Our Stories

From Environmental Science to Professional Mountaineering

Environmental science graduate Jon Shea '05 followed his career path to the top of the world - literally. He found his professional niche working as an international mountain guide, shepherding people to the windiest, highest, farthest reaches of the globe.

Shea got his first taste of high mountains when he arrived for a freshmen pre-orientation at Willamette, which took him to the coast range, and then Mt. Hood. "I was amazed at the size of the trees and the grandeur," he says of those hikes. Soon he was spending weekends scaling volcanic peaks, and when a friend suggested he follow other Willamette grads into professional mountaineering, he seized the idea. He shaped his school curriculum around understanding weather patterns, glacier formation, native vegetation and the geology of mountain chains.

As his friends marched at graduation, Shea was already flying high above a glacier on Mt. McKinley, heading toward his first expedition of the season. "A mountain is a much different work environment than I've ever experienced," he says. His location changes by the month, from volcanoes in Ecuador to ice climbs in Alaska, and he carries the tools of the trade on his back - ice axes, crampons, ropes and oxygen masks.

Shea knows how to use them, and understands first aid, and can answer questions about just how deep those glacier crevasses really are. But the most important skills, he says, are people skills. "Some people have a lot of experience and some have never put on a backpack before. I have to take all those individuals with different levels of experience and get everyone working together as a team. Add in the physical and mental challenges of mountaineering and the job really becomes more about managing people than the climb itself. When you're in a challenging or dangerous situation, messing up is not an option. My job is to keep everyone safe even when they're exhausted, gasping for air or descending ropes in a whiteout. The job is mostly about people."

Not only the people he serves, but also the people he meets along the trail. "The mountains are great, but they're only part of the experience," Shea says. "You meet the most genuine, generous people in the quiet farming villages in Nepal, and when you're in small towns in rural Mexico, you get a feel for the real Mexico, not the resort Mexico." Shea even taught Himalayan sherpas how to play baseball.

He has guided climbers up Mt. Rainier almost 100 times and circumnavigating the globe with clients, but his most transformative journey was a recent trip up Mt. Everest, where he helped the world's first recipient of a leg transplant make a stab at the world's highest mountain. "I felt physically prepared for the attempt and never doubted I could do it, but there were a lot of mental challenges. My client was tremendously strong and capable, but I had never climbed Everest before. I had to become familiar with the terrain for the first time, while I was guiding."

The team couldn't catch a break in the storms, and the window of clear weather they hoped for never appeared. The wind howled and driving snow created whiteout conditions. Headed down from the highest base camp on the mountain, his client slipped on loose shale and dislocated his knee. Cold, hungry, exhausted and weak, the man fell again, injuring ribs. Heroically, he kept walking, slipping in and out of consciousness. "We were the only team up on the mountain, and I have rarely felt so intensely alone," Shea says. He supervised a successful two-day medical evacuation from 24,000 feet, and then retraced his earlier footsteps toward the top of the mountain.

Shea arrived at the summit at 5:45 in the morning, just as the sun was sending its first shafts of light over more than 100 Himalayan peaks. The peak is conical, just large enough for one set of feet, with near-vertical plunges on two sides. He thought, "Don't move" as he took off his oxygen mask, got dizzy, felt his stomach turn in the altitude.

"It was surreal. I realized you can't go any higher - this is it. You see the 26,000-foot peaks next to Everest and you're looking down on them. It's tremendously humbling, and I felt as if everything in my climbing life had pointed to this moment. Being in the mountains is spiritual or existential or whatever you want to call it, but all of a sudden, life gets very simple. You have these basic tasks: Eat, drink, take care of yourself. Everything else fades away and you have a unique window into yourself.

"But that only lasts about 30 seconds, because then you start thinking about getting back to base camp. Most accidents happen on the way down, so you have to stay focused."

Staying focused is Shea's mantra, as he travels the globe, meets people from diverse cultures and develops budding talents in photography, writing and film production.

His advice for current students? "Don't be afraid to do something different. With alternative career paths, you have to be willing to work hard and be creative with how you pull things together. It's going to be challenging, but the rewards are huge."

And his advice for those who are afraid of heights? "Don't look down. ... Wait! Actually, look down. That's the coolest part."