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Meet John Evans

Written by Stephen Knapp on .

In charting his life’s course, longtime mountain-area resident John Evans has followed the general policy to follow his heart.

“I did everything for the wrong reasons,” is how he puts it, “but it always seems to turn out okay.”

Reptiles

Some would say better than okay. Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, young John had a fondness for reptiles. “I was one of those snake fiends,” Evans grins. Where his friends took the bus to summer jobs at the local grocery, Evans took a Greyhound to Rapid City, SD, and spent every vacation from the age of 14 working at the famed Reptile Gardens. While fascinating in its own right, the job also put the active lad in close proximity to some of the best hiking and climbing anywhere.

Graduating from high school in 1958, Evans briefly decided it was time to apply nose to grindstone, enrolling at Duke University with an eye toward a geological engineering degree. “I’d always been very outdoors-y, but never bothered to learn about the geology,” Evans explains. “I thought school would shove it down my throat.”

It did, but even as Evans excelled in the program he found North Carolina’s rather horizontal topography a bit uninspiring. He lasted a year at Duke before transferring his flag back to Rapid City and the South Dakota School of Mines, a move that allowed him to continue his studies while indulging both his mania for reptiles and growing passion for mountaineering. He learned the ropes of technical climbing, and began leading expeditions in the relatively new discipline of rock climbing.

“I was in hog heaven.”

In one instructive episode, Evans was all set to receive his degree when he got word from the Reptile Gardens that a shipment of prized Nile crocodiles was hung up at the dock in New Orleans. There was simply no contest. He shrugged off his graduation and raced to the Gulf.

“I helped them crate up the crocodiles and drove them to South Dakota.”

Antarctica

Evans eventually did get his bachelor’s in geological engineering, and then his master’s, and then, on a professor’s advice, he transferred to the University of Minnesota to pursue his PhD. And while Minneapolis didn’t have the vertical profile he’d come to depend on, the university did have the best Antarctic research program in the country. He did a fateful research hitch at McMurdo Station in 1963.

“It was so much fun I quit school and got a job at McMurdo.”

Mostly Evans organized and supported the parade of scientists cycling through the station on missions of discovery. On his own time, he organized his own explorations. The mountains of Antarctica were on nobody’s map, and Evans’ mountaineering skills found a virgin continent just waiting to be conquered. In 1957, a U.S. aerial survey indentified 16,066-foot Mount Vinson as the White Continent’s highest summit. In 1963, the powers-that-be decided to do something about it.

“There was a political side to it,” Evans recalls. “They thought it would be a shame if the Russians, or Italians, or somebody beat us to the top, especially after our resources made them aware of it.”

With a geology degree, long experience in Antarctica and superb mountaineering skills, Evans was a shoo-in to oversee the attempt. Trouble was, neither the National Science Foundation (NSF) nor the State Department, both strong proponents of a U.S. first-ascent, were willing to put their money where their mouths were. Fortunately, by 1966 they’d prevailed on the National Geographic Society to underwrite the expedition, but on the eve of departure they hit one final snag. National Geographic asked for a research proposal that would lend a scientific blush to the essentially political endeavor, and the NSF asked Evans to write one.

“I couldn’t believe it.”

Evans woke up one of his instructors and by dawn they’d hammered out a proposal that, in the age before email, was overnight-expressed to the NSF and then hand-delivered to National Geographic. As luck would have it, one of the oldest rock outcroppings in the Sentinal Range happened to out-crop right next to Mount Vinson, and they argued that a few fossils extracted therefrom might help shed light on the new geological theory of continental drift.

On Dec. 18, 1966, the officially-named American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition became the first to stand atop the high summit of Mount Vinson, then went on to visit the crowns of neighboring unexplored peaks such as Gardner, Shinn, and the horribly challenging Tyree. And those fossils? Turned out that one in particular, that of a plant named glossopteris, was actually quite useful in providing a firm scientific foundation for the then-precarious concept plate tectonics. The whole story from skirt to summit was colorfully and completely detailed in the June, 1967 edition of the National Geographic magazine.

Evans worked at McMurdo during Antarctica’s brief summer season, and used northern-latitude summers testing his mettle against other mountains, leading climbing trips from the Black Hills to the Alps as a guide with the Iowa Mountaineers. In 1965 he helped pioneer the seemingly impossible “Hummingbird Ridge” route up the southern flank of North America’s second-tallest peak, Canada’s 19,551-foot Mount Logan, a feat that has never been matched.

In 1966, John met his bride-to-be, Loie Belknap, and decided it was time to knock out that PhD. By the time they married in 1967, he’d completed everything except his dissertation, which is when he was offered a job at the Manned Space Craft Center – later Johnson Space Center – in Houston.

“I had visions of working on all these cool lunar samples and doing my thesis on them.”

Mt. Everest

He loved the job, but never did get his hands on any lunar samples, so when he was offered the chance to lead an international group of mountaineers up Mount Everest in 1971, he leapt at it. “I’d never been to the Himalayas, and it was my chance to climb with the big boys.”

Evans helped shepherd six trucks full of gear from Bombay to Katmandu, then took charge of one of two groups attempting to summit Everest by two different routes.

“It was supposed to be a demonstration of international brotherhood and good will, and I really bought into that,” says Evans, who soon found himself surrounded by an international cast of big-name mountaineers who couldn’t seem to play well with others. “We had climbers from 13 nations, no common language and a lot of egos. It was a good education for me. Idealism itself won’t get you there.”

Ill-timed storms proved even more toxic to the adventure’s success than ill-will, and no member of either party made the summit that year.

It was also in 1971 that the Evanses moved into a log cabin in Conifer and John settled in as program director for Outward Bound, a full-time job that still left time for the odd adventure. By 1981, however, he was ready for a change, and that change came in the form of the American Medical Research Expedition to Everest, an ambitious undertaking in which a hardy team of doctors would climb to the roof of the world with a hardy team of guinea pigs and, it was hoped, learn much about the nature and treatment of high-altitude maladies.

“We got to pick our own team, and we tried to pick a team with zero jerks.”

They picked wisely, the expedition was a medical and cooperative success, and if Evans felt it his duty as coordinator to forgo the final push in favor of mission-critical personnel, his careful guiding skills helped five team members to reach the summit. Back home, he accepted what looked like a golden opportunity to put his almost-PhD to work vetting oil company loan applications for United Bank in Denver.

“What I wound up doing was acting as a personal banking representative for oil moguls. I had to buy uncomfortable shoes and get a haircut. I spent most of my time sitting on the umpteenth floor with my nose pressed against the glass wondering how I could get outside and breathe a little fresh air.”

In 1988 he and Loie moved to more comfortable digs in Evergreen Park Estates, and in 1991 fresh air finally blew into John’s nostrils via his old friend, the NSF.

“They were putting together a joint U.S./Russian scientific venture in the Weddell Sea, and they needed me to manage the American side. I really wanted to get back to Antarctica, so I said ‘sure.’ It was the biggest project I’d ever been involved with, and little old me was supposed to be in charge.”

Marked by a season spent aboard an ice-breaker locked in Weddell Sea ice, the challenging mission’s success launched Evans on a new career as head of operations for an Raytheon Polar Services Co., using his skills and knowledge to help scientists and field staff accomplish their tasks in the world’s worst climate.

In 2006, he and three other members of the original Mount Vinson climbing party were invited to try it again for old times’ sake. They came within a whisper of Vinson’s summit before the hour grew late and the party leader turned them around. If the years hadn’t changed the mountain, they’d certainly changed the mountaineers.

“We were just too slow,” says Evans, with a wry smile. “We were within an hour of the top, and we could have easily done it, but we were just too slow.”

At home in Evergreen

In the living room of the Evans home, banks of floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with published volumes relating to John’s remarkable mountaineering adventures, many of them directly. Downstairs in his sunny office, smaller shelves are filled with small, tattered journals, fascinating handwritten accounts John kept of every ascent he accomplished during more than 50 years of exploration. He and Loie have recently begun making a sampling of those detailed logs available to anyone who’d care to thumb them at www.JohnEvansClimbing.com. The complete logs are available on Kindle.

If John’s sky-conquering days are behind him, he and Loie can often be seen walking the trails at next-door Alderfer/Three Sisters Park, and John often walks in the other direction to Wulf Recreation Center and Evergreen Lake for a little aerobic entertainment. He’s also a frequent guest at the Montessori School of Evergreen, sharing his knowledge of all things reptilian with the classmates of his and Loie’s two granddaughters, and when somebody living on, say, Lookout Mountain, comes head-to-head with a rattlesnake, there’s a better-than-even chance they’ll call on Evans to settle their nerves.

“They usually just want to know what to do. I just go over and advise them.”

Not long ago, the Evanses were traveling in the San Luis Valley and stopped in at a place that advertised alligator wrestling. It was irresistible stuff for John, of course; and he was more than happy to share some thoughts on improving the resident wrestler’s technique.

“I used to do that at the Reptile Gardens. I’m probably the only senior-citizen alligator-wrestler in town.”