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Northwest Passages Book Club: Spokane mountaineer Chris Kopcyznski describes his drive to climb world’s tallest peaks

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 13, 2021

During a Northwest Passages Book Club event, “Into Thin Hair” author and mountain climber Chris Kopczynski, right, has a conversation with The Spokesman-Review Outdoors editor Eli Francovich on Tuesday at the Montvale Event Center.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
During a Northwest Passages Book Club event, “Into Thin Hair” author and mountain climber Chris Kopczynski, right, has a conversation with The Spokesman-Review Outdoors editor Eli Francovich on Tuesday at the Montvale Event Center. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Chris Kopczynski – a mountaineer who has braved the highest peaks on all seven continents over the course of his life – said he was “scared to death” when he printed the first 50 copies of his memoir.

“I thought they would sit down in the garage,” he said.

They didn’t.

On the contrary, the self-published memoir about the trials, triumphs and near-death experiences the man known as “Kop” has faced in his decades of climbing mountains has sold at least 700 copies so far, he said, with potentially even greater distribution in the coming months.

Kopczynski sat down Tuesday with Eli Francovich, The Spokesman-Review’s outdoors editor, at the Montvale Event Center as the latest featured guest in the newspaper’s Northwest Passages community forum series.

The discussion about Kopczynski’s life, perspectives and his self-published memoir, “Into Thin Hair: Diary of a Mountain Climber,” marked the first in-person Northwest Passages book club event in more than a year. The forum last took place in person in February 2020 before transitioning to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whereas past Northwest Passages events have featured prolific authors and writers, “Into Thin Hair” is Kopczynski’s first – and only – published work to date.

The self-published book will be sold locally until mid-November, after which publishing company Globe Pequot will republish the work in February with a new title: “Highest and Hardest: A Mountain Climber’s Lifetime Odyssey to the Top of the World.”

Kopczynski, who started climbing when he was a teenager, said he wrote the book on and off over the past few decades using his personal diaries and photos from his treks. Proceeds from the sales are going to the Dishman Hills Conservancy.

Part of the reason Kopczynski, who is the president of the Conservancy, wrote the book was to show his family where he’s gone.

“More than anything, I thought when I wrote this book that I wanted to leave a history book,” he said. “I wanted to leave a history book for Spokane to know what great climbers we had at one time. And we still do, but I wanted people to know what we did.”

Kopczynski’s accomplishments include becoming one of the first Americans, along with fellow Spokane native John Roskelley, to climb the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland.

“Roskelley and I still have a good friendship. Probably the best friend I’ve ever had,” he said. “We were both very confident, and we were both very good at it and we were both competitive at it.”

Six years later in 1980, he led an all-Spokane climbing expedition to Makalu on the border between Nepal and China. And then in October 1981, Kopczynski – at 33 years old – was part of an American expedition team to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Kopczynski said Makalu is, in his opinion, “the greatest mountain in the world,” while his favorite climb was Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

“I got a lot of satisfaction out of those conquests,” Kopczynski said. “I had a lot of failures on the route to it, but it kind of overshadowed everything else.”

Francovich asked Kopczynski questions on the climber’s family background, his ambitions with climbing, the friends he made along way and his views on the sport today.

Kopczynski said balancing his drive to climb with the other aspects of his life, such as work and family, was challenging.

“It hurt me emotionally later in life,” Kopczynski said. “I’m happy to say my older kids talk to me and still love me, and they have forgiven me. I try to make up for all the past time that I have spent.

“You can call it selfish, but for me, I had to do it,” he continued. “It was something I had to do, whether to prove it to myself or whatever, but I wrote those goals down and I wasn’t going to let them go.”

The event sold out at just over 80 tickets. That’s the lowest ever in the history of Northwest Passages, as capacity was limited due to COVID-19 concerns, said Kristi Burns, director of the Northwest Passages Book Club.

Rod Moore, who has attended Northwest Passages events since 2017, said the return to in person was part of what drew him out Tuesday to the Montvale.

“It’s more enjoyable, more real, being here in person, than trying to follow over a computer screen,” he said.

And while he had never heard of Kopcyznski prior to recent media coverage about the mountaineer and his book, Moore said the forums “give you a chance to learn different things.”

“I’m not a mountain climber myself; I’ve hiked up mountains, but I’ve never climbed one,” he said. “The experiences of an experienced mountain climber, to me, is a fascinating sort of thing.”

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