Mountain Guide Interview Series with Gordon Janow:






He Climbs, He Soars, He Rocks
Fortitude and enthusiasm define Vernon Tejas, whose life as a mountaineer reflects his inherently adventurous personality. Working as a guide for Alpine Ascents International since 1992 and doing legendary climbs all over the world, Tejas' achievement of the first solo winter ascent of Denali not only stands as one of the greatest endurance and mountaineering feats, but will forever stir the imaginations of climbers and wilderness enthusiasts. The mere thought of embracing such a climb, full of darkness, danger and lethal cold prods the imagination and sends shivers down one's spine even on the most comfortable of days.

Vernon Tejas' poise and overtly gentle nature seem incongruous with the challenges he presents himself. From riding his bike up Aconcagua (the site of Vernon barreling down 22,835' of the highest mountain in the Americas must have caused quite a stir) to paragliding off Mt. Elbrus, Europe's highest point, he takes his ventures very seriously and with calculated risk.

"Fortunately I still have all twenty of my digits. Twenty-one actually, if you count my nose as well as my toes..."
Vernon's other classic exploits include the first solo ascent of Antarctica's Mt. Vinson, a testament to his interest in extreme, solo weather climbs.

"Vernon is a unique individual, even in our world," says famed Everest climber and fellow seven summitteer Todd Burleson. "He's one of a kind and of a select few that can climb mountains and guide others with equal expertise. Vernon is an cautious climber, wonderful partner and true professional."

Charismatic and charming, Vernon is most well-known and loved in Alaska, where his 20+ summits of Denali are legendary. He has scaled Mt. Everest and the rest of the seven summits, being the 13th person to accomplish the feat. With over twenty-five years of guiding under his belt, he continually returns to guide great mountains and to push himself to new challenges.

Most recently, Vernon served as lead guide for Col. Norman Vaughn's ascent of Mt. Vaughn in Antarctica and he shows no signs of slowing down. In upcoming months, he will be guiding for Alpine Ascents International in Russia, Iran and Africa. On a personal note, Vernon is mid-way through his quest for the Seven Plummets — hang gliding from the summit of the highest points on each continent! To date, Vernon has plummeted from the top of Mounts Anconcagua and Elbrus.

I sat down with Vernon last week and this is what he said:

You have been climbing for many years and are known for some historic climbs, but as time goes on, your interest in climbing remains the same. Where do you draw your passion for climbing from — that you go out time and time again? Where does the soul of your climbing come from?
I think what motivates most climbers is the thrill of discovery and, internally and externally, both going out on an adventure to explore parts of the world, but also an adventure to discover who they really are. I like being active in the physical world and doing something that is challenging and something that also might cross new barriers or new horizons, but it is metaphorical when you look into it deeply; it's really yourself that you are exploring, you really are discovering your own limits and finding your own uncharted waters. It plays back and forth between the real world and your internal world and for me it's been a trip of discovery. I hope that doesn't get too poetic.

I wanted to ask about when you are thinking about an upcoming climb, or prepping gear, or mentally picturing what it is going to look like, do you think about it as an isolated experience or is it a team or a partnership or both?
Certainly all these undertakings are a team process, other than the solo climbs, which are the exception rather than the rule. The team process is one where we as individuals strive to do something that is greater than any one person could accomplish on their own. I relish the team, being a team player, being a member that contributes to other people's success is very important. Sometimes I also feel I love the process, the process of going. How do you build this pyramid which is the mountaineering effort of the team? And it is block by block and each individual item of gear that needs to be checked off and tweaked so that it is just perfect for the expedition, that is one of those blocks I can lay down. Another man is working out the travel logistics, another is working on the funding. And all of these blocks have to be organized in a concise pattern for that pyramid to actually be erected. The process itself is actually as important as the end product. Many of my deepest, strongest relationships have been developed with the team members I have worked with. I think sometimes in our day-to-day existence we kind of lose track of the group effort of trying to obtain a particular goal. We have become so isolated sometimes in our own little detail tasks of getting on with our life, our jobs, our existence, we lose contact with people as a group, as a tribe, and as a force to come together to accomplish something for the good of the group.

"To me, to be on the most southern of our continents, in the middle of their most severe winters, in total darkness would be just a challenge to be reckoned with..."
What do you think is the most exciting climb you have made? It's probably hard to narrow it down to one, but maybe by naming a couple, you could reveal what the ingredients that make one of these exciting climbs are?
I think one of the ingredients is just almost that sense of serendipitous naïveté, if you will. Sometimes things just happen and bam, all of a sudden this opportunity is open to you. It reminds me of being invited on the first winter ascent of Mt. Hunter which I wasn't even considering at the time. It was way over my head. A small team was being put together and one of the members had an accident and couldn't go, and all of a sudden, I was nominated to fill his place, and it threw me into a situation I wanted to be in. We were to climb the Low Kennedy Route, pretty severe in its day and in the winter time, just to add a little more excitement to it. It's a hard route, cold conditions, big challenge and to me that really appealed — to be pushing at all the limits of what I knew was possible. We did it in alpine style, very light, bivouacking several nights in a row, in the winter time in Alaska. A certain amount of luck has to be on your side for any of those types of adventures to actually become successful. Of course we were very fortunate. That was '82 and we're still good buddies.

In looking at guiding, as I learned about mountaineering, reading books and talking to many people over these years, it seems like climbing has somehow changed from initially some sort of apprenticeship, where guides would get trained with other guides, to more people using guiding services to learn. Has that always existed or has that changed the face of mountaineering?
Well, I think it's changed quite a bit since I began guiding. It wasn't really an accepted career decision that most young men could make when I got into it. It also was something that I did not approach in the conventional way. I went right from being a client, on a guided group, to being a guide, on my next trip out. Fortunately I did very well in the guided group context. This was on Mt. McKinley and the guide realized that I had potential and asked me if I was willing to start working.

So you assisted on the next climb?
Actually, I was the lead guide. So, I went from zero to sixty in quite a short distance. It was a very small group, I had one client. But it was a great one to get my teeth on. I had to figure out the logistics, to figure out the route, to figure out the wherewithal that needed to take place. The responsibility went from being dependent upon someone else to being the reliable member in the group. But it was, like I say, a little non-traditional that way. But trial by fire, sometimes, is a good way to learn. And I had to learn fast.

"Most climbers don't like to reveal their hottest dream climbs because somebody else might just go ahead and do it..."
So for you, it was pretty rare. It was such a quick change from making personal climbs, all of a sudden, to being in charge of someone else and their well-being.
It was. I actually am a big proponent of sequential learning. I think someone who is interested in getting into this particular aspect of the mountains should probably go a little slower — crawl before they walk, walk before they run, and run before they gallop.

Were you talking from a training or development point of view? People who taught you quite a bit or, maybe for lack of a better word, other climbing heroes that you've had over the years? Talk a little bit about some of the people that fascinated you.
I think mentoring is a great way to learn. My original guide was an excellent role model, and I think lots of times I model myself after him. Just a local hero in Alaska, but a wonderful man and he's gone on to be more of a spiritual guide now as a reverend pastor in his community. But certainly the old names, the people who have accomplished amazing feats stay in my mind. The guys I read the books about when I was still young and still thinking about getting into mountaineering.

So that mythos has sort of continued throughout?
Certainly, absolutely. Galen Rowell comes to mind. Art Davison, the fellow who wrote the book, "-148°" — fabulous, interesting man, great strength. He later came back on one of my trips and brought his son to the top of McKinley. So it kind of made the full circle from being at a place where I was admiring and idolizing this man to where he came back and brought his son on one of my trips. For me that was one of the most gratifying moments in my life to stand there with a hero, on the summit, with his son and to be hugging each other. It was amazing, amazing. Of course, you know of some of my involvement with Colonel Norman Vaughn. Another hero of mine, he is probably more locally known in Alaska than outside in the lower 48. A phenomenal man who has accomplished many great things in his life. I still look up to him as a hero. And even though he is 92 now, he still inspires me to dream big, and to dare to fail and to go forward and have a full and enjoyable life like he has.

Are there still certain climbs that you think about doing or dream of doing? Having the opportunities, does that come into play or do you get time and you say, "I have time, where can I go?"
Oh, there are all sorts of ones I can think of. Of course, most climbers don't like to reveal their hottest dream climbs because somebody else might just go ahead and do it.

Right, but that is still a part of how you think: there are places you still hope to get to.
One of my gigs, if you will, my deal, is doing hard winter climbs. And fortunately I still have all 20 of my digits. Twenty-one actually, if you count my nose as well as my toes.

Given all the winter climbs you've done already, that's pretty good!
One climb I don't mind talking about, because it's pretty audacious, it certainly will be done some day, but I'm still trying to figure out the logistics on it, so if anybody out there can help me with it, I'd sure appreciate it, is a winter ascent of Mt. Vinson (Antarctica). Dead of winter. To me, to be on the most southern of our continents, in the middle of their most severe winters, in total darkness would be just a challenge to be reckoned with. To get to the top and get down and back alive, to me, is going to push somebody to the max. And I'd like to be the one to do it. But still wrestling with just the challenges involved. I can see it taking as much as six months to accomplish it safely.

Is there any advice you give to people who are getting involved in mountaineering, especially now that the sport has opened up to a much wider range of people and people are becoming more and more interested in mountaineering from both a mythological/classical point of view as well as from an active one?
I'm a big proponent of slow growth. As I mentioned earlier, sequential learning is real important. Don't run before you are able to walk. There is a whole world of mountains out there; to start from the big ones and work down seems backwards to me. I'm very much a believer in paying your dues, learn from older, more experienced folks and do a lot of it. And, if you can, build that personal experience pyramid of mountaineering skills. For me, that enriches my life, and I think it would anybody: just to get out into the mountains — into that environment, many, many times — is going to change you as a person. And then to grow slowly will enable one to fully appreciate, as they get on the bigger and more challenging peaks, what they are really into.

Gordon Janow
As Program Director for Alpine Ascents International, Janow is responsible for all marketing, written materials, pre-trip planning and development of new areas. He has traveled extensively for the past 12 years, with a particular interest in Asia, and has written numerous articles which have been published in both the U.S. and India.

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