Turner Liotta turned 12 on December 27, 2018, which means he has precisely 44 days to climb to the top of Denali and Gannett Peak in Wyoming to become the youngest person ever to tag the highest point in each of the 50 states.
Denali, the highest mountain in Alaska and the United States, is 20,310 feet tall and takes grown men and women about 16 days to climb. That’s if the weather cooperates, which seems unlikely because for Turner to claim the record he’ll have to top out by May 19, almost a month before the prime climbing season on Denali.
The goal, as Turner’s father David Liotta calls their three-and-a-half year project, is coming down to the wire. Can they make it?
More on that in a moment, but first we caught up with David to ask why they’re trying in the first place.
The idea, he says, was all Turner’s. But the timing was significant to David, 43, a real estate broker from Albuquerque New Mexico. When his son first broached the idea of the record back in 2015, the former Ironman triathlete turned climber had just finished a bout of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Three months after my chemo was done my wife and I went up to Colorado and climbed four 14ers to celebrate. When we got back Turner asked, ‘Why didn’t you take me?’ And we just thought well—you’re nine. You’re too young,” David says.
Turner joined them on their next climb, to the top of New Mexico’s 11,305-foot Mount Taylor. And then David happened across a magazine article about Matt Moniz, who was 12 years old in 2010, when Moniz and his father Mike blitzed the high points in 43 days. “I was like, ‘Turner, you gotta look at this,’” David says. “Two weeks later he said, ‘I want to try to break that record.’”
The high points are a mixed bag. Florida’s Britton Hill is just 345 feet above sea level. Delaware’s isn’t even a hill; it’s an azimuth. Some you can drive to, others are day hikes. But 13 are more than 11,000 feet high. Collecting all of them is a serious undertaking.
David and Turner talked about the project, and once David was satisfied that his son was committed, he got behind the project 100 percent. His brush with cancer had given him a renewed appreciation for the importance of family, and the value of time.
“We’re here for a little blip, and it could be snatched away in seconds, and so you have to spend your time very wisely,” David says. His cancer is in remission, but there’s no cure.
The high-points mission, with its long road trips, quiet campfires, and days on the trail offered a chance for what David recognized was the most important thing in his life: Time with family. That it was outdoors, doing something both of them had come to love, was just a bonus.
Father and son started small, racking up some 33,000 miles in David’s overland rig, bagging easier peaks as they built their skills. David’s wife Amy, Turner’s stepmother, joined them for about 20 summits. They called their project Turner4Fifty and shared the adventure on Instagram and Facebook.
“The best are the ones that are a two-day hike, and it’s not very technical and we just go and talk and talk and he learns to be skilled about being outdoors and being resilient,” David says. “The most important thing about all of this is the time we get to spend together.”
Spoken like a true dad, though the record has always been part of the motivation. Since the age of five Turner had been fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records. Every Christmas the latest copy was under the tree, and Turner would spend hours reading about giant balls of twine, body-piercing champions, and other curiosities. Nine-year-old Turner was enthralled with the idea of setting a world record of his own, but now at 12, with 48 summits behind him, the record itself seems less important than the climbs themselves.
“The goal has actually been transcended a little bit,” David says. “It’s not the highlight anymore.”
The Liottas climb conservatively, and David says his son has developed judgment beyond his years. “Usually it’s just the two of us so we’re very careful,” he says. The duo climbed with guides on Mt. Hood (Oregon, 11,239 ft.), Mt. Rainier (Washington, 14,411 ft.), and their most challenging climb so far, Granite Peak (Montana, 12,799 ft.) The summit push on Granite was 27 hours straight and came after a five-day approach hike. “Turner just kept truckin’,” David says proudly. “He’s gained skills and confidence that don’t come from school, or from parents. It’s something that comes from being outdoors and from trusting yourself—you know when he’s hanging on ropes and there’s a thousand foot of nothing below.”
David has learned a thing or too as well. “Turner has taught me a lot of patience. He has taught me that kids are more powerful than you think and we don’t need to be helicopter parents hovering over them 24/7,” he says. “If you give them the space or the opportunity, they will absolutely blow you away.”
He’s watched Turner grow stronger and more resilient but says he’s most proud of the climbing wisdom his son has developed. They’ve turned around on some climbs, including Wyoming’s 13,804-ft Gannett Peak where they pulled the plug two miles from the summit after a 21-mile march. They knew that decision would put the record attempt in serious jeopardy, but climbing together, safely, was far more important.
Turner is prepared for the possibility—now it seems more like a probability—that they’ll have to defer their shared dream. “This is where I think he’s wise beyond his years,” David says. “Turner has already said that if conditions are not good or if it’s going to be dangerous he’ll wait until he’s older.”
The timing for Denali is difficult. The Liottas had planned to attempt the climb last year but couldn’t get a permit because of Turner’s age. That means to get the record they have to summit by May 19 this year—early for Denali, where the regular climbing season is in June. To complicate matters, the mountain has seen record snowfall this winter. Crevasses are likely to be covered, exposed trails more difficult and the avalanche risk off the charts.
For now, they’re in a holding pattern. “We’ll get some more reports and stay in touch with our guides and see what happens,” David says. “You know it’s not a good year to climb it. It’s just not.”
Even if the stars aligned for Denali, they’d still have to bag Gannett too. Nobody’s getting the confetti ready, but the experience has already been a win for both father and son. “The best part is just the time we get to spend with one another. So if we make the goal, fantastic. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter.”
If they don’t climb Denali this year they’ll try again, not next summer but in a few years when Turner is older and stronger. In the meantime, there are other mountains to climb together, David says.
“Whatever happens, we’ll climb forever.”