victor, do you really want to know mountains?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘What you know now is a good training ground. Do you want to go to the next level?’ He said, ‘Why not.’ When he said, ‘why not,’ he gave me the keys to the car. Here we go again,” Fentanes said.

In 2013, Fentanes and his son took a six-day trip to North Cascades National Park and Hartselle Mountain Hikers was born.

“It’s amazing to see everywhere they have been,” Elizabeth Fentanes said. “But, every time they leave, I do worry. You have to be so careful, even just walking. You have to focus a lot on your walk.”

Fentanes takes that preparation and training seriously. Getting ready for a climb requires months of preparation. Each week, Fentanes trains three to four days, spending most of his time at Hurricane Creek Park, between Vinemont and Cullman, where he practices climbing rocks and navigating trails.

“When I train, I have a specific plan in what I’m working on, whether it is cardio, resistance or stamina. I use Hurricane Creek for 80% of my training. The other 20% I spend at Cheaha State Park, the Walls of Jericho, Bankhead National Forest and the Sipsey Wilderness,” Fentanes said.

Along with the physical training, Fentanes trains mentally. He spends hours upon hours reading books, maps and weather patterns and watching YouTube videos.

“Victor studies a lot. He wants to be prepared for anything,” Elizabeth Fentanes said.

“I do want to be prepared, but no matter how much I plan, Mother Nature may say something different,” Fentanes said. “If Mother Nature says something different, we turn around. My main goal on the trip is that everyone comes back home safely.”

At least twice, Mother Nature has interfered with Fentanes’ plans.

In 2021, a wildfire ended the Hartselle Mountain Hikers’ climb in Washington on the second day of the trip. And in 2022, while on the final leg of the climb, weather prohibited the group from reaching the summit.

“My son and friend were happy about the experience, but I was so frustrated. I had been planning that trip for a whole year. My wife said, ‘If you are going to be grumpy for the rest of the year, go try again.’ That’s the OK I needed. I went back and climbed Forbidden Peak. When I returned from that trip, I said, ‘Now I can rest. My soul is satisfied,’” Fentanes said.

Other standout climbing moments for Fentanes include hearing the ice cracking in a glacier and climbing Mount Terror in Idaho with Spencer Dawes. Last September, the 25-year-old Dawes, of Athens, died in a rappelling accident.

“Our trip to Mount Terror was one of the most impressive, magical trips in my whole career. It was fantastic,” Fentanes said. “It makes me so sad that Spencer is gone. It is a reminder about our fragile nature.”

Fentanes plans on climbing as long as he is physically able.

“Every December, my son typically asks me, ‘Dad, are we going to make a trip to the mountains this year.’ And I think, OK, here we go again. Every time I get so excited,” Fentanes said.

To learn more about the Hartselle Mountain Hikers or see videos and images from past climbs, visit Instagram.com/hartsellemountainhikers.