He Climbs, He Soars, He Rocks
Fortitude and enthusiasm define Vernon Tejas, whose life as a
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.
Vernon's other classic
include the first solo ascent of Antarctica's Mt. Vinson, a testament to
his interest in extreme, solo weather climbs.
"Fortunately I still have all twenty of my digits. Twenty-one
actually, if you count my nose as well as my toes..."
"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
of a select few that can climb mountains and guide others with equal
expertise. Vernon is an cautious climber, wonderful partner and true
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
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
Seven Plummets hang gliding from the summit of the
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
"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
I think one of the ingredients is just almost that sense of
serendipitous naïveté, if you will. Sometimes things just
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
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
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
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
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.
"Most climbers don't like to reveal their hottest dream climbs because
somebody else might just go ahead and do it..."
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
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,
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
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
be the one to do it. But still wrestling with just the challenges
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.