UM Student Youngest American to Top EverestBy Tom Lutey
He had heard you literally had to step over the fallen climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest from the Tibetan side. Jess straddled the lost climber’s ankles and paused for a moment to study the man, named because the narrow ledge on which he rests is partially protected by an overhang.
“He just looked like he sat down to take a nap,” Jess says. “It was still dark out. There were old oxygen bottles around him. I saw a foot and then feet. I stepped over him and kept going.”
The Death Zone, the top 4,000 feet of Mount Everest, is littered with the frozen bodies of nearly 120 climbers who didn’t keep going. Nearly fifty others who died trying were carted down. One climber is dead for every eight that make the summit. The air is so thin it dulls the brain at the very time that every step can be a life or death decision.
Roskelley, a UM freshman, moved beyond the mountain’s dark statistics May 21, 2003. At the age of twenty he became the youngest American to conquer the 29,038-foot peak. And he did it in a two-month climb with his fifty-four-year-old father John Roskelley, a seasoned climber with four Everest attempts in his career. Only a handful of father-son teams have ever made it to the top.
It was a strange trip, punctuated by bad food, government bribes, and a harrowing detour down the mountain for emergency medical care. Their bodies wore down like bald tires on an Alaskan road. Jess lost 15 pounds from his already lean 170-pound frame. John Roskelley lost 12 pounds from a wiry build that didn’t have any fat to spare.
“The mountain was not so technical up high, a lot easier than I expected,” says Jess, who weeks after his return was heading to Washington’s Mount Rainier to work as a construction laborer and part-time mountain guide. “The key to climbing Everest is knowing how to be miserable for a while and staying healthy,” he adds.
The environmental studies student didn’t need to find misery on the mountain; he brought it with him. The Roskelleys were part of “Generations on Everest,” a group that included seventy-three-year-old Dick Bass, a Dallas businessman, and sixty-two-year-old Jim Wickwire, a Seattle attorney. They were poised to set several Everest records: Bass the mountain’s oldest conqueror, Jess the youngest American, and the rare father-son duo—all scheduled for the climb on the fiftieth anniversary year of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent, the first ever.
Being the oldest man to summit seemed like the most improbable feat, but it was Jess who unraveled first. At 23,000 feet, a medical emergency forced him from the mountain. A dentist in Jess’s hometown, Spokane, Washington, had pulled his wisdom teeth over Christmas break, and Jess had been fighting an infection ever since. Antibiotics and a youthful immune system seemed to be prevailing. Until the abscess.
“What a thrill to be on the North Col with my son,” the father shared in the group’s online journal just days before Jess’s health soured. “To be given this once-in-a-lifetime experience with him is a summit within itself. Our kids disappear from home too fast after high school. Too often, we only get a snippet of their lives from then on.”
There would be other chances for Jess, but John Roskelley, a Spokane county commissioner, had few opportunities left to climb to the top of the world, let alone with his son. John had been challenging the mountain since 1981, the year before Jess was born. His previous attempts had been thwarted by health and weather problems.
Now, less than a day’s hike from the Death Zone—where oxygen-starved brains swell and bodies naturally start breaking down—Jess was falling apart. The lymph nodes at the base of his skull were hard and swollen. His headaches were excruciating and he had run out of antibiotics.
The Roskelleys got out their satellite phone and contacted Jess’s dentist, who feared the abscess would spread to the young climber’s brain if he kept climbing. The closest dentist was several days away and 18,000 feet down at Katmandu.
Expeditions are a lot like animal herds; their weak get left behind. Jess had a decision to make: go on and risk his health, possibly his life, or go back for medical attention. “I probably should have just kept going,” Jess says. “My dad spent a lot of money on the trip. I asked the doctor about the infection and she said as long as the infection didn’t go to the ear, I might be okay. I think I would have made it,” he says with the clarity of hindsight. But not making it on Everest means death for many climbers, a price heavily weighed against the cost of a two-month expedition, about $40,000 for each climber.
Dick Bass was a little more attuned to his mortality than young Roskelley. A Texas oil and cattle baron, as well as the founder of Utah’s Snowbird ski resort, Bass had paid $5,800 to keep a Toyota Landcruiser on standby at 17,000 feet, in case he needed to be evacuated.
Take the Landcruiser, Bass advised Jess, reasoning that if the young climber could race down to Katmandu for medical attention, he would be able to rejoin the group. John Roskelley would have to continue on to the 25,000-foot level without his son, though the split would be crushing.
Wearing little more than a polar fleece jacket and denim jeans, Jess started the trek down. He had $500 in his pocket and a mini disc player.
The Landcruiser wasn’t there.
The Tibetans paid by Bass to keep the vehicle had left. The Tibetan Mountain Authority on hand to police the climbing community denied any knowledge of such an agreement. Jess would have to pay $700 to hitch a ride with the TMA in their jeep, about $1 a kilometer. The Generations group’s travel agent agreed to cover the cost of the jeep, which the Tibetans stuffed with three injured Romanians before starting the trip down. Jess was a little put out about sharing his ride considering the high cab fare, but the Romanians turned out to be good travel companions, club owners who used their profits to fund high-altitude climbs.
Down at 5,000 feet in Katmandu, Jess hooked up with a dentist from Whitefish, Montana, of all places, and a doctor from Australia.
“Katmandu,” Jess says, “is a very hip place.”
While the rest of the Generations crew hauled supplies to the Death Zone, Jess feasted on spaghetti and watched a little TV at a metropolitan hotel. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. The Chinese revoked his passport and demanded a bribe of more than $1,000 before they would let Jess cross the Tibetan border. Again, the Roskelleys’ travel agent covered the costs.
Jess’s climb back to 23,000 feet was faster the second time because his body was already acclimated. But the antibiotics he received in Katmandu were making him vomit.
“Jess ended up hugging the porcelain pony, as his stomach turned inside out,” John Roskelley e-mailed the folks back home. “I’m sure, though, as a college student at The University of Montana, which isn’t exactly a “dry” campus, being violently sick wasn’t an unusual experience.”
Actually, his father was closer to the truth than he realized. When Jess learned he was a lock for the trip last November, he started a training regimen that included running up the north face of Mount Sentinel every day, including mornings after he contracted the brown bottle flu in some of Missoula’s downtown pubs.
Now hiking at 19,000 feet, Jess stumbled onto the base camp of a Chinese expedition. There, a doctor traded with Jess for different medicine. He carried on, hiking with Pasang Sherpa through heavy snowstorms. Almost a week after trekking back to Katmandu, Jess caught up with his father in a tent at a 21,000-foot advanced base camp. John Roskelley was sick. His throat had swollen with infection and he couldn’t get enough oxygen. Jim Wickwire was further down the mountain battling a sinus infection. Dick Bass was fighting back problems. In days, health problems would reduce the foursome to a father-son duo.
The weather, too, was ill. Winds gusting fifty-five miles per hour rolled up the North Col scattering tents like tumbleweeds. A Russian tent ripped from the ground and crashed down on a tent used days earlier by the Roskelleys. An ice axe caught in the tumbling nylon bag splayed the Roskelleys’ tent and snapped its fiberglass frame.
Further up the mountain, at a 23,000-foot camp set up by the father and son, another tent was being swept off the mountain, this time with most of John Roskelley’s gear inside. Luckily, the tent landed in a crevasse. It had been reduced to a broken sack, but it still contained the elder Roskelley’s down sleeping bag.
“We were blasted by winds on the way up to 26,000 feet, sixty- to eighty-mile-per-hour winds,” Jess says. “When we got to 25,000 feet, our Sherpas said they couldn’t keep any tents down.”
The father and son hunkered down in their tents for six days, waiting for the winds to stop. Cooking was nearly impossible. In the days leading up to the final push to the summit, Jess lay in his tent eating Jelly Bellys and the occasional Snickers bar. He slept, but in air one-third as rich in oxygen as air at sea level, the body forgets to breathe. A person wakes up gasping, like a swimmer emerging from a dangerously deep dive. The mind doesn’t work properly. He would reach sparingly for the bottled oxygen that fills a climber like heavy cream after a skim-milk diet.
The oxygen-starved air, author John Krakauer once wrote, leaves climbers “with the mental capacity of a slow child.”
“When you put that oxygen mask on, you’re a lot more clear thinking,” Jess says. “And when I took it off I was not clear. I was almost falling asleep. You’re not aware. I wasn’t careful.”
John Roskelley decided the group should push to the summit on May 20, shortly after they made it to 27,000 feet. They had spent days hauling their gear up to the final camp, each using a bottle of precious oxygen with every trip.
There was supposed to be a small break in the weather and the remaining Generations group was being pressured by a large Chinese expedition of more than 100 people. Jess’s father was convinced they would not be able to summit if the slow moving Chinese group went first. The climbers could lose fingers and toes, or worse, to frostbite if they became stuck behind the Chinese on the razor-thin trail.
John Roskelley suggested the group set out at 11 p.m., hiking in darkness. By the time the Roskelleys and their two Sherpas got going, the Chinese were about ready to climb.
There are myriad ropes on Everest already laid out for the trip to the top, Jess says. Left behind by previous climbers, some of the ropes are rotten; some look good but aren’t set up well. Picking the right ones is crucial because one is never enough. The Roskelleys picked theirs in the dark.
Jess would learn the consequences of picking the wrong rope second hand on the way back down. A rope snapped, sending two British climbers tumbling at 28,000 feet. The Brits struck a New Zealand climber, breaking his leg. The ridge trail was too narrow for anyone to help. The two Brits continued down the mountain, but the New Zealander had to crawl to a wider area where he could be carried down. Later, at base camp, Jess ran into the injured climber and learned the man’s broken bone was poking through his leg during his entire descent. He should have been the next Cave Man.
The sun had been up for only a few hours when the Roskelleys reached the summit. It was 7:30 a.m. John Roskelley handed his camera to Pemba Sherpa and posed with Jess for a photo.
At that point, Jess says the trip seemed like a fantasy, the final push something like a theme park ride. Before Pemba Sherpa clicked the shutter, the young Roskelley pulled his oxygen mask off. The clouds below were so thick you couldn’t tell if they were on Mount Everest or Mount Sentinel.
What did he think of the summit? Jess was so euphoric about making it to the top of the world that he didn’t notice the drain of the thin air on his body. Now he admits his memory of his ten minutes at 29,038 feet is faint. It was as if he lay down on the mountainside and dreamed the whole thing.
“I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do next since I got back,” Jess says. “I want more. This is my staging area.”
Tom Lutey ’95 is an award-winning writer for the Montanan and a reporter for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington.
Photography courtesy of Hamilton Studio, Spokane.