Seattleite Spotlight: Professional Globetrotter Gordon Janow

A high altitude travel expert sheds light on ‘mountain culture’.

From a young age, Gordon Janow says he was ‘addicted to movement and travel’. Though this Brooklyn native and Ithaca College alum initially found work in New York City’s corporate sector, the exotic images on his National Geographic desk calendar ultimately inspired him to book passage to the Lofoten Islands, a frigid Norwegian archipelago located in the Arctic Circle. A backpacking excursion across Eastern Europe soon followed, and Janow really hasn’t stopped moving ever since; in the last four decades, he estimates he’s visited between 50 and 60 countries on five continents.

Screen shot 2013-06-30 at 6.08.12 PM
Photo by Brandy Yowell

Janow moved to Seattle in 1990 and co-founded Alpine Ascents International (AAI), a climbing guide service frequently touted as one of the finest (and most safety-oriented) in the business. Today he is the organization’s director of programs; he also serves as an emeritus board member of the Sherpa Education Fund, a nonprofit that strives to provide high-quality education for the families of Mount Everest’s legendary native guides.

When were you first exposed to international travel?

Luckily, I took some trips as a teen and always had a passion for visiting places. Then after college, I started to rack up serious time in other countries.

When did you realize that exploring the world was not just a hobby, but also a potential career choice?

I started to become a travel writer in my early twenties. I was very interested in writing fiction, and travel stories had to be so… truthful, in a sense. I was much more interested in the place where travel and fiction met, and the way traveling causes the mind to expand. I moved to Seattle and started doing small monologues in local theaters. Then I ran into a mountain climber, Todd Burleson, and we started Alpine Ascents International. He had the foundation of the business, so I decided to help him out for a year. At the time, I was tracing the routes of British explorers who visited the Himalayas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. So that was a natural flow into understanding the history of mountaineering. It wasn’t my passion for climbing, but my passion for that era in India.

What’s your background with mountain climbing, and how have those experiences shaped your career with AAI?

Not much background. I’ve been on glaciers and used an ice axe, crampons, etc, during my travels. But it seems I always had an affinity for mountains and mountain communities more than being ‘summit-oriented’ and so on. Certainly my interest in old Himalayan explorers has taken me to these places, as well as my fondness for the communities that, for whatever reason, happen to be in and around mountains. The way they live, the natural beauty that surrounds them, and how the mountain is a part of their lives and culture has always been fascinating to me.

AAI boasts one of the best safety records in the industry. What measures does your organization take to keep clients out of harm’s way during their climbs?

There’s always the nature of climbing to take into consideration – avalanches, crevasses, and people at different skill levels. We try to have a prevention plan for the things we can control. If climbers are fatigued or not up to the task, it’s our job to end their trip whether they like it or not. And we always have a risk management plan in place. Whether it’s the mountain or the climber, the key is being extremely conservative and not being afraid to postpone the climb for another day. Guide services have different responsibilities than individual climbers, and we take this commitment seriously.

What would you say to someone who is interested in mountain climbing, but also concerned the sport is too dangerous?

I would mention that certain climbs at certain times of the year are less prone to difficult conditions. For a first time climber, I might encourage something moderate that matches their skill level, such as Kilimanjaro, which is really just a long trail. Certainly Mount Rainier can be difficult and pose some challenges, but there are certainly better times of the year to climb it. Plus there are a lot of people on that mountain, guide services and climbers going up and down all summer, and that shared information is really relevant to managing risk. I’d want to steer beginning climbers to these places instead of those remote, heavily glaciated places during off-times of the year.

Tell us about some of the most remote locales you’ve visited. What have you learned from visiting these places, and what sort of wisdom can we as Americans glean from civilizations that are far removed from the modern age?

I’ve visited the Bedouins in Yemen, the eagle and falcon hunters of Western Mongolia, and the Naga people of India, who were headhunters for a long time. Not any more, but they’ll still show you the heads if you ask.

Stepping back, if we look at life and our ability to be happy and content, that seems to be equal-handed throughout the world. Culture, community, and intellectual challenge seem to be a running theme for happiness. Look at Buddhist cultures. Even if you don’t have a strong religious affiliation, you go to these places and people are kind, and sharing, and they’re acting as a community. You could say, well, it’s the Buddhism – but whether that’s the case or not, there’s something to this culture if they are able to live like that.

Let’s talk gear for a second – what are some essential pieces of equipment that novice climbers should invest in, and where are some good places to obtain them?

It depends on the mountain, but certainly a good pair of boots will serve you well. AAI provides a gear list of items climbers need for different mountains. There are a lot of products on the market, so finding something that works for you is key. I’ve always liked hiking in a fleece hoodie, but that’s not necessarily on the essential gear list. In general, you want to dress in clothing that keeps you warm and gives you the ability to breathe. If you get overheated, you’ll be perspiring a lot in a cold environment. Glove systems are also important. You have to keep those extremities warm.

I think the quality of gear has really improved in recent years. In addition to the AAI store that matches out gear list, there are some good local companies like Outdoor Research and MSR. People in Seattle are blessed with a whole host of not only retailers, but also manufacturers.

How should aspiring climbers physically train for their first summit?

Preparing for a climb is a year-round commitment, so people should understand the level of training involved. The best thing they can do is try to mask the type of climbing they plan on doing. That means a heavy pack. In Seattle, there are a lot of hills – marching up Queen Anne Hill with a backpack might be effective. Start with 20 pounds, then build to 25, 30, 40, maybe even 60 depending on where they want to climb. Go uphill with a pack on three or four days a week, and then spend two days doing cardio – cycling, for example, or stair-climbing at the gym.

In your opinion, what are some of the best climbing spots in the Northwest?

There’s Mount Si, which is a good test for how quickly a climber might ascend at a certain time. Cougar Mountain is another great local tool. Mount Shuksan or Mount Baker in the North Cascades, as well as the Enchantments out near Leavenworth, are all beautiful in the summertime.

What about worldwide destinations – any recommendations for international climbers?

Europe is the natural home of climbing, so Mount Blanc would be a classic place to go. If you want to test your sense of altitude and see if you like that uphill movement, Mount Kilimanjaro is a good climb. The trek up to Everest base camp is a great way to introduce yourself to mountain cultures, in addition to other hikes in Nepal and India.

How would you characterize ‘climbing culture’?

Climbing generally attracts a very driven, summit-oriented group of people. Mountain climbers are a community of people who generally support and help each other and share a similar passion for the mountains, as well as protecting the natural environments and maintaining good relations with the people who live on or near the mountains where climbing is common.

How can climbers minimize their ecological footprint?

It’s different for every mountain. You really want to know the area in both an economic way and an environmental way, and get involved with the local culture. People should also understand the different standards in place. For example, you probably shouldn’t go to the bathroom and just leave your waste there – one way or another, it needs to be carried out. Really take it to the next level in terms of older ‘Leave No Trace’ principles. Everything has an impact up there, even brushing your teeth. ‘Pack in and pack out’ means not only solids, but also liquids in many respects. Small stuff adds up.

How do you pass the time during your off-season… or is there an off-season in your line of work?

No off-season. It’s climbing season somewhere in the world. Heaven forbid there’s a break, I lead private tours of India once or twice a year. Groups come to me and I make an itinerary specifically for them, whether they like tennis, yoga, or art galleries. These tours usually last 15-20 days. Otherwise my life is busy here. I have a 13-year-old and a 9-year-old, and I coach ice hockey about 10 months a year.

How long have you been involved with the Sherpa Education Fund, and what can you tell us about the organization?

I’ve been involved with SEF for more than 15 years. We’re trying to help Nepali families who have little access to middle and upper education, and provide schooling for kids who are inclined to learn and really want to take on a higher level of education than their village might offer. Most of the kids come from the Everest region, which is known as the Khumbhu.

Some of the controversy around SEF is that we’re taking people out of their remote villages and moving them to a cityscape. But most trained teachers simply don’t want to teach in these villages. It’s not the school, and it’s not the books. A typical educated person from Kathmandu does not want to move to a remote area. They would rather make their living in a larger town.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences during your travels to Nepal with the SEF?

Watching that first layer of third and fourth graders graduate and go to college is pretty cool. You hope it happens, and then you watch it happen. Also, fostering a relationship with Nepali people who are volunteers as well. There’s a shared act of volunteerism with the Nepali community that has been very rewarding.

Janow says web users can visit the official Sherpa Education Fund website to contribute donations or find out how to get involved with upcoming projects and fundraisers. For more information on guided climbing expeditions, gear sales, and mountaineering courses, please visit AAI online or stop by the company’s shop (and headquarters) in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. Travelers who are interested in booking a group trip to India should email Janow for more details.