Monday, August 31, 2009

Q & A With Vern Tejas


Checking in with Professional Guide Vern Tejas

As EN enters its 16th year next month, we’ve created this new feature wherein we attempt in this age of instant communications, short attention spans, blogs, vlogs, Twitters and tweets to check in with some of our favorite people Out There, asking the first 10 questions that pop into our fertile brain.

Vern Tejas, 56, a senior mountain guide for Alpine Ascents International, is best known for Denali’s first solo winter ascent, the first solo of Mt. Vinson (Antarctica’s highest), first winter ascent of Mt. Logan (Canada’s highest) and as lead guide for Col. Norman Vaughan’s first ascent of Mt. Vaughan in Antarctica.

We caught up with Tejas (pronounced Tey-Has) in Grand Central Station after he changed out of his sweaty workout clothes, having rollerbladed up from the West Village. ("Don't you get stares changing in the Mens room?" we asked. He laughs, "I use a stall since there are no phone booths any longer.”)

Over a frightfully expensive Chop Chop Cobb salad and chicken wrap we began our probe.

What brings a hard-core Talkeetna, Alaska guide to the canyons of New York?

"Love, pure and simple. I fell (if you pardon the expression) for a New York M & A attorney named Carole Schiffman. She was a climber on one of my guided trips and we hit it off after we returned home. It was the first marriage for both of us.”

Where did you finally tie the knot?

"After dating for 19 weeks in 2007 we were on a climb together in Antarctica on Mt. Vinson. When we discovered that fellow guide Todd Passey, a former missionary, was still ordained to perform marriage ceremonies, we decided right on the summit ridge that there was no better place than the top of Vinson to exchange vows.”

"Carole would later joke that she was suffering from hypoxia at the time."

Is a wedding ceremony in Antarctica legal?

"Well, not exactly. We satisfied the bureaucrats back home a few months later with a civil ceremony at City Hall in New York, decorated with plastic flowers that looked like they were there for decades.”

"It’s a good thing we made it official. About two months later, after returning from Everest, I became seriously ill and was hospitalized with blood poisoning. I qualified, as her spouse, for health insurance and we could take advantage of the fine health care that this city has to offer. So I guess you can say our marriage and Carole’s quick action saved my life.”

What's next for you?

“I am fortunate to hold the record for the number of times anyone has climbed the Seven Summits - eight. Now I want to re-claim my record for the fastest time. Ian McKeever completed all seven in 156 days, beating my record by 30 days. I think I can go back and knock off another round of the Seven Summits in 150 days next season.”

You had a prostate cancer scare. Will that figure into the attempt?

“Yes, this time around I hope to raise awareness of the disease which I seem to have under control currently. Cancer of the prostate is the most common form of cancer among men in the developed world. It’s estimated that there are 230,000 new cases in the United States alone each year. It’s high time we develop a better understanding of how to deal with this killer.”

How supportive is your wife in your career?

“Carole is wonderfully supportive of my guiding life and understands the call of the wild. We love to climb together and eventually hope to co-guide together.”

How do you train while stuck in the concrete jungle?

“New York is a surprisingly outdoor city. I bike the West Side Highway, Rollerblade to meetings, even unicycle. To train for Vinson, we dragged tires across the Brooklyn Bridge. The comments from passing New Yorkers were priceless:

"'Hey mister? What happened to the rest of your car?'

"'You know, if you put that tire up on edge, it'll roll better.'”

What's the biggest difference between Talkeetna and New York?

"New York has better bagels."

How has the guiding business evolved?

"Well, I'll have to give Dick Bass a big kiss for 'inventing' the concept of the Seven Summits in 1984-85. Paradoxically, the publicity surrounding the Everest disaster of 1996 also generated interest in guided climbs. Since then I've helped a lot of people fulfill their dreams.”

Finally, in a shameless bout of self promotion, we couldn't resist asking: How's it feel to be the cover boy of the new book, "You Want to Go Where?"

“I had to look closely when I first saw Gordon Wiltsie's image of me. It was taken on a serac on Norman Vaughan's namesake mountain in Antarctica in 1994. I recognize my parka and my boots, which I still own. I wound up buying three copies of the book. My mother is going to love it.”