The latest feat for Alaska climbing legend Vern Tejas is a high-altitude, record-setting sprint that took him to every corner of the planet and to the top of the highest peak on every continent.
Tejas, who became a household name in Alaska in 1988 when he became the first climber to complete a solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley, returned to the summit of his beloved McKinley on Monday to break the world speed record for climbing the Seven Summits. He did it with two days to spare.
Tejas, 57, climbed the highest peaks on each of the seven continents -- plus a peak in Papua New Guinea that many consider a mandatory eighth climb to complete the package -- in 134 days. The old record, set in 2008 by a Danish climber, was 136.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the accomplishment was the speed with which Tejas made it from the top of Mount Everest in Asia to the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska. He stood atop Everest, which at 29,035 feet is the tallest peak in the world, on May 24. One week later he was standing atop McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the tallest peak in North America.
"That was a pretty quick one," said Tejas, who spent four days on the slopes of McKinley, a mountain that he said takes most people two weeks to climb.
This is the second time Tejas has owned the Seven Summits speed record; in 2005, he accomplished the feat in 187 days. A guide for Alpine Ascents International whose job takes him to Everest and McKinley almost every year, Tejas also boasts the record for the most Seven Summits completions with nine.
"I have made a career of doing the Seven Summits, so it's nice to know that not only can I do them, I can do them the fastest and the most. It's my stamp," Tejas said Friday in a phone interview from his home in New York City. "It's my chosen career, and because of that I want to do it well and I want people to know me for it. It's also something I'm very proud of. I've put a lot of energy into it."
Tejas said he's been thinking about making a new run at the speed record ever since his previous record was broken back in 2006 by an Indian climber who accomplished the feat in 172 days. Ireland's Ian McKeever lowered the record to 156 days in 2007 and Denmark's Henrik Kristiansen lowered it to 136 in 2008.
"I got motivated after some uppity Indian climbers decided they were gonna go after it, and it just stuck in my craw that these guys from India who didn't know anything about climbing were going for it," Tejas said. "Neither had much of an inkling or a love of the mountains and it just kinda busted my chops that they were so well-funded they were gonna pull this off and take the record away from me. That made me hungry to get it back."
Kristiansen's 136-day achievement gave Tejas the final nudge he needed to try to reclaim the record.
"It was like a gauntlet going down," he said. "I thought, 'Oh, I should be able to do this.' "
A series of fortunate circumstances helped him along the way, including the chance to share a helicopter ride off Everest with one of his clients who wanted to get to Katmandu in a hurry, saving Tejas a couple of days of hiking. Also assisting his efforts: a guiding job that both paid his expenses for three of the climbs, including Mount Vinson and Everest, and kept him acclimatized to high altitudes on his round-the-world whirlwind.
The guiding job took Tejas up Antarctica's Mount Vinson three times last winter. His third climb up the 16,067-foot peak ended with a Jan. 18 summit -- and started the clock ticking on his record attempt. From there, his journey took him far, wide and high:
• A Jan. 30 summit of South America's 22,820-foot Aconcagua, followed by a quick trip home to New York's Greenwich Village "to say hello to my wife and grab some new gear."
• A Feb. 19 summit of Carstensz Pyramid, a 16,032-foot peak in New Guinea that he climbed while guiding a party of Alpine Ascent clients.
• A Feb. 27 summit of Australia's 7,310-foot Kosciuszko, a one-day climb after which he returned to New York for one day, mostly because airfare to his next stop -- Africa -- was cheaper if his itinerary took him through North America;
• A March 6 summit of Kilimanjaro, a 19,340-foot climb he managed to do in 48 hours instead of the usual six or seven days, in large part because he was already acclimatized;
• A March 20 summit of Russia's 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, a one-day climb for Tejas but a week-long climb for most others -- another feat made possible by pre-acclimatization, Tejas said.
• A May 24 summit of Everest, an ascent slowed by the fact Tejas was again working as a guide and had to move at his clients' pace, not his. He summitted a week ago Monday, giving him till June 1 -- or nine days -- to descend, fly from Nepal to Anchorage and get to the top of Denali. "That was one of my biggest challenges," Tejas said. "On the 24th of May I was on top of Everest thinking, how am I going to get down, get back to Alaska and get up (Denali) fast enough?"
Providing the answer was a client who, upon reaching Everest's summit, called his girlfriend on a satellite phone and proposed. She accepted, which made the climber so eager to get home that he hired a helicopter to take him off the mountain. The climber knew about Tejas' pursuit of the record, so he invited Tejas to ride to Katmandu.
Once he made it to McKinley, Tejas needed four days to reach the summit of a mountain he has scaled more than 40 times. He climbed to 10,000 feet the first day and 14,000 feet the second day, spent the next day at 14,000 and on the fourth made the push for the summit, getting there in nine hours.
At about 5 p.m. Monday, the clock stopped ticking and the record was his again.
Tejas suspects it's only a matter of time before someone tries to lower the mark even further. And he thinks it can be done faster -- by others, and by him.
Tejas took time off between Kilimanjaro and Elbrus to meet his son in Alaska for a spring-break ski trip to Alyeska. His original plan was to climb McKinley during that span, but his boss at Alpine Ascents worried that a winter ascent of McKinley might make Tejas fatigued, late or both for the start of the climbing season on Everest. So Tejas went to Alyeska instead and put off McKinley.
He joked that his four-month adventure probably set two records -- the speed record, and one for what he called "the most insignificant budget for the Seven Summits."
People like McKeever and Kristiansen often get sponsors to provide six-figure budgets, he said. Tejas was able to cover expenses for three of his climbs -- Vinson, Carstensz Pyramid and Everest -- thanks to his job, and he said he spent an average of $1,000 apiece for the others. He said he's learned to travel cheap over the years.
Tejas will remain in New York for about another week -- his wife, Carole, is a Manhattan attorney he met while guiding on Elbrus a few years ago and married at the top of Mount Vinson in December 2007-- but will be back in crampons in a week or so, when he returns to Alaska to resume guiding on McKinley.
He celebrated his 57th birthday in April, while preparing for the Everest climb, and said he feels fit and strong enough to keep chasing big goals.
"I feel like I'm pretty primed right now," Tejas said. "I feel lucky to have a supportive wife, and a boss who's supportive of my desires to be strong and unusual and different, and to still have my health."
The Seven Summits
• Vinson Massif in Antarctic, 16,067 feet;
• Acongagua in South America, 22,829 feet;
• Kosciuszko in Australia, 7,310 feet;
• Kilimanjaro in Africa, 19,340 feet;
• Elbrus in Russia, 18,510 feet;
• Everest in Asia, 29,035 feet;
• McKinley in North America, 20,320 feet.
(An eighth peak, 16,023-foot Carstensz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea, has in recent years been acknowledged by the international mountaineering community as a must-do climb for those wanting Seven Summits fame. It is part of the Oceania region, sometimes called Australasia, which in some parts of the world is considered a continent that includes Australia.)