Internationally known as America’s premier mountaineer in the 1970s and 1980s, globe-trotting John Roskelley has scrambled this fall simply to be recognized in Spokane County.
The local boy who pioneered routes through the icy slopes and rarified air of the world’s highest peaks set his sights on a low rung in the political ladder.
“In some ways, it’s easier to climb K2, Makalu and Dhaulagiri than it is to run for county commissioner,” he said.
Roskelley went where no men had gone from the Canadian Rockies to the Himalaya. He lived while his companions died on an expedition to the former Soviet Union.
Lean, sure and fast, he earned a reputation for being a no-nonsense expert and survivor in a ruthless sport, publishing three books and landing consulting jobs with corporate giants such as Dupont, Nike and W.L. Gore.
His 19 major mountaineering expeditions between 1978 and 1992 made countless headlines from area newspapers to national magazines and inspired a television movie.
This fall, however, found him trying to get his name into voters’ heads by traveling around Spokane County with a stack of signs to post at busy intersections.
The only climbing he did this summer involved guiding some Japanese up Mount Rainier for $2,000 in cash to funnel into his campaign.
At 46, Roskelley appears to be making the transition that all aging world-class athletes eventually must make. But he’s not going cold turkey on adventure.
With no fanfare, Roskelley joined an expedition in April to yet another inhospitable region of the world.
Mount Sarmiento, elevation 7,545, feet is the highest peak on Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. “It dominates the scenery from Punta Arenas (Chile) like Mount Rainier does from Seattle,” said Jim Wickwire, a Seattle attorney who organized the expedition.
Yet the peak is so remote and the weather so forbidding, Sarmiento had been climbed only twice, in 1956 and 1986 by Italians.
“Actually, Wickwire had to talk me into the idea,” Roskelley said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to endure that much punishment.”
Wickwire, also a Himalayan climbing veteran, has what Roskelley calls “a huge talent” for masterminding unusual and complicated expeditions. In recent years Wickwire and Roskelley have been weaning off the highest and hairiest destinations and giving more attention to those that are fascinating and obscure. Their reputations are still strong enough to win sponsorships from major mountaineering companies.
“My climbing was goal-oriented for a number of years, but now I don’t have any list of places I just have to go before I die,” Roskelley said. “Anymore, I tend to be interested in the place and the culture more than the risk and difficulty of reaching a summit.”
Eventually he saw Wickwire’s suggestion as an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.
“My mother used to tell me stories about my grandfather, and how he sailed three times around Cape Horn with the British Royal Navy in a four-masted schooner,” he said.
In April, Roskelley joined four other world-class climbers and sailed six days through the Beagle Channel to an isolated cove near the southern end of the world.
“The reputation this area has for rain, high winds, low visibility and shipwrecks was part of the intrigue of this climb,” he said.
“We sailed out of Ushuaia (Argentina) in a 55-foot steel-hull sloop and got bucked around good. Fastest we did was 8 knots.”
The vessel belonged to Charlie Porter, who shuttles geology researchers to remote regions in the world. Porter made his name in climbing during the ‘60s and ‘70s, first in Yosemite before becoming the first to solo Mount McKinley’s Cassin Ridge and routes in the arctic wilderness of Baffin Island.
“He’s always been a way-out-there kind of guy,” Roskelley said.
The other two climbers on the expedition included:
Steve Venables, the first Englishman to climb Mount Everest without the aid of bottled oxygen.
Australian Tim McCartney-Snape, a notoriously strong climber who wowed the international mountaineering community by trekking from sea level to the top of Mount Everest.
The boat served as the expedition’s base camp. The climbing began at the beach.
“It was the first time I ever wore rubber boots on a climbing expedition,” Roskelley said. “It rained or snowed 26 out of the 28 days we were there. We started out hiking through bogs and mud. I climbed well above the snowline wearing those cheap rubber boots fishermen wear.”
For better or worse, the peak was everything the expedition expected.
“It would be dead calm and gorgeous one minute and howling with 80-mile-an-hour wind gusts 10 minutes later,” he said.
Indeed, Wickwire was descending a ridge several days into the climb when a powerful gust swept him off his feet and crashed him into some rocks.
“I jammed a crampon point and sprained my ankle and the climbing was over for me,” Wickwire said.
Ironically, Porter was within a short distance of that spot carrying a full pack the next day when another wind blast sucker-punched him off the ridge and sent him into an uncontrolled plunge down a glacier.
“Charlie stopped his fall by jamming his arm into a crevasse,” Wickwire said.
Roskelley was ahead, as he tends to be on most expeditions, face bowed to a snowstorm while chopping ice for a tent site, when Venables climbed up through the rocks.
“British climbers are so cool,” Roskelley said. “Steve simply said, ‘We have a bit of a problem with Charlie, fellows.”’
Roskelley hurried down, where the expedition made the obvious diagnosis. Porter had a dislocated shoulder.
Days from anywhere, the climbers had no option to call for a rescue.
They lowered Porter down the ice to a tent where Wickwire was recovering. Porter was in such pain, the other climbers decided they had to try to reduce his shoulder.
“We were all huddled around Charlie and I’m sure it looked and sounded like some medieval torture chamber,” Roskelley said.
“Tim and I both have EMT training, but we practiced the pull-and-rotate motion before we did it on Charlie.”
Venables reached from behind and held Porter with a bear hug around the chest. Roskelley supported the limb that had been wrenched from the painfully deformed joint. At that time, they had no idea that doctors would later find that the shoulder was broken as well as dislocated.
Porter downed a few swigs of brandy and gritted his teeth on a slab of beef jerky. Then Wickwire lay over his legs.
“When we gave it the first try, Charlie screamed,” Roskelley recalled. “We nearly peeled the skin off his arm as we pulled and twisted. Then we all looked anxiously at him and Wickwire said, ‘Is it in? Is it in?”’
But it wasn’t.
Said Wickwire, “We asked Charlie if he wanted us to continue, and he moaned, ‘Yeh, yeh. You guys know what you’re doing…don’t you?”’
They didn’t answer.
“Six times we tried,” Roskelley said. “The sounds were awful. We tried to ignore his screaming and focused on the arm. But he was sweating so much it got so we couldn’t get a grip on his skin. We finally had to give up.”
The next day, they helped Wickwire and Porter back to the boat, where the two crippled climbers sailed away for medical attention and, for Porter, surgery.
“I was mentally exhausted and wanted to take a day off after that, but the weather started looking a little better and the other two guys wanted to go,” Roskelley said.
Burdened with 80-pound packs, the climbers climbed past their first camp and made camp two at 5,000 feet, where the weather deteriorated again to a howling rage.
“But the next morning was clear,” Roskelley said. “We all knew this was a fleeting opportunity and we wasted no time.”
Buoyed by their first good look at the peak in weeks, three of the most savvy climbers in the world virtually charged up the mountain.
“The ice was absolutely perfect,” Roskelley said. “It held like concrete.”
Every swing of the ice tools was greeted with a solid “thunk.”
“We made a beeline for the west peak, no belays, climbing as fast as we could up 80-degree ice,” he said.
Seven hours later, they were on a summit clear of fog and tamed of wind. They had the unlikely good fortune to see forever.
“The peak is all rock that’s plastered year-round with spectacular plumes of ice,” he said.
But knowing Sarmiento’s ugly side, they didn’t dally long. Indeed, three hours into the descent, Roskelley was gasping to breathe through the spindrift being whipped up on the peak by a new round of winds.
“There was virtually no visibility,” Roskelley said.”It took nearly as long to get down as it did to get up.”
In the next few days, they packed everything down to the beach, where rain was the only sure thing.
“We didn’t know when Wickwire might return to pick us up,” Roskelley said.
Within a day, however, Wickwire returned with a crew aboard a fishing boat he had chartered for $1,000.
“Somehow he just knows how to get things done,” Roskelley said.
They packed clothes and gear that hadn’t had a chance to dry in three weeks, and launched on the journey home.
“When I got to the Spokane airport, I picked up the paper and saw a story about Skip Chilberg resigning as county commissioner,” Roskelley said. “I’d been thinking about running for office. I’ve been on a lot of county boards and the planning commission, but it just seemed like this was another opportunity I should take. It was on the drive home that I decided to run.”
Politics will replace peaks in Roskelley’s life this fall. The climber-turned-candidate won the election for county commissioner on Tuesday
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