When she was just 15, Danielle Fisher (above) discovered her alpine addiction on Mount Rainier.
That trip wasn’t the first climb for Fisher. She ascended Mount Baker a few weeks before, and she hated it.
“I was tagging along with my dad,” she says. “He liked being in the mountains, and so did I.” But the climb was scary and challenging. At one point Danielle lost her footing and fell, posing a threat to the team to which she was roped.
A couple of weeks later, she went along on an ascent of Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in the state and a popular mountain for beginners. “It was harder,” she says. “I didn’t enjoy it at all.” Still, when her father offered to turn around, she refused.
“Two weeks later, we did Mount Rainier,” says Jerome Fisher. To their surprise, “that’s when it clicked.” Even though Danielle had injured her leg, was carrying more weight in her pack, and had to spend the night on the mountain, Rainier did the trick. Neither of the Fishers could account for the change.
Last summer, the slender 20-year-old from rural Bow, Washington, became the youngest person in the world to summit the highest mountains on all seven continents.
Since Danielle was a baby, her parents, Jerome, a former Washington State University student, and Karen (’75 Ag.), would take her and her sister, Bobbi (’05 Civ. Engr.), on outdoor trips, day hikes, and horse camping. The Cascades were familiar territory for the Fishers, who could see Mount Baker from their back yard.
After the Rainier climb six years ago, Danielle was eager for whatever the Cascades could offer. That summer, between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, she summited 12 mountains.
When Fisher took on Mount Baker again during her second summer of climbing, she tackled the north ridge, a more technical climb than her previous one. Her guide was Christine Boskott of Mountain Madness, one of the leading woman alpinists in America. “She is a strong and driven climber,” says Boskott of her young client, adding that Fisher was a good team member who took the initiative to help another climber out of a jam.
That strength showed again in her uncomplicated ascent of Everest last summer. Fisher was one of the few on her team to reach the top. “Danielle . . . seems genetically designed for high altitude, and nothing slows her down,” notes Tony Van Marken, a fellow climber who struggled to follow her up the mountain.
“She has the gift to go climb high,” says her father. Jerome Fisher realized that a few years ago on a peak in South America. Though he and Danielle at first lagged behind the other climbers, having stopped for about an hour to warm Danielle’s feet and ward off the early stages of frostbite, she caught up to and passed everyone who had gone ahead, showing no effect from the thin air.
Fisher asked his daughter if she would like to try climbing the Seven Summits–the highest points on each continent—-since she had a shot at being the youngest person to reach all seven peaks. The record holder at the time was a 23-year-old man, and the youngest woman to have climbed all seven was 33.
“I said yes,” says Fisher. “At that point, I figured I had five years to do it.”
She did it in two, joining the ranks in 2005 of an elite fellowship of world-famous climbers who got their start on Washington’s peaks—-climbers like Ed Viesturs, known around the world for his high-altitude abilities.
Viesturs first got hooked back in the 1970s on the pre-eruption Mount St. Helens. The climb’s stunning views and technical demands were thrilling enough to send the raw college freshman from Illinois back for more.
If you look around the world for alpinists, you’ll find one of the highest concentrations right here in Washington. Whether they’re born here like Fisher or drawn to the state like Viesturs, they all develop their mountain habits and hone their skills on the sharp teeth of the Cascades.
One of the most widely read adventure stories of recent history, Into Thin Air, the account of a deadly season on Mt. Everest, was written by Jon Krakauer, who lives in Seattle. Many of the book’s characters were Washington based, including a member of Krakauer’s climbing team and a guide on another team. Viesturs was there, too.
Then consider Jim Whittaker of Seattle, who in 1963 was the first American to climb to the summit of Everest, and his brother, Lou, founder of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.
Washington was also home to writer and teacher Willi Unsoeld, one of the most famous of American climbers of the 1960s and 70s.
A mountain legacy
So why is there such a Washington presence on the world’s highest and most dangerous peaks? Simply put, “Washington breeds climbers,” says Jerome Fisher.
August Valentine Kautz, a lieutenant stationed at Fort Steilacoom, tried to climb Rainier in the summer of 1857. The German-born soldier prepared himself by reading the accounts of European alpinists who had climbed Mont Blanc. He and a few soldiers who volunteered for the expedition took along shoes with nails pushed through the soles for the ice-covered portion of the climb of the highest peak of the Cascades. The group made it across a glacier and to a high point, but could see that it was still further to the top. As it was freezing cold and night was imminent, they decided to turn and head for camp, considering their near-summit a success.
While the earliest explorers extolled the stunning views of all the mountains in the range, Rainier remained an obsession. Thirteen years after that first attempt, General Hazard Stevens, son of the first governor of Washington Territory, and his acquaintance, P.B. Van Trump, reached the summit. According to Stevens’s account, published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, they were helped by a farmer named James Longmire and an Indian named Sluiskin.
Stevens and Van Trump reached the top of Rainier on August 17, 1870. It was after 5 p.m., and a storm was blowing in. They had to spend the night on the glacier. What saved them was a steam vent that exhaled warm sulfur breaths into a snow cavern. There they huddled through the night and then raced back to camp during a break in the weather the next morning. They celebrated their return with hot coffee and morsels of marmot, the only creature their Indian guide had managed to trap.
The first Rainier fatality came in July 1897, when Edgar McClure, a professor at the University of Oregon, was on an expedition to measure the exact height of the mountain. Standing on a precarious ledge, a large barometer strapped to his back, he turned to his companions and said, “Don’t come down here; it is too steep.” Those were his last words, according to an article published that year in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, before he lost his balance and fell into a deep ravine.
Still, the popularity of the 14,400-foot mountain grew. A 1911 article in the Chicago Evening Post observed, “The public is just beginning to realize that one of the wonderlands of the world is within the confines of Mount Rainier National Park.” The story noted that in 1906 the park had only 1,786 patrons, but in 1911 was expecting 12,000. Today the park sees about two million visitors annually, about 11,000 of whom try to climb the mountain. Usually only half succeed.
Nowadays, the summer crowds at Rainier tend to drive away the most serious climbers. Consider John Roskelley ’71, who first climbed Rainier when he was a teen. His father was the Outdoors editor at the Spokesman-Review and often brought home books about climbing to review. Roskelley devoured the books and was eager to have his own adventures. So his father signed him up with the Mountaineer club in Spokane. He remembers the day they tackled Rainier. The weather was poor in the morning, and his equipment included his old Boy Scout pack, his dad’s Army sleeping bag, jeans, and a pair of rubber boots. “It took me a few years before I got some decent equipment.”
didn’t let a little thing like college get in the way of his mountaineering. His first weekend at WSU, he stayed on campus to study for a test, which he then flunked. “When I got that F, I said to myself, either I’m not supposed to be here over the weekend, or I’m not supposed to be here at all.” From then on, as soon as his classes were over, Roskelley and his climbing buddy, Chris Kopczynski ’71, would head for the mountains. “The whole Northwest was our playground,” he says.
Today, Roskelley makes climbs around the world. In 2003, he climbed Everest with his 20-year-old son, Jess, who set the record as the youngest American to summit the mountain. (WSM, winter 2003-04) And when he’s home, Roskelley climbs everywhere but Rainier. It’s the perfect situation. Thanks to the mountain’s popularity, “everyone neglects the other peaks,” he says.
There’s Mount Baker, all glaciers and views, the massive Mount Adams to the south, and the pyramid-topped Mount Shuksan to the north. Out toward the coast through old-growth forest rest Mount Olympus and the steep slopes of Mount Deception.
The state is covered with mountains and ranges, from the Olympics, east to the Cascades, north to the Selkirks, and south to the Blues. Hiking, climbing, bouldering, snow camping, rock scrambling, back country skiing, or just walking in the woods—-there are dozens of parks and thousands of acres to do all of these things in Washington.
“You can spend your whole life here and be happy,” says Viesturs.
Drawn to the peaks
Growing up in Illinois, Ed Viesturs could only read about mountain climbing, and he developed quite an appetite for the adventure tales. Then one day during his senior year of high school, a friend’s mother mentioned someone at college in Washington, and “a light bulb went off,” he says. He enrolled at the University of Washington sight unseen. He saw campus for first time on the fall day in 1977 when his parents dropped him off. It was a step into the unknown. But if he ever needed reminding of why he chose the school, he had only to look out his dorm window to see Mount Rainier. “It was like my Everest,” he says.
Viesturs didn’t know anyone in Seattle. But he was quick to find the sporting goods stores. He’d pore over their reader boards, hunting for announcements from people looking for climbing partners or carpools. He’d call the numbers and say, “Hey I don’t know much about climbing, but I’d like to learn. And I hope you have a car.”
He experienced his first big climb that fall: Mount St. Helens, one of the most popular peaks in the Cascades prior to its 1980 eruption. Its gentle slopes and 9,000-foot stature made it an easy target, but it locked Viesturs into climbing for good.
“To have read about all these mountaineering expeditions and not to have done one was so frustrating,” he says. The glaciated St. Helens, which required crampons and ropes, was everything he had hoped. “When I got to the summit, I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve been seeking.'”
After St. Helens, Viesturs couldn’t wait to climb Rainier. So in the winter of 1978, he and some friends decided to avoid the warm-weather crowds and made several attempts at the mountain, finally succeeding. The park rangers advised them to be prepared, but in a manner that has served Viesturs throughout his climbing career, the group was willing to turn around when things weren’t going well. “I decided long ago that this has to be fun, but I want it to be safe,” says Viesturs. “I do not want to die on a climb.
“The art of mountaineering is managing the risk,” says the climber, who has walked in the footsteps of friends who had died on a climb a few days earlier. “You are either allowed to go up, or the mountain just says, ‘Uh, uh, you’ve got to go home.'”
What makes mountaineering interesting for him is the uncertainty. “If you knew you’d get to the summit, why bother?” he says. What brings him the most respect from other climbers is his willingness to turn around, even with the summit in sight.
The mountains of Washington are the perfect training ground for mountaineers, says Viesturs. “They’re glaciated, they’re steep. The weather sucks.”
“Climbing here makes you tough, strong, and capable,” he says. “You can take that experience all over the world. You are used to the hardship.”
After college, Viesturs enrolled at WSU, following through on his plan to become a veterinarian. The challenge of the program and the distance from the mountains really ate into his climbing time. “I was so bummed,” he says. He consoled himself by spending summers as a guide on Rainier. At the time, he didn’t have an inkling of becoming a professional climber. He finished vet school—-and made his first Everest expedition—-in 1987 and joined a practice, taking time off to go on climbs. But that arrangement didn’t last beyond 1989. He had to choose between climbing and a veterinary career. Climbing, of course, won. Still, Viesturs manages to use his training in biology, medicine, and physiology when he’s in the mountains, sometimes serving as medic for his team.
Viesturs attracts climbers and fans who are more interested in his accomplishments and his lungs than his durable good looks and affable personality. He is one of those rare climbers with both the mental acuity to safely and efficiently climb a mountain and a natural ability to thrive at high altitudes. In 1997 pulmonary experts looked at Viesturs and determined he had a greater-than-normal lung capacity, above-average endurance, and the ability to manage on low oxygen. Simply put, “at high altitude, I’m not as debilitated as most people,” he says.
In 1996, the season of the events described in Into Thin Air, he came to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen in pursuit of his goal to scale all 14 of the world’s peaks higher than 8,000 meters. He became a hero on that expedition, helping to save lives on the mountain, and gaining the summit as he had hoped.
Last May, completing a successful assault on Annapurna, he climbed into the record books as the first American to summit all 14 peaks without the aid of oxygen.
Today Viesturs and his wife, Paula, live with their two children in the Seattle area, just a quick drive from the mountains. Twice every summer the elite climber is the star attraction in a guided climb up Rainier, an exercise he modestly calls “a good workout.” It’s one he’s done nearly 200 times.
At home in the hills
Since her first difficult climb of Rainier, Danielle Fisher has quickly become a seasoned mountaineer. In fact, she’s somewhat embarrassed to tell people just how quickly. In January 2003, she and her father climbed Aconcaqua, the highest peak in South America. That summer, while her friends were headed for the beach to celebrate the end of high school, Fisher boarded a plane bound for Africa and Mount Kilimanjaro. She climbed that mountain, got on the next plane to Russia, and in the same month ascended Elbrus. In January 2004, she climbed Kosciusko in Australia, and that spring went on to Mount McKinley. The following January, she climbed Vinson in Antarctica, and in June 2005, with a team from Seattle-based Alpine Ascents, topped off the seven summits with Everest.
It wasn’t the best season for the world’s highest mountain. In 2005 there were only three days when climbers could even attempt to summit Everest. Part of it was a waiting game: weeks of waiting for a break in the weather, waiting for her teammates, and waiting for her body to adjust to the altitude. Fisher found she was better at it than many of her fellow climbers. In fact, most of her 12 teammates didn’t make it above Camp Two, the second of four stations on the way up the mountain. Some left because they were scared. Some were physically unable to continue because their bodies wouldn’t function in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere. “And then there were people who just lost the heart to go further,” she says.
“I was never going to lose heart and turn around,” says Fisher. “I thought, ‘I
f I’m sick and throwing up, I’ll turn around, but not right now.'”
But then she got to the South Summit and realized she had the energy to make it to the top and back. “I started crying,” she says. She cried, as she trudged up the steep glacier, all the way to the top, where she sat down, buried some pictures for a teammate who couldn’t do the climb, said a prayer, took a picture, and worked with a Sherpa to change her oxygen bottle. Yes, her body was surviving the altitude, but “It was still incredibly hard for me,” she says.
There was some excitement at her setting new records, bringing TV interviews and newspaper articles, but Fisher went into the limelight with reluctance. “It’s not about the record for me, really,” she says. “I got to see the world and make some of my best friends.”
Today Fisher, like Viesturs and Roskelley before her, lives in two worlds. In Pullman, she’s a student majoring in materials science and planning for a career. None of her college friends climb, and none of her climbing friends come here to visit. And most who see her at WSU don’t know about her other life, the one she lives in the record books and on the world’s highest peaks.
Still, her heart often strays to places like the Himalayas. She still wears the orange prayer strings placed around her neck by the lamas she has met on her journeys.
“They’re for protection,” she says, as she untangles them from the silver cross she also wears. “You don’t take them off while you’re climbing. You’re supposed to wear them until they fall off.” She has already planned her summer 2006 trip to Pakistan to climb Gasherbrum 1 and Gasherbrum 2, the 11th- and 13th-highest peaks in the world.
And now that she can climb anywhere, is she ready to quit the Cascades?
“Never,” says Fisher. “That’s where I think you can find the best climbing in the world. There’s rock, there’s ice, there’s mountaineering. It’s clean. And it’s beautiful.
“You just don’t get that in many places in the world,” she says. “And that’s my back yard.”