Senior climbers ushered in era of hot-shot mountaineers

2014-06-18T06:00:00Z Senior climbers ushered in era of hot-shot mountaineersBy Rich Landers The Spokesman-Review The Billings Gazette
June 18, 2014 6:00 am  • 

Two Spokane Mountaineers have lofty senior status for their role in taking a couple of upstart climbers under their wings 50 years ago and launching them toward the top of the world.

Bill Fix, 88, and Joe Collins, 89, were among the club members who pioneered climbs throughout the region anywhere within striking distance. They would take epic three-day trips with barely enough time to return home Monday in time for work.

In 1965, a teenage graduate of the venerable Spokane Mountaineers Mountain School was assigned during the Mountaineers Summer Outing to rope up with Fix for the rock-climbing portion of their ascent of Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park.

Fix filed the trip report in the club's journal: "A special commendation is due to John Roskelley for his help in route finding and leading to the summit. ... At 16, he has to be dubbed 'most promising new climber.'"

Roskelley later rose to the top of the world's best mountaineers — a career honored this spring in Italy — as he became the first American and sixth recipient of the Golden Ice Axe award (Les Piolets D'or).

Although Fix had an eye for Roskelley's climbing prowess, perhaps nobody could have foreseen that he would one day be on the same mountaineering lifetime achievement list as Walter Bonatti, Reinhold Messner, Doug Scott, Robert Paragot and Kurt Diemberger.

Also in 1965, Collins chauffeured Roskelley and another 16-year-old Mountain School graduate, Chris Kopczynski, for a club climb of 9,131-foot Mount Shuksan in the North Cascades.

"Chris ate all three-days worth of food the first day," Collins recalled Sunday. "He came to me and said, 'Joe! Joe! My food's all gone!' as I had all of my food neatly organized in front of me."

Kopczynski reportedly said, "What should I do, Joe?" as he looked longingly at Collins's food, each meal for each day wrapped and labeled.

"I put each package in my stuff sack, pulled the drawstring tight, put it in my pack and said, 'Next time you will remember. Let's go climbing.'"

Kopczynski learned his lessons well. His long list of climbing accomplishments include joining Roskelley in 1974 to become the first American team to climb the North Face of the Eiger; becoming the ninth American to climb Mount Everest and completing the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent, by 1994.

Fix was a collegiate mile runner, Yale graduate, engineer and investment broker while Collins detoured from education to become a diamond setter who never intentionally worked out except to go hiking, hunting and climbing.

"You can wear yourself out exercising too much," he said.

The two men met each other through the Spokane Mountaineers in the early 1950s.

Similarly, the two teenagers were cut from different cloth. Kopczynski was a jock, a standout wrestler at Lewis and Clark High School and later at Washington State University. Roskelley, on the other hand, never found a niche in athletics at Shadle Park.

All four of them found common ground in climbing, a team sport in which every individual must measure up or everyone fails — or dies.

"Roskelley had been on a few hikes with the club but not up a mountain until that Tetons trip," Fix recalled recently. "He fell into the group (of 15 climbers) as a natural."

What's remarkable is that while three mountaineers who knew each other roped up as one team at the crucial point of the climb, Fix tied in with the young unknown and headed out onto the vertical rock pitches where one mistake would be their last.

"He could have been awkward and a risk but he was very naturally good at it," Fix said.

"I never climbed with any other teenagers, probably because most parents wouldn't go for it. Roskelley and Kopczynski were very unusual."

Within a couple years, Roskelley and Kopczynski had driver's licenses and enough experience to fledge.

"Five of us were in Jasper National Park (Canada) planning a couple of days to climb Mount Edith Cavell," Fix recalled. While his group was getting acclimated, Roskelley and another young climber, Jim Spearman, were setting a speed record on the north face, becoming the first to make the ascent in a single day. Legendary Northwest climbing pioneer Fred Becky had required two days.

Collins said he never looked at Roskelley and Kopczynski as younger or better mountaineers.

"When we were on the mountain, we were just climbers," he said. "We were all just like teenage kids, except I was 25 years older.

"John was always champing at the bit. He would sell anything to go climbing. Together with Kopczynski, they were something else. The sky was the limit."

Even in his 50s, Collins teamed with Kopczynski to climb Mount Robson, the highest point in the Rocky Mountains, and later roped up between Roskelley and Kop to climb Bugaboo Spire.

"I'm not going to say I did any leading on those trips," Collins said. "But they never had to come back and lift my leg for the next step.

"And they never had to wake me up. That's one thing I still have over them. I don't need as much sleep.

"What strikes me most is that we have this strong friendship, despite our age differences, that's gone on for all these years."

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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