Spokane man finally conquers Everest, with 20-year-old son at his side

One beat back a throat infection, the other alarming neck pain. And they still faced flying ice axes, runaway tents and clobbering winds that crunched them from all sides like speeding Buicks at a demolition derby.

But elite mountaineer John Roskelley, 54, finally slayed his personal demon — and his 20-year-old son, Jess, passed into the Mount Everest record books — when the father-son team from Eastern Washington reached the top of the world at around 7:30 a.m. yesterday morning (6:45 p.m. Tuesday in Seattle).

The relief of conquering the mountain that had eluded him in four previous attempts in the past 20 years brought John Roskelley to tears, say friends and family who talked to him by phone yesterday.

And to do it while helping his son become the youngest American to reach Everest's 29,035-foot summit only added to the joy.

"We were so elated, neither my wife nor me really slept," Fenton Roskelley, John's father said from his Spokane home yesterday. "This monster has been on John's shoulder for so long, and he was so proud to be doing it with his son. It was the mountain he hadn't climbed, and he couldn't get it out of his mind. He knew this was going to be his last hurrah."

Friends and relatives expect this week's achievement will redirect the future for Jess, a University of Montana student and Mount Rainier climbing guide.

"I think Jess hasn't got a clue yet how this could change his life," said Chris Kopczynski, who has climbed with John Roskelley since age 15. "He's so young, and now he'll be a hero. He's going to be on some teenage heartthrob show. ... Who knows?"

After a difficult climb in treacherous conditions that included 100 mph winds and record crowds near the summit, nervous friends were reassured to learn the pair had already beat it down from high camp and were making a beeline for 17,000-foot base camp and home.

"About 80 percent of accidents occur on the way down. But knowing John, he was probably like a horse headed for the barn," Kopczynski said.

The senior Roskelley, a Spokane County commissioner, has climbed K2 and Makalu I, the world's fifth-highest mountain, and 26,810-foot high Dhaulagiri, in Nepal. In 1976, he led a trip to 25,645-foot Nanda Devi in India with Washington climber Willi Unsoeld. Unsoeld's daughter, named after the mountain, died in the climb.

He made repeated tries on Everest in 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1993 without using supplemental oxygen. But each time he was forced back, by frostbite or pulmonary edema or exhaustion, once just a bit more than 1,000 feet from the summit.

"I'd tell him, 'What more do you need to do? Go up a peak bare naked?' " said Kopczynski, who summitted Everest himself in the early 1980s. "He's one of the top American climbers. But it ate at him and ate at him. It would almost go away, but then he'd confide in private, 'I want to climb it, too.' It was a monkey on his back."

This time, Roskelley used bottled oxygen so he could stay in command of his faculties in case his son needed help.

The Roskelleys were part of a team of four called "Generations on Everest" who were climbing during the 50th anniversary celebration of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's 1953 first ascent.

With the pair were Seattle attorney Jim Wickwire, 62, who'd been the first American to climb K2 in 1978 with Roskelley, and Utah ski-area owner Dick Bass, 73, who was hoping to regain his title as the oldest person to climb Everest, which he'd first achieved at age 55.

The group wasn't on the mountain long before they experienced complications.

Jess, who'd had his wisdom teeth removed in January, had battled an infection in his jaw through the spring. By mid-April at 19,000 feet he was spitting up pus and a chunk of tooth. He also felt a stabbing pain in his neck. He descended to 17,000-foot base camp and headed for a clinic in Kathmandu for blood tests. He got medicine, and eventually made it back to base camp.

There, Wickwire, who had lost part of a lung in a K2 climb, contracted a sinus infection, while Bass struggled with back pain.

At 23,000 feet, John Roskelley, who had pitched a tent in the shadow of a giant ice block at the North Col, where tents were packed in like matchsticks in a box, suddenly came down with a throat infection. It left him so oxygen-deprived that his hands went numb. He returned to base camp for antibiotics while his son headed back up to reacclimatize after nearly a week away.

Wickwire said in an interview that the mountain was extremely crowded. "There were more than 25 expeditions on the north side and more on the Nepal side. As you worked your way to 21,000 feet, the expeditions were just stacked on top of one another."

Tent guy wires were intertwined. High winds sent a Russian expedition's tent whipping 100 feet into the Roskelleys' tent, where the Russian tent's ice ax ripped through the fabric. Then Bass' tent took to the air, even with a 40-pound duffel bag inside, then dumped the bag and flew away.

By early May, Bass had turned back, and Wickwire was struggling to breathe at 21,000 feet. Both returned to the United States last week.

The Roskelleys, at times powering through 6 feet of fresh snow, made it back to the North Col, where they hunkered down against the wind for four nights. On May 17, they tried to make it up a ridge to 25,600 feet, but were knocked back again.

Existing on a nearly all-liquid diet of water, Gatorade or hot chocolate with a little bit of Top Ramen, the Roskelleys had to blow ahead of a Chinese party or risk getting caught behind a crowd. So late Tuesday night, they started out in stormy weather, reaching the top at 7:30 a.m., the third and fourth this year to summit by that route.

"He (John) called us first thing when he got off the top," Fenton Roskelley said. "His breath was very short, and he said they were in good shape. Ten minutes later, Jess called, saying he felt a little woozy, but they'd made it."

The pair then called Wickwire. He relayed the news to Kopczynski.

"He called from 27,000 feet and he was just crying," Kopczynski said. "After climbing with John for 38 years, I know, for him, he's just really relieved."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com