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Pace has slowed little for Hall-of-fame climber Roskelley

Tue., Oct. 16, 2007


In 1990, John Roskelley climbed Menlungtse in Nepal's Himalayas.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
In 1990, John Roskelley climbed Menlungtse in Nepal's Himalayas. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s John Roskelley took the sport of mountaineering to new heights from the late 1960s through the peak of his career in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Today he will claim another first ascent, becoming the only non-traditional athlete in the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame.

This is big. Even a race horse was inducted to the hall before a climber.

The world’s highest mountains have no press boxes. While the area sportswriters and broadcasters may know him as a former Spokane County commissioner, none has seen Roskelley perform his magic on ice or rock.

Roskelley hiked as much as 120 miles beyond the nearest road or airstrip just to reach base camps for some of his Himalayan climbs.

Instead of games measured in minutes, he endured expeditions requiring weeks or even months.

Instead of locker rooms and training tables, he retreated to a tiny tent, fended off frostbite and choked down freeze-dried gruel at altitudes that foul even a starving man’s appetite.

Every high achievement would ultimately be judged by whether he got back down alive.

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Roskelley tried high school wrestling. “That didn’t last long,” he said. “I quit to get a job.”

In these pivotal years, when his youthful rebelliousness could have led him downhill more easily than up, he forged three notable relationships that paved the way to his high repute:

“The Spokane Mountaineers provided his mentors.

“Through the club, he met Chris Kopcyznski, another Spokane teenager just developing a yen for reaching summits.

“In 1972, just as the climbing world was recognizing the bold routes this young upstart was pioneering from Yosemite to the Canadian Rockies, he married his rock. Joyce Roskelley, a teacher, became a stabilizing force that enabled Roskelley to have a home from which to launch a precarious career.

Roskelley and Kopczynski, a top-ranked high school and collegiate wrestler now a local contractor, became the first Americans to travel to Europe and scale the north face of the Eiger.

Later they joined with climbers around the world for an epic expedition in Russia that became the subject of a book, “Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs.” The story later was made into a television movie.

By the 1980s, Roskelley was a professional climber, widely recognized as America’s premier high-altitude mountaineer. He had a reputation for being blunt and focused, qualities that made him controversial while keeping him alive in lethal environments.

Lean, sure and fast, he was a no-nonsense expert and survivor in a ruthless sport.

Roskelley’s early crown of achievements, all without aid of bottled oxygen, included Dhaulagiri, Nanda Devi, Trango Tower, Gaurishankar, K2, Uli Biaho, Cholatse and Tawache.

Most people have never heard of these places. Suffice it to say that David had better odds against Goliath.

Roskelley watched climbing companions die on some of those expeditions.

With about 30 notches in his expedition climbing harness from 1973 to 2003, Roskelley says two climbs tend to stand out in his career for different reasons:

“ The 1980 Spokane-to- Makalu Expedition – including Kopczynski, Jim States and Kim Momb, all from Spokane – was the first American team to reach the 27,790-foot summit of Makalu, the world’s fifth highest peak.

The American Alpine Club later recognized the 80-day Himalayan expedition as one of the world’s 10 most significant climbs of the 20th century, “a seminal moment in Himalayan climbing history.”

Only Roskelley reached the summit, but he said he needed every ounce of determination from the four-man team in order to do it.

They set a new standard for climbing the world’s highest mountains because they did it on a shoestring, and they did it on their own.

Roskelley later wrote, “We had chosen to raise ourselves up to the standard of the mountain, not to pull the mountain down to our level with large teams of climbers and Sherpas.”

“The 2003 Everest Expedition was another standout. Roskelley climbed with his son, Jess, who became the youngest person at the time to summit the world’s highest peak.

“I was with my son,” he said. “I was at the top of the world.”

The honor is sweeter now, a couple decades after the peak of his performances in rarified air.

In a Spokane Arena event that starts this morning at 10:30, Roskelley will be inducted into the hall of fame along with world record-setting decathlete Dan O’Brien, collegiate football lineman Steve Emtman and star athlete and coach Jeanne Helfer.

Among these superstars, Roskelley stands out in a way that all outdoors aficionados can appreciate.

His sport is his lifestyle.

At 58, he’s lean, fit and still climbing.

Most recently he ascended Early Winter Spire with Spokane veterinarian Jeff Duenwald, who climbed with Roskelley in his first expeditions.

“I climbed harder vertical ice last winter than ever before – and leading it,” he said. “The equipment is better now. That helps.”

Instead of alpine ascents this summer, he challenged himself to running the Pacific Crest Trail in segments. He’s started with a one-shot 40-miler through the Pasayten Wilderness, followed two weeks later by a 31-miler and then an 18-miler.

“The next leg from one road to the next is 77 miles,” he said. “I’ve got to pick up the training or get a hot-air balloon.”

He keeps mountain-fit by running up Mount Spokane from his home office three times a week, weight lifting on alternate days. “I do something every day,” he said.

So he’s up for the hall of fame occasion in every way except for one.

“It’s difficult to accept an individual award since mountain climbing, to me, is a team sport,” he said.

“I’m honored by the recognition, but I do regret that Kopczynski won’t be there (getting the award) with me. We started together. He held my rope and I held his, building the confidence it took to get to the top.

“Without a partner like that, none of it would have been done.”


 

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