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The Ultimate High : Adventure: Jim Wickwire came close to the top of the world--twice. Then he hit 50 and swore off Mt. Everest. Until now.

April 01, 1993|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — Affirmation of life is not in facing death; it's in facing life.

And so it is that after three decades climbing into the ice and cold and thin air of the world's great peaks, after turning his back on the highest summit of all, after giving up mountaineering and promising his wife that he was home to stay--after all that--Jim Wickwire changed his mind.

He is going back.

To Everest.

"The reasons are not entirely clear to me," Wickwire, 52, says to the obvious.

The day someone can answer Why climb? is the day men and women won't have to. Until then, many will follow the bootsteps of Jim Wickwire, one of America's most extraordinary and accomplished high-altitude mountaineers.

Here, on the hanging edge of human challenge, where strength and youth are consumed at blinding speed, where experience often means caution and caution means quitting, Wickwire perseveres. In an era when high style and big-money patronage dominate even so arcane an endeavor as mountaineering, Wickwire is a special case indeed: part timer, plain talker, privateer, family man, career man, lawyer.

His is an extreme and elegant obsession.

Along the way, he has survived bone-breaking falls with luck and uncommon determination. One horrible night, alone at about 28,000 feet in the Himalayas, he endured a bivouac that Climbing magazine described as "one of the most notorious in mountaineering history."

He has given parts of his toes to frostbite, undergone lung surgery, suffered pleurisy, pneumonia and more. For all his strength and vitality, his wife has seen him come home shriveled in a wheelchair.

And four teammates, alongside him during those years, have fallen to their deaths.

"I've been involved in a fair number of tragedies, so some people consider me on the bold side," Wickwire volunteers. "That's wrong. I'm really quite careful where I go and who I go with."

His achievements have been breathtaking: Americans had tried for 40 years to get to the top of the Himalayan peak K2, second highest in the world and most eye-pleasing. Wickwire and partner Lou Reichardt stepped arm in arm to the summit in 1978. Wickwire pioneered several major northside routes on Mt. Rainier in Washington and has been credited with 20 or more other Cascade firsts. He has climbed McKinley in Alaska and peaks in Europe and South America as well.

Now, his forthcoming expedition to Everest promises to be his most watched ever--a two-man lightweight assault up the 29,028-foot peak with fellow Washingtonian John Roskelley, 44, who is widely regarded as the nation's foremost Himalayan mountaineer.

The big peak has turned each back before. This will be Wickwire's third try and Roskelley's fourth.

Everest is not such a complicated mountain, hardened mountaineers will tell you. K2, they say, is a more difficult and exquisite challenge. And any number of smaller mountains are more mysterious and dangerous. But Everest still is the mountain, even if its base swarms with tourists and rubbish. The best have to climb it.

On a recent spring afternoon, Wickwire is at his law office near the Seattle waterfront, his desk covered with typed legal documents and lined yellow pads. His tie is European and stylish, his hair a glossy black-cum-gray, his handshake like a rock.

He talks fast; even just in the telling, there is much to plan, so very much to overcome, such challenges ahead. His animated expressions belie a demeanor so utterly serious that he appears to concentrate on even little things such as sipping his tea.

He talks about his unpublicized decision, three years ago, to quit mountaineering. It happened in Tibet, on the then-unclimbed peak Menlungtse, 30 miles from Everest. Above Wickwire, a lead climber moved across a ridge on a windblown, packed-snow cornice. Suddenly, the leader's ice ax plunged through the thin crust, revealing nothing beneath but blue sky.

"I sized up this climb as beyond me technically," Wickwire says. "So in the middle of the trip, in typical fashion, I said it's time to stop doing this. Maybe it was that I was going to turn 50, I don't know."

Others went on, but none reached the top.

He returned to tell his wife, Mary Lou, and their five children of his decision. He canceled the expensive mountaineering rider on his life insurance policy. He told his law partners and clients there would be no more of these long interludes away.

A year later, a familiar urge welled from somewhere deep inside. Wickwire soloed a couple Cascade peaks in Washington state to see if the mountains still thrilled. They did--as did old thoughts of Everest.

Maybe, he explains, it was the death of his father, a retired judge who ate right, lived right, didn't drink or smoke and still died of cancer: "I watched him go in 1990. You say to yourself, you want to have as few regrets as possible about what you did and what you didn't do, and about what you tried. I didn't want to look back in 20, or maybe 30 years if I'm lucky, and say I didn't try."

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