He never thought he would climb Everest, too expensive, plus he didn’t know if his age, nearing his late 60’s, would prevent him from even trying. But serendipity occurred at, of all places, Union Glacier in Antarctica. Jim told me last week, “I didn’t pick Everest, Everest picked me.” The now-retired forest ranger has climbed all around the world from his home base in Sacramento, California.
Like me, Jim started climbing later in life. His quest began in 1985 at age 40 on Pyramid Peak, 9,987-feet, in Desolation Wilderness, CA. He found other climbers who took him under their wing and taught him the basics. Shasta came on his radar, then Rainer, where he learned that real mountaineering is more than showing up. Rainier made him work, but he summited for his 50th birthday.
Over the next decade, Jim trained hard, using a local peak that rose 1,000-feet in just half a mile as his commitment hike. Each Saturday, he showed up. Jim never took the elevator at work. He took the stairs, 15 floors worth, each workday to reach his office, and Jim climbed Mt Whitney each year.
Jim matched up with Jason Edwards of Mountain Experience, his guide on Rainier. He went to Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Elbrus (twice), and Orizaba with him. Next, he went with friends to Ecuador’s Cotopaxi. Finally, Denali came into his planning horizon. He got the “Great One” on July 7, 2008, with International Mountain Guides (IMG) and guides Mike Hamill and Greg Vernovage. In 2010, another one of the 7, Aconcagua, was ticked off the list. He was beginning to understand that climbs at 7,000-meters and above were the “real deal.”
Mountaineering was now in his blood, and regardless of the climb, he knew he needed help with physical training. The film does a great job of showing his relationship with TJ, his personal trainer. His next goal became the 50 High Points in the United States.
He was a man on a mission, but the 7 Summits continued to dominate his dreams. With Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Denali, and Elbrus, he began to think seriously about climbing them all. However, Everest still felt too tricky in many ways. Encouraged by friends, Jim started to search for sponsors and fundraising.
He had enough money for Vinson Massif in Antarctica and went with Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE). Jim went for the climb, but he says it was all about the penguins. He “ran out of gas” at 15,000-feet on the Massif and didn’t summit.
And this is where the film, “Accidental Climber,” really picks up. I won’t spoil the movie, but it’s amazing how sitting down at an empty chair can change your life.
The film brings viewers through Jim’s journey and eventually to Everest with IMG. 2014 was one of the most challenging years in Everest’s history. A serac hanging off the West Ridge, released onto the Khumbu Icefall, taking 16 Sherpa lives. It changed the season, and Everest forever. The film respects the tragedy and covers it well.
For me, the film is more of a human-interest story that reveals the dreams, struggles, and commitment to accomplishing something extremely hard. Thom Pollard and film crew capture some greats shots of climbing Everest, and the editing and production are second to none.
The film is well worth taking in on a Saturday night for the whole family. The bottom line for me: Watch it, you will be inspired.
NOTE: Sherpas out of work due to the COVID-19 virus will receive a portion of the film proceeds. IMG will manage the donations through their long-time, well-established foundation.
Now the interview.
Q: Let’s hit a hard question right up front. With the benefit of hindsight, how close were you to quitting before the serac collapsed?
A: I was struggling to acclimate and was frustrated by that, but I never thought of quitting. That isn’t in my DNA.
Q: If you had more time to acclimatize, would that had made a difference in how you felt, assuming you had the chance to continue?
A: No question. The day before we left is when I felt fully acclimated. I had gone to Pumori for another acclimation hike and felt great. Aaron, my guide, was turning back after a break, and I said let’s go higher. I felt great, finally.
A: It was something I had never dealt with and was not comfortable with. The same with my personal Sherpa, Fura. I wasn’t used to someone following me and attending to me. But he was definitely there if I needed him. Same with Thom. I didn’t want scheduled interviews, so all were spur of the moment.
Q: Do you think you were in better physical shape when you left for Everest than for any other climb?
A: For sure. I was in the best shape of my life. I dedicated 15 months to get in that kind of shape.
Q: In the big picture, what were you hoping to accomplish, or who you hoped to influence with the age record?
A: After Aconcagua in 2010 I started giving some thought to maybe climbing the 7 summits. I had Kili, 1999, Elbrus, 2002, Denali 2008, and Aconcagua. After I met my sponsor in Antarctica in 2013, I had three to go. I had failed Vinson and had to come back. So, Everest was just another mountain I had to find out if I could climb it. I just would happen to be 68. And I wanted my grandsons and family and friends to see what aging well looks like. Had I summited I might have had the age record for a day, an hour, or maybe Bill Burke, at 72, would have beat me to the top. He summited that year from the north side.
Q: What did you learn about yourself, that you didn’t already know?
A: That the body’s ability to acclimate changes quite a bit as we age and just takes more time. This was new. I never had as significant an issue before. I was doing all the right things and still, my body wasn’t responding fast enough for me. This time factor was brand new.
Q: For me, the movie is more of human interest than a climbing film. Where did you get your resilience?
AI guess I have always had it. I face problems by coming up with a solution because then it is no longer a problem but a solution. “No you can’t” means to me “Yes I can.” So, despite all the challenges of Everest I was going to succeed.
Q: Another way of asking the same question is the source of your mental toughness
A: Apparently it is “baked in” because almost every mountain has thrown me curveballs. That is just the nature of the game. But it is the response that is important. Now that this has happened or this obstacle is here, how do I continue anyway? It is a “Take the Next Step” attitude.
Q: Any nagging thoughts for another try, if not Everest then other peaks?
A: I will probably not be making another attempt on Everest. But last year I climbed my Seventh Summit, getting to the top of six. Only Everest eluded me. And then I went on to climb Fuji with my daughter. The year before we had climbed Mauna Kea. Nothing better than doing it with someone as special as a family member.
Q: Finally, you and the filmmakers have generously agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds to International Mountain Guides (IMG), the 2014 team you climbed with in. Please share with us how you felt about the Sherpas and their contributions.
A: The Sherpa are incredible and I have tremendous respect and admiration for their entire community and their ability to support our efforts. I was deeply affected by the loss of the 16 Sherpa on April 18, 2014. I am forever grateful.
Here’s a look at the trailer for my readers:
The film will be released in the US and Canada across all VOD/Digital and DVD platforms beginning on August 11, 2020, with international dates to follow. It can be pre-ordered on iTunes now.
Thanks, Jim. Fantastic effort.
Memories are Everything