Sen. Mark Udall Conquered Many Mountains Before Climbing Capitol Hill

Posted October 9, 2011 at 2:00pm

If you’re looking to connect with the Colorado electorate, you’d better know your way around a mountain — and not just those 14,000-footers the amateur climbers conquer on weekends.

A truly rugged Coloradan can tell the difference between native and nonnative species of blue sucker fish, painlessly swallows whiskey and might have to look outside the Rockies for a real challenge. At least, so says the state’s senior Senator, Mark Udall.

“There isn’t a Coloradan out there who doesn’t cycle, hunt, hike, golf, ski, fish or climb,” the Democrat told Roll Call. “We’re an outdoor state. It fits our worldview, and it’s how we define ourselves.”

That’s the turf where Udall says he earned his Colorado credibility, and it extends beyond the big black cowboy boots he wears with suits. Not only has the Democrat climbed 93 of the state’s 100 highest peaks, but he’s also conquered Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas and Mount Aconcagua (the highest peak in South America).

Still, his climbing résumé is incomplete. Udall and a team of five friends attempted Mount Everest in 1994 but had to turn back at 26,000 feet after a windstorm battered them for four days.

“We attempted a route that to this day has only been climbed once,” Udall said. “We knew we could make it if we went by one of the more common routes, but we were looking for something that would really challenge us. In the end, it meant that we didn’t actually reach the summit, but at least we made it home in one piece.”

Udall grew up with a close climbing partner in the family. His cousin Tom Udall isn’t just a fellow Democratic Senator. The New Mexico politician also joined him on the peaks. The two are sometimes called “the Kennedys of the West,” and they have countless stories from the trail.

“A friend of mine and I were returning from climbing a very difficult route on Aconcagua that involves being tied to the mountain while you sleep,” Mark Udall said. “On the way down, I saw somebody coming up who looked really familiar to me. It was Tom — I didn’t even know he was in Argentina.”

Before running for Congress, Udall parlayed his climbing skills into a career as an Outward Bound instructor. There, he took people from all walks of life — corporate executives, young adults, veterans and sexual assault victims — on trips into the wilderness.

“You can take the sense of empowerment that you get climbing back to your everyday life,” he said. “There’s a craftsmanship to climbing, and for me, it’s always been about how to translate that into other areas of my life.”

Udall said mountain climbing has instilled an appetite for calculated, responsible risk.

“If you knew you could climb a mountain, you probably wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s the uncertainty, the challenge and the willingness to put it all on the line that draws a lot of people to climb mountains. That can also apply to a lot of other challenges in life, whether it’s running for office, starting a family, going to grad school or taking all of your cash and assets and starting a business. You don’t know if you’re going to be successful, but you want to see what you’re capable of.”

Udall found out his own capabilities in 1999, when he was the only member of his team to summit the third-highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. The team spent three months working its way up, and on the final day of the ascent, his partner fell ill.

“It was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve ever embraced,” he said. “I climbed from midnight until [2 a.m.] on the following day. It took me 26 hours to go that last 2,000 feet, which in Colorado would only take about three or four hours. Standing on that summit was the high point for me, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes you have to dig deeper to find that combination of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual strength, and during that particular expedition, I felt like I was running at a high level.”

Udall cites British climber George Mallory as an inspiration. When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, Mallory is alleged to have famously responded, “Because it’s there.”

“For me, climbing is a powerful insight into what’s rich and important about life,” Udall said. “It makes you realize that the rewards and successes don’t come without real focus and commitment and a willingness to take risks. You don’t climb mountains without a team, you don’t climb mountains without being fit, you don’t climb mountains without being prepared and you don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And you never climb a mountain on accident — it has to be intentional.”

In addition to these life lessons, mountaineering has given Udall a perspective that he said helps him in Congress. He said climbing has made him familiar with his home state’s geography. From up high, he said he looks down on Colorado to see where communities and businesses are growing and where the valleys and plains remain. Udall said he keeps this image in his “mind’s eye” when he talks with constituents.

But that’s a long way from Washington.

“Climbing has worked for me in a number of ways on Capitol Hill,” Udall said. “I’m much more inclined to look at what people do, as opposed to what they say. Also, it’s about working together — we’re all on the rope together, and you don’t get to cut the rope if you’re not getting along with someone. It takes work, sacrifice, patience and acknowledging your own shortcomings.”

Udall’s climbing has taken him all over the world and even has shaped his foreign policy, as it did on a climbing trip to Tibet.

“We left some resources at a famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery that had been ravaged by the Chinese in the cultural revolution,” he said.

He still has some climbing goals to attain, including a desire to scale the remaining seven of the 100 highest peaks in Colorado. But Udall, 61, said his extreme climbing days might be finished: “A family man shouldn’t climb at that level. There are too many risks.”

But he’s not ready to rule it out completely. “I think the oldest climber to summit Everest was 70 years old,” Udall said. “I’m not going to say never, but right now, my Everest is my re-election in 2014.”