Vern Tejas achieved his initial notoriety after his bold and cold solo of Denali in winter in 1988. I met him shortly afterwards at the base of Aconcagua, having just completed the South Face of Aconcagua, where he called us over and introduced Paul Teare and I to his group with “Here are the real climbers, lets talk to them.”
As he writes early in his book Seventy Summits:
“I’ve always made an effort to create the best mood possible for my people.”
It seems “his people” could well include most of us who enter his circle and the wide range of people he knows – or perhaps more correctly, that know him. He makes us all feel good about our climbing and there are few things better than that.
So 70 summits of the 7 summits? Incredible, yes. Or an initial thought may be both ‘why?’ And doesn’t that get a bit boring, or even repetitive?
It could, if it weren’t for the fact the mountains, the seasons, and the groups are ever changing. And interspersed with the climbs are a set of remarkable achievements, often completed solo, that show an ongoing enthusiasm and real climbing talent for reaching the heights.
While Vern is best known to a wide and highly appreciative group of clients as a guide, he also did the first solo ascent of Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, as well as a 10 hour ascent from Base Camp.
Then he took his paraglider up and flew off the top, making the first flying descent from the top of Antarctica.
It is quickly clear that this is a man whose first home is in the mountains and who revels in:
“One of the most pleasant experiences is to move efficiently and at a fast pace through a harsh environment.”
Vern has partnered on his book Seventy Summits, with Lew Freedman, who starts each chapter with background and details in a short synopsis, leaving Vern to cover the personal side of each of the peaks.
The book is broken into chapters focused on each of the summits, a good way to contain the stories without falling into redundancy. I tend to devour all books on mountains, and this was a very enjoyable and pretty much non-stop read.
It is naturally a book that includes his guiding life, but is much more a book on people and mountain experiences. Within the stories of the heights, there are some truisms that stood out for mountain climbing, simply stated:
“You are in the moment every step, but you cannot be so focused that you can’t absorb the big picture.”
In doing the 7, often guiding for Alpine Ascents, he also set out to do them twice in a year, which he nearly accomplished several times before achieving his goal:
“So I have climbed the Seven Summits on three different occasions in less than 372 days.”
Including his final time – an amazing sub-year time, completing the double for the full 7 Summits in 363 days.
Even working out the logistics and timing for this would boggle the mind. If you add in the fact that the majority of time he is climbing with clients, with that level of success, it is no wonder he is one of the most sought after 7 summits guides.
While Vern’s adventures naturally extend around the globe, it is Denali that is his home mountain; where he got started, and where he first became well known with winter ascents of not only Denali, but also Hunter and Logan.
He has also jumped off the top with his paraglider, and then again descended from 17.2 High Camp to 14.2. For someone who spent early years in Texas, it is certainly a very big jump, but Alaska is where he has always been most comfortable. With an amazing 57 ascents and counting, at this rate he will equal his age in ascents soon.
Climbers seem to be challenged with talking about their personal lives and emotions, and time in the mountains certainly makes relationships difficult.
Here we are given enough background to see the shaping of his life, his family and his sons. If you are looking for the kind of insight brought out in Bonington’s Ascent you won’t find the same level of introspection but the fact Vern found time in his life for a book right now is highly commendable. Sharing his stories and his life now means we catch him still in the thick of guiding, with the immediacy and directness that comes with being so active.
With the constraints on publishing now, it is also challenging to include the photos, those quirky, fun old fashioned shots of first climbs, of family, of those often small but telling visual moments that capture the emotions of the time – so you’ll just have to catch one of Vern’s lectures for those.
What does shine through, is a very direct, evocative personality whose story resonates with a natural love of the mountains and a deep appreciation for the many people he has guided to the tops of all the worlds’ continents:
“This has been one big reason I have kept guiding for so long: I really dig the people I’m sharing time with in the mountains.”
And as all climbers have seen, we certainly don’t need a scientist or a graph or chart to bring home what is happening with climate change in our mountain world, encapsulated with:
“We have changed the world so much that now we need to change.”
As Vern moves into his 60’s it is remarkable to reflect not only on his own achievements, but also the hundreds, if not thousands he has guided successfully up to the tops of the 7 summits.
“You can never predict what’s out there and what you can do. I’d like to think I still have a lot of miles to cover all over the world and a lot of adventures still in me.”
As we parted ways in Kathmandu, Vern was headed for the heights and Island Peak, with plans to catch up again in just a few months time in Antarctica.