When Josh McDowell was a 6-year-old growing up in Shelton, the Mason County Journal published a story about his family and its three generations of mountaineers.
McDowell started backpacking when he was 4, and was soon climbing regularly with his dad, Michael, and grandfather, Fred.
“The reporter asked me about my goals,” McDowell said. “I said I wanted to climb Mount Everest and the Matterhorn.”
Pretty bold goals for a kid still 14 years away from his first Mount Rainier summit.
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“I didn’t really know what that meant when I was 6,” McDowell said. “I just knew Everest was the highest mountain on Earth, and I wanted to climb it.”
On May 21 — 24 years after that interview — McDowell fulfilled that goal. The 30-year-old guide for Ashford-based International Mountain Guides reached Everest’s 29,035-foot summit.
“Standing on top, time kind of stands still,” McDowell said. He removed his oxygen mask and spent nearly an hour on the summit taking pictures and enjoying ideal conditions.
“It was an honor,” McDowell said.
McDowell, who now lives in Olympia, has carved out a career in the mountains after initially pursuing a teaching career.
He guides as many as 250 days per year on Rainier and around the world. He works as a substitute teacher five days each year in the North Thurston School District. He and his fiancee, Marisha Kasjan, are getting married in August.
McDowell is plenty busy, but he recently made time to field a few questions.
Q: How did you get into mountaineering?
A: I started when I was a little kid, actually. My grandfather and my dad were both big climbers. I started backpacking when I was 4 and mountaineering when I was 6. I kept going through college, climbing with buddies. When I got back, I taught in the Shelton School District for a year and then decided I didn’t want to teach high school. But I wanted to keep teaching, so I looked up IMG and got a job with them.
Q: How competitive is it getting a job as a guide?
A: At IMG, you have to know somebody, and I didn’t have a reference. So, George Dunn, who does all the hiring, basically told me he wasn’t going to hire me. So I called him or emailed every week for a year and a half until he finally gave me a job.
Q: How did you pay your dues in the first years?
A: Pretty much just running up and down the standard route (Disappointment Cleaver) for one or two seasons before you get a chance to work internationally. And that’s only about three months of work, so a lot of guides do ski patrol or construction to make it work until they can work full time. I was substitute teaching and I coached swimming (Timberline High and Shelton’s Quick Water Swim Club) and climbing (Olympia’s Warehouse Rock Gym).
My first international trip (in 2011) was the Mexico volcanoes with (two-time Everest summiter) Phil Ershler. It was pretty cool to get to do an international trip with such a big name.
Q: What was your thought when you saw Everest for the first time?
A: It’s big. It looks as big as you think it would look. Just getting through the Khumbu Icefall is pretty hazardous, and we go through there four times up and down. Just knowing that you have to go through that and it’s the first stage and you still have multiple weeks of climbing is pretty daunting.
Q: Besides the summit, what stands out about the trip?
A: The scale of the terrain. Especially from Camp One up to the South Col, which is Camp Four. The time it takes to get from one point to the next is hours when it seems like it would be half an hour. It’s just big. A lot bigger than any place I’ve ever been.
Q: So you carried a 12th Man flag to the summit?
A: A friend and neighbor of a few of our guides asked me to take it up there for him. I took one to the top of Mount Vinson in Antarctica this winter. … I wore my Seahawks hat on all four of the Seven Summits that I’ve done. I hate to say it, I was a Colts fan growing up. My first trading card was a Johnny U (Unitas) card. But I converted in college (Whitworth).
Q: You’ve climbed four of the highest points on each continent. Are the Seven Summits a goal?
A: Yeah, down the road. At this point I don’t have a huge desire to climb Kilimanjaro. I want to save that for later in my career when I don’t want to carry a heavy pack and do as much technical work. I definitely want to climb it, but not necessarily right away. But I wouldn’t turn it down.
Q: So, the Matterhorn. Still a goal, or something you chalk up to a 6-year-old’s dream?
A: Maybe down the road, but more definitely something I said when I was a little kid. Unfortunately, the mountains are so crowded these days. I don’t really like waiting in line, and that’s what it sounds like climbing the Matterhorn is.
Q: So what are your goals as an adult?
A: I want to go back to Everest. I guided on Ama Dablam — the Matterhorn of the Himalayas if you will — a couple of years ago, and we were unsuccessful in summiting, so I’d like to go back and climb that again.
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