“The goal you set for yourself is to stay the course . . . to stay focused. At any time you get tired of the glare off the snow, the dust, the miles of glacial terrain, the travel, the lack of sleep, the altitude. The altitude just takes a huge toll on you.”
After four failed attempts, the last one 10 years ago, John Roskelley must have wondered if he’d ever get another chance to conquer 29,035-foot Mount Everest. Or even if he wanted to.
Never underestimate Roskelley’s resolve.
The Spokane County commissioner has been climbing since 1965. For years he was among the world’s most accomplished mountaineers. In 1981 he made his first assault on Everest’s east side, via the unclimbed Kangchung face. He was 33.
“We didn’t get very far,” he said in mid-June from his downtown office.
That was the beginning of the Everest saga. In 1983, John reached 26,000 feet on the West Ridge before being forced down with pulmonary edema. A year later, while climbing with a strong group of guides from Mount Rainier, it was the potential for severe frostbite at 28,000 feet on the North Face route that ended the attempt. John doesn’t regret the decision to turn back. He still has all his fingers and toes. Phil Ershler, a team member, who was using bottled oxygen, reached the summit.
Roskelley continued to climb, but not Everest, not until 1993 with Seattle’s Jim Wickwire. High winds on the North Col covered their ropes with snow.
“We never caught a break in the weather,” Roskelley said.
Maybe it would be his final climb on the world’s highest mountain?
“I could have said that in 1993. I always believe that there’s something left, if you have a strong desire to go after it.”
He demonstrated that last spring, when he summited Everest’s North Ridge May 21.
Roskelley has experienced tougher, more technical challenges on smaller peaks over 26,000 feet. He’s stood atop Gaurishankar and Makalu in Nepal, and Uli Biaho and Trango Tower in Pakistan. For 15 years Everest hopefuls have considered the northeast route on the North Col—Roskelley’s May route—the best alternative to the preferred South Col route from Nepal.
“There’s a lot of luck with these expeditions”—and variables, the 1971 Washington State University graduate in geology said. The route. Whether sherpas accompany climbers above advanced camp. And whether climbers rely on bottled oxygen, which Roskelley hadn’t on Everest until this time.
The climb was billed as “Generations on Everest.” Dick Bass, 73, of Snowbird, Utah, was attempting to become the oldest man to summit. Wickwire was 62, Roskelley 54, and his son, Jess, 20. They climbed with five Sherpas.
Ed Homer of Minneapolis, who had the original permit, never got the chance. He was struck and killed by a falling rock on Mount Rainier in September 2002. Shortly after learning of the unfortunate accident, Roskelley called Wickwire. “I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’d like to keep the [climbing] permit and take Jess along.”
Jess Roskelley has followed in his father’s pitons. Despite his youth, the University of Montana student and Mount Rainier guide had reached the 14,410-foot summit of Rainier 35 times.
“I always treated [Jess] as a teammate,” Roskelley said, referring to climbs they’ve made together. That was the case on Everest as well. “When he had comments to make about the route or team, Jim, Dick, and I took his comments seriously.”
He’d watched his son wrestle and compete in cross-country at Mount Spokane High School. The pair also raced mountain bikes together. “I knew Jess would be a solid partner and stick with it.”
In January he had three wisdom teeth extracted. By the time he reached base camp in early April, his jaw had become infected. He left the team, was taken by jeep through Tibet and into Nepal, found medical help, and was back within five days.
“It was discouraging to leave the team . . . leave the mountain, and go back to ground zero,” he would say. Earlier the Roskelleys spent almost seven weeks above 17,000 feet becoming acclimatized, before moving on to advanced base camp at 21,000 feet. They were encouraged by the forecast for decent weather for the May 16-18 window. About May 13, the Roskelley’s moved to the North Col at 23,000 feet. After one good day of weather, they were forced by fierce winds to hunker down in their tent for days. On May 17, they tried to reach the next camp at 25,700 feet, but were beaten back by more wind.
Conditions on May 18 were perfect, but the Roskelleys, exhausted, decided to rest for the day. Three Sherpas went ahead to set up the camp. The Roskelleys followed the next day, which was windy and cold, but climbable. The previous night, members of an Irish expedition provided a Mexican freeze-dried meal, including chicken, from plastic bags. The Roskelleys had been on the North Col five days and six nights—longer than any of the other climbing parties.
Roskelley tells of the vow he made to himself, not to leave Everest until he got a shot at the summit. When winds gusted up to 80 mph at 25,500 feet, Jess asked his dad if they should put on their down suits and climbing boots in the tent.
“Yes,” he responded. “If the tent takes off with us in it, we’ll have to bail out and be able to survive.”
Roskelley thought it best to stay put the next morning, considering the high winds, but their Sherpas felt it was best to move to the next camp, so they pushed on, reaching the 27,200-foot level at 2 pm. They limited themselves to a single bottle of oxygen to reach the camp. The elusive summit was within reach—1,800 vertical feet above them and a half a mile to the south.
“It doesn’t sound like much,” Roskelley said, “but the distance you have to travel diagonally along the ridge is quite a ways.”
The final assault began at 11 pm, May 20, after tea, Snickers bars, and oatmeal. It was snowing. The wind had picked up a little, but wasn’t bad. The sky was cloudy. The temperature was surprisingly warm, 20 degrees below. On a clear night it could have been 40 degrees below.
Bottled oxygen “really gives you a boost, when you are used to not having it,” Roskelley explained. The climbers would take two or three breaths for each step as they moved diagonally up the first gully. Ahead of them was the highest ridge on earth, with an 8,000-foot vertical drop on the east side and the same on the north.
En route to the ridge they encountered two bodies—grim reminders of the perils climbers face. “Cave Man” was directly under a rock overhang, “laying there like he was asleep.” Believed to be from India, he perished in 1998. They stepped around him. The other body was located below the ridge, just above the “Second Step,” a treacherous area along the northeast route.
The final 1,800 feet, from camp to summit, took a little over seven hours. A series of small rock ramps that switch-backed to the ridge slowed them down.
With the summit about two hours away, the main concern was not knowing what was coming next in the dark. They felt they were moving “too slowly.” This wasn’t the time to make a mistake.
“I knew we would get a good summit shot, or at least one of us would—either Jess or myself. We talked about how great it would be to summit together. But at my age, I didn’t know what my chances were,” the senior Roskelley said.
He was rewarded on his fifth try. Jess on his first.
“Dad we did it,” Jess said, as the two hugged. Both had tears in their eyes, found it difficult to breathe and talk through their facemasks. The emotions had been building up for about half an hour.
“There we were on our knees, trying to keep from getting blown off. When you’re exhausted and weakened by all the work, standing on a table-sized platform makes you feel a bit uneasy,” Roskelley said.
The noted photographer, author of three books, speaker, and environmentalist took photos to document their conquest, and congratulated the two Sherpas with them on top. The view was limited. Clouds obscured everything but the summit cornices.
They remained on the summit only 10 minutes—more than enough time to enjoy what they had achieved. Then their thoughts quickly turned to another challenge—getting off the mountain safely.
To visit John Roskelley’s Instagram page, click here.