PLEASANTON -- Near the end of summer, Kip Van Horn was about to turn 10. Before he could begin the countdown to his birthday or going back to school; Kip had his eyes on the sky, a mission to accomplish first.
While others his age would be getting excited to count their age on all fingers, Kip was counting his goals in feet -- 14,162 of them to be exact.
Kip, a fourth-grader at Vintage Hills Elementary School in Pleasanton, on July 29 became one of the youngest people in recent memory to climb Mount Shasta, the second-largest mountain in the Cascade Range, falling short of Mount Rainier's 14,411-foot peak elevation by only 249 feet.
While 9 is already considered young for a budding mountaineer, this was also not Kip's first time hitting the Shasta trail, according to his father and climbing partner Kim Van Horn. Kip first tackled Mount Shasta at the age of 6, and would do so four more times before reaching its peak three years later.
"We wanted to progress him into it," Van Horn said of Kip's first Shasta climb in 2009. "We didn't want to put him through vigorous training."
Given how early Kip was exposed to the mountaineering lifestyle, one could say that this progression began in his infancy. Born into a family of outdoor enthusiasts, one of Kip's earliest memories involves being nestled inside a backpack as his father hiked Fremont's Mission Peak. Kip acknowledges, though, that he was so young at the time that this memory may be based only in photographs.
"I took him in my backpack to the cables at Half Dome," Van Horn remembers. "We slept at the base with him roped into the pack."
Van Horn, who himself has summited Mount Shasta 26 times since 1989, says that in the wake of exposing his son to the outdoors from infancy, he first saw a "gift" in Kip when he was only 5.
"We took him up Sawtooth Peak in Sequoia National Park, and the second his feet hit the ground he took off and didn't stop," Van Horn said -- a momentum that snowballed into Kip's Shasta ventures.
"His first time was about getting used to the altitude, balance and just being in the elements," Van Horn said. "The next time," he said grinning, "he literally ran up the mountain for an hour-and-a-half."
A catalyst to Kip's hunger for the summit came later that year, when he got to meet experienced climber and former Mount Shasta Forest Ranger Dan Towner, who has summited Shasta 259 times to date. Towner posed for a photo with Kip, giving him a physical reminder of an encounter that helped inspire Kip to reach for the top.
Kip would try twice more before the final venture, nearly getting spooked out of the goal over Father's Day Weekend in 2011. Kip was 8 and had made it just above the Red Banks, about 12,800 feet in elevation on the steepest side of the trail, when a whiteout took hold of the Van Horns' camp and forced them to abandon their fourth attempt.
"We were in the middle of the heart (about 12,800 feet in elevation) when it got really, really windy, and we heard about a guy who got blown down the mountain," Kip remembers. "Our tent blew down the mountain, too."
Missing that 2011 target only fueled Kip's hunger, driving him back to the mountain in late July of this year, at the tail-end of the Shasta climbing season.
The Van Horns first hiked to Lake Helen, the base camp where they had stayed overnight four times before, and set up camp at 10,400 feet. The two embarked on their fifth attempt just after 5 the next morning and reached the summit by 10:30 a.m., completing the climb in five hours and 20 minutes.
While the average person would be in awe of the young boy's accomplishment, even the most seasoned mountaineers and forest service experts are quick to acknowledge its rarity.
"We don't see a lot of young kids on Shasta and we definitely don't see a lot of 9-year-olds," said Kai Allen, Recreation Program Manager for the U.S. Forest Service at Mount Shasta. "It is definitely unusual to see a 9-year-old summit the mountain."
About 10,000 people attempt to summit Mount Shasta annually, with about a 50 percent success rate, Allen said. And of those approximately 5,000 climbers, only a handful of them are younger than 18.
While conquering the summit may seem like the realization of the ultimate goal, the Van Horns are far from being done with Shasta, they say.
"The goal for next year is to hike the north side, the Hotlum Bolam route," Van Horn said. "There's a progression in learning. But in order to keep growing, Kip has to enjoy it as much as he has been."
And judging by the glow on Kip's face as he beams at the ice ax in his hands, the young mountaineer has thousands upon thousands of feet left to conquer.
Contact Erin Ivie at 925-847-2122. Follow her at Twitter.com/erin_ivie.