In February and March of 1988, Vern Tejas electrified Alaskans and the mountaineering world with a ground-breaking achievement. He became the first person to complete a solo winter climb of 20,310-foot Mount Denali.
Previously, Anchorage’s Tejas was celebrated for his guiding ability on the peak that is the highest in North America and Alaska’s signature geographic feature. After his ascent he became known worldwide as a guide on the highest peaks on each of the seven continents, including Mount Everest.
Combating high winds, low temperatures and storms, at one point during Tejas’ milestone Denali climb he was out of touch for some days and observers feared he had perished. Others had tried to complete the climb and died, or turned back. Tejas outsmarted the weather and emerged unscathed from his weeks in the wilderness. When the weather was at its worst he hunkered down in a snow shelter.
Famously, Tejas created protection against crevasse danger by modifying an aluminum extension ladder. He traveled light, carrying only a transistor radio for amusement and information, as weather reports informed his judgment on when to climb higher or retreat.
Recognized for his shaved head and bushy beard, Tejas also was known for entertaining his climbing clients by playing the harmonica. The Denali climb turned Tejas into a celebrity hero.
Over the decades, Tejas has amassed at least 57 ascents of Denali, a record, and says his career and world travels are owed to that mountain, the one he loves the most.
– Lew Freedman