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The Alpinist 

by Dan Egan


John Roskelley, a man who last year at the age of 53 ran the 7.5-mile Bloomsday course in a time of 47:50, doesn't do lunch. He hates wasting time. He's also not especially fond of slackers, hacks, ugly billboards, smoking at the fairgrounds or dangerous dogs. But what really chafes him, more than anything, is the thought of leaving a job undone.


In addition to his job as Spokane County Commissioner, Roskelley is widely regarded as the leading American mountaineer of his generation. Until recently, he had done about everything one person can do in the sport, with one notable exception -- climb Mount Everest. This looming blank on his resume has eaten at him for over two decades like one big 29,035-foot unfinished job.


Even though Roskelley has climbed more difficult and technical peaks -- K2, for example, and without oxygen -- something always seemed to keep him from his goal of summitting Everest. Massive avalanches stopped him in 1981; a potentially fatal pulmonary edema struck him in 1983; frostbite cost him the summit and a couple toe tips in 1984; and monsoon-season snows pounded him in 1993.


Flash-forward 22 years. On his fifth attempt, John Roskelley finds himself 200 yards from Everest's peak, ready to finish the job. But at 29,000 feet, where the thin air contains just one-third as much oxygen than at sea level, he walks at a pace that requires him to take three breaths (of bottled oxygen) for every single uphill step. With him is his 20-year-old son, Jess, who was not yet born when the elder Roskelley first attempted Everest. Now, within thirty feet of the summit, amid howling winds, blowing snow and a temperature of 20 degrees below zero, he sees the brightly colored Tibetan prayer flags that mark the summit's peak, and he knows he will make it. John waits for Jess and together they walk the last 20 feet to the summit. At 7:30 am (Nepal time) on May 21, Jess Roskelley becomes the youngest American to climb Mount Everest. As for John, he can finally lay his nagging personal demon to rest.


Standing on the apex of the planet, atop the mountain the Tibetans call Quolomangma ("goddess mother of the world"), he feels as if the weight of the world has been lifted from his shoulders. Now it lies entirely below his feet.


The relief and emotional impact of finally conquering the mountain was profound. "It was hitting both of us as we approached the summit," says Roskelley. "I thought, 'this is the greatest feeling, to be at this place with Jess and having all this pressure off." In his journal, John elaborated: "I didn't fight back the tears. There was a lot of stress built up inside me that seemed to want to climb out right there. It was the first time I had ever cried on the summit of a peak. And Jess cried with me."





Generations on Everest -- The Roskelleys' expedition was called "Generations on Everest" because of the age span of the four team members covered three generations of climbers. Theirs was just one of the record 40 separate expeditions which flocked to climb Everest this spring during the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay's historic first ascent in 1953. The other two team members were Seattle attorney Jim Wickwire, age 63, who shares the title of first American to climb K2 in 1978 with Roskelley, and Dick Bass, a 73-year-old Dallas businessman and Utah ski resort owner. Despite his bad back, Bass was hoping to regain his title as the oldest person to climb Everest, a title he first achieved in 1985 at the age of 55.





Path to the Summit -- To understand the depth of Roskelley's accomplishment (and relief), consider the mental and physical path he took to get to the top of the world. Six months before the expedition, the original leader of the team, Ed Hommer, an accomplished climber and double amputee, was killed when he was hit by a falling rock while training on a popular route on Mount Rainier. He was hoping to become the first double amputee to climb Everest, and for that reason had generated sponsorships to pay for the trip.


Wickwire, who was close to Hommer and was with him when he died on Rainier last September, considered canceling the trip. In addition to losing his friend and expedition leader, Wickwire faced the problem of lost funding, since the focus of the sponsorship had died.


Roskelley, who was trekking in Bhutan at the time, said it was a huge blow. "In one fell swoop. Boom. There's no leadership and there's no funding."


One month later, Wickwire reconsidered. "I started to think, if this can happen to Ed Hommer on the easiest route on Rainier, where thousands of people have gone up and no one has ever been hit in the head and killed by a rock -- if that can happen, then what am I worried about? I mean, your doctor can tell you tomorrow that you've got six months to live." Wickwire and Roskelley both agreed to bite the financial bullet and make the climb as a tribute to Hommer.


If the saying about one door closing leading to another door opening is true, then Ed Hommer's death opened the door for Jess Roskelley to join the expedition. Jess, a University of Montana undergrad and an experienced mountain guide with 35 ascents on Mount Rainier, had long been wanting to climb Everest. Now, the chance to do so with his father was too good to pass up. Next, Wickwire talked Dick Bass into going. The team was set.


For Roskelley, the decision to allow his son to climb Everest with him was not easy. The pressure of putting his son on a mountain that has claimed 175 lives over the years and whose slopes are still scattered with 120 frozen bodies weighed heavily on the elder Roskelley. "You want to give your kids opportunities, but let's face it -- I'm sticking him in harm's way. There's no question that he wants to be there, but on the other hand, it's difficult as a father to say, "Let's go ahead and stick you where people die all the time. We're stepping over bodies all the way up. I'm giving him this opportunity that could kill him. That's pressure."


Roskelley wrote a powerful account of the famously tragic 1976 Nanda Devi Expedition in which Willi Unsoeld's young daughter, Devi, who was named after the mountain, died from acute abdominal distress at 24,000 feet. "I have been on an expedition where a father and daughter were on Nanda Devi and the daughter died. I questioned that back in 1976 -- "Should a father and daughter have been in that position?" -- and here I was doing the same thing. I know that if Jess would have been killed or injured, I would have been criticized heavily throughout the mountaineering community, vilified in the press and gotten no votes if I even ran for re-election. You take your chances of being a hero or a goat -- especially in my position, in a very public position."


Another concern for Roskelley was financing the trip, which he says cost him about $50,000 out of his own pocket. Then there was the matter of making arrangements for a two-month leave of absence from his job, as well as from his family and their 40-acre farm.





To the Mountain -- The group wasn't on the mountain long before they experienced complications. Jess, who'd had three wisdom teeth removed in January, had battled an infection in his jaw through the spring for which he was taking massive amounts of antibiotics. By mid-April, at 19,000 feet, he'd stopped the antibiotics, and his infection just exploded, causing him to spit up pus and endure stabbing pain in his neck. He descended to the 17,000-foot base camp and headed back to Katmandu for treatment. After paying $2,800 under the table to get back into the country, Jess finally made it back to join the team.


Dick Bass injured his back while crawling into his tent and was slowed to half the speed of his teammates. Wickwire, who had lost part of a lung in a K2 climb, contracted a sinus infection and was having difficulty acclimatizing. He made it as far as the North Col, a ridge at 23,000 feet, before turning back. By mid-May, both Wickwire and Bass had abandoned the climb and returned to the United States. The Roskelleys continued on, along with two Sherpas. The weather worsened, with tent-shredding winds at up to 100 miles per hour. While most teams had descended to advanced base camp, the Roskelleys stuck it out at the North Col for six windy days. "The North Col was devastated," says Roskelley. "Almost everybody got damaged. Over a hundred tents were completely destroyed throughout all the camps on the mountain."


Meanwhile, the longer they're on the mountain, the more expensive the trip becomes and the worse their health becomes. Finally, on May 29, twelve days after their projected summit date, the weather showed signs of improvement. After a couple hours of sleep they get up, have a midnight breakfast of instant oatmeal, and start climbing early to beat the large Chinese team to the ropes and avoid a bottleneck. Climbing in the dark, they make the final 1,835-foot vertical push to the summit, coming upon two bodies along the way. The first body is laying in a fetal position, as if in sleep. "At first I thought he was bivouacked there," writes Roskelley in his dispatch, "but then after shining my head lamp to his face, I realized he was dead, frozen in place, his hands still clutching an old oxygen bottle."


Stepping over the man's fluorescent green boots, with crampons still attached, they finish their final push to the summit. "They call him the Caveman," Roskelley later says. "I think he's the Indian who died in '99."





A High-Spirited Lad -- Roskelley's boyhood was filled with hunting and fishing trips with his dad, Fenton Roskelley, the longtime outdoors editor and writer for the Spokesman-Review. John started climbing at age 16 when his dad signed him up with the Spokane Mountaineers. He was a sophomore at Shadle Park High at the time, where he also was a wrestler. That same year, he was dubbed Spokane's "most promising young climber."


From that point on, his wrestling days were over. He remembers first climbing Mount Rainier wearing blue jeans, insulated cotton underwear and crampons that he wore on the side of his feet because of the slick rubber boots he had on. Despite all that, he had no trouble with the climb. His only problem was impatience. "I was short on brains and long on dreams," Roskelley says of his early climbing days. His engine simply ran at a higher idle than the other climbers.


One of Roskelley's earliest influences and mentors was Joe Collins, an instructor for the Mountaineers. Collins remembers being impressed when he first met Roskelley in 1965. "He was a very high-spirited lad, and you could see that he was going to get somewhere. It wasn't long before the student was telling the teacher what to do."


Collins says the two words that best describe the young Roskelley are "desire" and "determination." He gives a little laugh and recalls a hunting story to make his point. "We went and shot some ducks one time, and it was colder than hell, and so the dogs we had wouldn't go out and get the ducks after we shot 'em. So John just tore his clothes off, went naked into the water, and retrieves the ducks." Collins, still sounding impressed with the 20-year-old's nerve, adds, "I have the picture of him naked with the duck to prove it."


Climbing was in Roskelley's blood; he became obsessed with the sport. Along with his pal Chris Kopczynski, whom he met through the Mountaineers, he continued to pursue new and more difficult routes in the Cascades, the Canadian Rockies, the Alaskan Range, the Pamirs and eventually the Himalayas. Kopczynski was just the tenth person in the history of climbing to complete the Seven Summits (i.e., climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). Roskelley was known for his technical skills and his devotion to alpine-style climbing.


"At one time, he was clearly the best Himalayan climber this country ever produced," says Wickwire from his Seattle home. "That was over a 20-year period from the early '70s well into the '90s. John always sought the new route, the most difficult route." Wickwire says he's as good as there is. "He was always a much better technical climber than I was. We really complimented one another well. I can think of no better companion on a mountain than John Roskelley."





Because it is there -- The whys of climbing are debatable. Some see climbers as adventurers and explorers, while others regard them as selfish egoists taking unnecessary risks.


In 1983, Broadway presented Patrick Meyers' play K2, about two mountain climbers stuck on a high-altitude ice ledge. Eventually, only one of them survives. K2 prompted theater critic Brendan Gill of The New Yorker to let loose on those who choose to put their lives at risk in the mountains. "I have no use for mountain climbers," he wrote. "I think of them as sexually immature weirdos undergoing ordeals intrinsically of little greater merit than the ordeal of running barefoot over a hot bed of coals. To scale a mountain 'because it is there' is, in principle, no more laudable than eating a lollipop because it's there."





From Pitons to Politics -- While "sexually immature weirdos" are often elected to public office, outspoken environmentalists like Roskelley are not. Roskelley, however, is a political anomaly. His reputation is that of a blunt, stubborn, uncompromising straight-talker who feels compelled to say exactly what he thinks.


"The guy is the square peg in the round hole of politics," says Chris Marr, local businessman and Roskelley's campaign chairman. "Roskelley absolutely refuses to be a politician. He refuses to keep his head down and skirt around issues. That's one thing that endears you to Roskelley, even though you don't always agree with him."


Bill Williams has worked closely with Roskelley on the Convention Center task force. Williams is chairman of Telect, and even though business people and environmentalists are traditionally in opposition, Williams maintains a respect for Roskelley. "He's a logical thinker," says Williams. "He's a very honest and straightforward person. I'm not sure he's what you'd call a typical politician. We have had our differences, no doubt about. Any time we disagreed, I still respected him very much. As far as the Convention Center expansion, in my opinion, he's the only one of the three commissioners who's logically thought through the process."


When Roskelley ran for county commissioner in 2000, he handily defeated the Democratic primary opponent and the Republican general election opponent, both of whom were backed by development and real estate interests -- groups he has warred with in the past. "When you look at how resoundingly he was elected, I think it shows that he really appeals across party lines and ideological points of view to people who are just looking for some genuineness in elected officials," says Marr.


Democrats have made occasional attempts to persuade Roskelley to run for the 5th District congressional seat, but he says he's not interested. He hates the idea of campaigning every two years and feels he can effect more change as county commissioner. "We have more say in what goes on in the local community than any elected official has in their capacity at either the federal or state level," Roskelley remarks. Besides, he says, "I have a hard time asking for money."





A Less Sacred Place -- Even though Roskelley was happy with reaching Everest's summit, he was saddened to see the crowds of people on the mountain. Clearly, Everest has become too crowded and commercialized. Sadly, it has become a commodity to be purchased for anyone who's got $64,000 and strong lungs.


This season alone saw 239 people make the summit, with 109 people summitting on a single day (May 22) alone. Base camp has become a bustling community full of amenities. If you get there early, you can actually get a cold Budweiser at the Base Camp Bar, which sold out its entire stock of alcohol the first night.


"I really am disappointed in how many people there are on the mountain," Roskelley says. "When I first went there in 1981, we had the entire east face to ourselves. As soon as it became a money-maker, I think it's destroyed the ambience and sacredness of the peak."


Back in the comfort of Roskelley's Spokane County Courthouse office, there are pictures of Himalayan peaks on the wall and a couple of old wood-bound Tibetan books on the shelf. They're reminders of a place he loves. He appears restless, and says he has a hearing about a dangerous dog that he needs to attend. When asked to compare mountain climbing and politics, he gives it a lot of thought. Finally he says, "They're both jobs."





Publication date: 08/21/03

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