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UW Writer-in-Residence Departs for Everest Expedition
April 6, 2012 — The last time Mark Jenkins tried to climb Mount Everest, he was pursuing a master's degree in geography at the University of Wyoming. He was unable to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain on that 1986 expedition but, as part of his research into acid snow, he collected snow samples at a higher elevation than anyone had before.
In the 26 years since, the Laramie resident has traveled the world as an adventurer and writer. Jenkins' excursions have included ascents of some of the globe's other tallest peaks, dangerous trips to some of the world's last remote regions, and travel by foot or bicycle across continents. He's an internationally recognized author and journalist now working as a field staff writer for National Geographic -- and as writer-in-residence for the UW master's degree program in creative writing.
And he's heading back for another try at Mount Everest.
Jenkins left Wyoming at the end of March to be part of a team that will mark the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest. In chronicling the 2.5-month-long expedition for National Geographic, Jenkins will be part of a group climbing Everest's southeast ridge, while a separate team will tackle the mountain's west ridge.
"If the weather cooperates, our bodies cooperate and the stars align, hopefully we'll get to the summit," he says.
In his 1986 expedition, Jenkins was part of a group of climbers attempting a new route on Everest. They spent 75 days "very high" on the north face, but were prevented by weather from reaching the summit. He remembers the trip as "long, cold, difficult and dangerous." He lost about 25 pounds of muscle and suffered from severe exhaustion -- yet returned home with his fingers and toes, along with friendships with his colleagues, intact.
"That doesn't always happen on these expeditions," he says.
Jenkins says his disappointment at not reaching the summit in 1986 is one of the factors driving his decision to climb again in 2012. Among the others is a desire to honor the legacy of those who took part in the 1963 expedition, including National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop, who lost all of his toes as a result.
"I hope not to repeat that part of the legacy," Jenkins says with a laugh.
In his assignment for National Geographic, Jenkins will gather material for a feature story scheduled to be published next year on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 climb. He already has interviewed some of those who took part in that ascent, including Jim Whittaker, who is now in his 80s, yet plans to visit the base camp at an elevation of 17,500 feet. Starting April 16, Jenkins also is scheduled to blog at www.natgeo.com/oneverest from the base camp.
"Last time, we sent out hand-written letters by yak," he says. "This time, I'll be using a full satellite connection."
He also will be part of a Mayo Clinic study on the physiological effects of the high elevation and exertion on the climbers' bodies. He will join UW geology graduate Dave Lageson, now a professor at Montana State University, in an effort to remeasure the height of Everest.
At 53, Jenkins says his "mind is stronger" than it was on the 1986 climb, but he admits he is not as sure about his body. Lack of conditioning won't be a problem, however: He's been running the stairs at War Memorial Stadium daily, in addition to ski trips to the top of Medicine Bow Peak and hikes at Happy Jack.
"I've been training like a fiend," he says. "I run that stadium until I puke or practically pass out."
Running the stairs at War Memorial has been part of Jenkins' training regimen for many years, dating back to his time as a student at UW. His master's degree adviser was UW President Tom Buchanan, then a professor in the Department of Geography, whom Jenkins considers a close friend and mentor. Jenkins' master's thesis research into acid snow at high elevations resulted in publication of a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Jenkins has since been published in dozens of national and international publications, and he's the author of four award-winning books. Before going to work for National Geographic, he was a columnist for Outside magazine for eight years and worked as a freelance journalist.
A resident of Wyoming since the age of 7, Jenkins says he -- along with wife Sue Ibarra and daughters Addi and Teal -- is happy to still call Laramie home.
"I couldn't live in a town that didn't have a university -- I use Coe Library every week," he says. "I like Wyoming, the state and its people. And the landscape keeps me here. It's a great place intellectually, and a great place for an outdoor athlete."
Jenkins also enjoys bringing the world back to Wyoming. In the past year, he has crossed the state giving presentations about his most recent National Geographic travel and research into land mines in Cambodia and mountain gorillas in war-torn eastern Congo. In addition to teaching in UW's creative writing master's program, Jenkins contributes in many ways to several other programs at his alma mater.
"It's a great thing for me, and I think a great thing for the state," he says. "I take the most difficult, dangerous assignments (for National Geographic) and bring my experiences back to Wyoming and its communities. I have the best job on the planet."
He hopes to have more stories to tell Wyomingites next year -- this time from his Mount Everest experience. But first comes the climb.
"It's a huge challenge, and it's going to take a team effort," he says. "I'm going to give it my absolute best. I can't ask for more."
Laramie-based writer/adventurer Mark Jenkins, shown here on an ice-climbing trip in Iceland, is part of a team attempting to climb the southeast ridge of Mount Everest. The expedition will mark the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest. (Tyler Stableford photo)