Book cover of Highest and Hardest

Chris Kopczynski ’71 Const. Mgmt.

Falcon: 2022


He was 16 when he seared “Everest/Eiger” into the handle of his ice axe, articulating his ultimate goals: summit Mount Everest and the North Face of Eiger—the world’s “highest and hardest” peaks.

Chris “Kop” Kopczynski recounts both adventures in his new memoir, which opens with a compelling description of life above 17,000 feet, where the brain numbs, heart rate accelerates, and digestion declines. “We were deep into The Death Zone, yet I’ve never felt more alive,” he writes in the introduction, recalling his Everest ascent. After that, he needed new goals. So he set out to complete the Seven Summits, scaling the tallest peaks on the seven continents—all milestones he reached within the next 10 years.

Reminiscent at times of Jim Whittaker’s 1999 autobiography A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, Kopczynski’s memoir describes the allure of the mountains, human bonds that form while doing the difficult and dangerous, endeavoring to push himself to the limits, and persevering. He mixes personal history and philosophical musings with geography and geology, peppering pages with life lessons, words of wisdom “from the wild,” photos, sketches, and reminders that tragedy lurks on craggy peaks at high altitudes.

His autobiography offers some anecdotes about his Spokane childhood in the 1950s, but largely details his “marriage to the mountains” and numerous worldwide expeditions—from his first look at Mount Verendrye during a family vacation to British Columbia at 15 to climbing on weekends as a college student in Pullman, a post-graduation trip to scale the Matterhorn, and more.

It includes a foreword by friend and longtime climbing partner John Roskelley (’71 Geol.) who appears throughout the book. The last of the 26 chapters is “Into Thin Hair,” the volume’s original title when Kopczynski first had it self-published last year. It’s a humorous play on Jon Krakauer’s 1997 best-seller Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster.

Kopczynski’s words will resonate with seasoned and aspiring climbers and adventurers as well as armchair travelers who will discover that, for Kopczynski, a world-class climber who worked full-time as a general contractor in Spokane, mountaineering is more than a favorite sport. It’s a way of—and metaphor for—life.

“I believe that my brain was hardwired to climb in a way that often overrides feelings,” he writes. “Climbing to me is linear and intense. It’s similar to surfing, where you fix your eyes on the horizon while feeling the ocean. … The higher and harder the mountain, the deeper my desire.”