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home : sports & recreation : sports & recreation November 17, 2018

3/6/2018 1:49:00 PM
A life on the peaks
Denali, 1976. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
Denali, 1976. photo provided

By Eileen Chambers

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part, behind-the-scenes series about mountaineer Warren Thompson, Sisters resident who has gone on two expeditions to Everest, one to Denali and many more to world-class mountains.

"George Mallory was a British climber who in 1922 and 1924 tried to be the first human to climb Everest," Warren Thompson said.

Thompson, a Sisters resident who has made two expeditions to Everest, another to Denali and many more to other world-class mountains, revealed what it is like to climb - and, perhaps more deeply, the "why."

"Mallory was asked, 'Why Everest?' His answer, now famous, was 'Because it's there.' For years, people have tried to understand what Mallory meant," Thompson said. "Mountaineering is inherently dangerous. Lack of oxygen. Hypothermia. Threat of avalanche. Ice crevasses. Still, there are those of us, like Mallory, who accept extreme danger without being deterred by it."

Warren grew up hiking the Northwest outside Seattle.

"I had no desire to climb mountains until a friend talked me into climbing Mount Eleanor. After your usual teenage craziness getting there, after three hours of climbing, I pestered my friend, 'Where the hell are we?'"

"'We're getting there,' he answered. I wasn't so sure. At 2 p.m. and in avalanche territory, I had enough. Then Bruce said, 'It's another 30 feet.' Convinced he was wrong, I nevertheless kept climbing. Suddenly, the clouds evaporated revealing a beautiful cobalt blue sky. Ice crystals floated around us like diamonds. Olympic Range. Puget Sound. Seattle's skyscrapers. It was the most breathtaking thing I had ever seen."

Warren was hooked.

"In mountain climbing, you have your adrenaline junkies. The bigger the thrill, the better. Then there are climbers like me who get spiritual refreshment from places that are nothing short of paradise."

Amid marriage, working at Boeing, earning his MBA and law degrees, Warren became active in Seattle's Mountaineers Club and Seattle Mountain Rescue, becoming an instructor in climbing, mountain first aid and mountain rescue. After becoming an EMT, he went on "a bunch of wild rescues."

In 1976, as part of America's bicentennial celebration, Warren and his friends climbed Denali, North America's highest peak, taking a route that had not been attempted before.

"What most people don't know about climbing is the work you do before putting one foot on a mountain," Thompson said. "Besides being physically strong, you have to learn the mountain ahead of time. Routes. Weather. Supplies. Where others failed or died trying. Everything. So, before the expedition, I studied Denali intensively. At the time, the success rate for reaching the summit was 25 percent. Although Denali is not the most difficult technically, as Brad Washburn, a climbing legend, has said, 'If the mountain wants to throw the book at you, it can.' You can't afford to make mistakes on mountains like this. Lives and gear are at stake. And, back in 1976, I associated good leadership with having that kind of expert knowledge."

After a month of climbing, Warren's team neared Denali's summit.

"We started at 10 p.m. and after eleven hours of climbing, we reached Carter's Horn. What we didn't realize, coming up from below, was that Carter's Horn was three peaks, not one. Finally, after ascending all three peaks, I saw the summit and hollered down to the guys, 'I see it.'

"'How far away is it,' they shouted back.'

"'I think 45 minutes.' I answered. Now judging distant at altitude is difficult because your depth perception and brain don't work well. Others, joining me, believed the summit was even further. Two of the guys, completely exhausted, turned around. The rest of us went for it and, within minutes, realized that the summit was only 15 minutes away. Adrenaline pumping, we raced to the top, a place so magnificent that it is hard to put into words.

"Using the CB radio to make our pre-planned, official call to President Ford, I reached the White House switchboard only to be put on hold as they cleared the call. Well, after 45 minutes of waiting in the cold, the guys said, 'Tell him 'Hi' for us,' and they headed back down. Finally, after more waiting, I heard, 'Is this the mountain climber?'

"Yes, Mr. President."

"I am about to get on Marine One. My aide will take your statement."

Warren laughed, remembering.

"At that moment, I doubted whether Ford even knew where Denali was. His aide gets on. 'I am so and so. I am going to take your statement.' As I begin my 'One Small Step for Man" speech, I kid you not, I heard paper being crunched next to the earpiece. 'We are getting static on the line,' the aide said. 'I am having a hard time hearing you. Write your statement down and mail it to the following address...' It didn't seem so funny at the time but it does now.

"On our way down Denali, someone said, 'So what's next?' 'Everest,' I shouted like Joe Montana on his way to Disneyland."

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