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At roughly 18,000 feet in elevation on Mount Denali, after traversing a slope known as “the Autobahn” — one of Denali’s most dangerous features — Jacob Weasel, M.D., was less than two miles and 3,000 feet of elevation from the summit of Mount Denali. Coming around a glacial outcropping, he and his group were hit with strong winds, which cut through their layers and sapped the heat from their bodies.
The team had spent 17 days on the mountain and had exhausted the time that they had allotted at High Camp. In other words, they had to summit that day, or not at all. But in those conditions, the mountaineers would likely lose fingers and toes. The guide made the call — they would turn around. Dr. Weasel is a general surgeon who specializes in trauma cases. In other words, his fingers are pretty important. Yet, he wanted to push ahead. He asked the guide to wait out the weather for a while, in hopes that an opportunity to bid for the summit would present itself. The guide relented, but only for 10 minutes before pulling the ripcord and bringing the group back down from the summit approach.
“It was the only time that I’ve ever had to turn around on a mountain, and that was pretty tough.” Dr. Weasel said. “At no point on the summit day did I ever want to turn back.”
Meeting Dr. Weasel
I met Dr. Weasel through work — we both work for the same health care system, though he’s a general surgeon and I’m a communications specialist. That should give you an idea of the relative importance of what we do — he saves lives, and I tell stories. But when I asked him to take some time to sit and talk with me about his experience on Denali, he found a couple hours on his calendar and joined me for a cup of coffee.
It was during that conversation that I learned that Dr. Weasel was planning to attempt summiting Mount Everest in 2023 — he’ll be embarking on that trip in just a couple weeks. His plans also include completing the Seven Summits, the highest mountain peaks on the seven continents.
Dr. Weasel on the mountain
Dr. Weasel’s interest in mountaineering was first piqued as an undergraduate student, when a professor-turned-friend shared his experience trying to summit Mount Rainier in Washington. Those stories resonated with him, and after he finished his education, he decided to tackle the mountain as well. “The summer after I finished my training, I went out there and did a four-day mountaineering course. They teach you crevasse techniques, self-arrest skills with an ice axe, how to travel in a roped team, glacial travel techniques and things like that,” he said. “Then you attempt the summit. We had great weather, and of the nine climbers that started, three of us actually reached the summit.”
That was his first mountain, but not his last. He traveled to Ecuador to climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, to Africa to summit Kilimanjaro, and eventually to Alaska to climb Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level — the one that got away.
Not reaching the peak of Denali hasn’t spelled defeat, however. It’s been motivating. Looking past Mount Everest to being, we believe, the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to reach the top of the Seven Summits — the highest mountains of each of the seven traditional continents: Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson, and Puncak Jaya. Believe it or not, there is some debate about this list, dependent upon how you draw the boundaries of continents, so there are up to six variations. The above list, to my knowledge, is the one Dr. Weasel is hoping to achieve.
And then, he wants to tack on the North and South Poles to complete what’s called the Explorer’s Grand Slam. Why?
Maybe, as George Mallory said of climbing Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.”
The surgeon with the stubborn streak
Dr. Weasel knew at a pretty young age that he wanted to be a surgeon. As a young Native American, however, he didn’t always get support of that dream. “When I told people that I planned to become a surgeon and some people told me that there’s no way that that’s ever going to happen, that it’s not even possible,” he shared. “But the more that people would tell me that something wasn’t possible, the more that it spurred me towards accomplishing a certain thing.”
That admitted stubborn streak is exactly what it takes to propel him up mountains — weeks or months in the freezing cold, wearing the same clothes, and just waiting isn’t always fun. It takes motivation, but more importantly, discipline and willpower. The mental game is crucial. That’s also likely what makes an individual successful in endeavors like a medical residency.
“Surgical residency was super helpful for mountaineering. It was probably the best thing that I could have done training-wise because learning how to operate with little sleep is something that a lot of people aren’t accustomed to, and I’m very accustomed to that. Learning how to operate mentally and physically on very little food sometimes when your nutrition isn’t ideal. Just taking a beating and having to come back and just keep going when stopping isn’t really an option,” he explained. “When you’re working 80 hours a week in residency and you still have a family, and you still have to read and prepare and do all those things is that kind of mental exhaustion on a long term basis. It sounds funny, but it’s super helpful when you’re on a mountain.”
Dr. Weasel off the mountain
So we know that Dr. Weasel is a mountaineer and a surgeon. He’s explained how related those two things are in his mind. Knowing that, it’s easy to idolize the man a little. But despite his impressive accomplishments, he’s still a man with responsibilities, a family, and very real fears.
He met his wife Lauren when he was 16 years old, and very early into their relationship he shared his plans to become a surgeon. She was with him on every step of that journey, and continues providing the most valuable support as he climbs mountains — which is crucial when you’re going to be gone for months on a dangerous undertaking. “She doesn’t always love it, but she understands who I am, that I can’t leave things unfinished.”
When Dr. Weasel talks about his wife and children, his tone is clear and easy to read — it reflects gratitude, caring, and sincerity. When I asked him about the hardest part about climbing mountains, he circled back around to his family and how being apart from them is always a challenge. They’re also central to his greatest fears on the mountain. “I remember my first night on Denali, being asked about my biggest fear when it comes to being on the mountain. My biggest fear is always my kids not having their dad.”
It’s a somber moment in an otherwise enthusiastic conversation as Dr. Weasel explains the very real dangers faced on the mountain —from avalanches to falling into crevasses — and that you have to be able to count on your teammates in order to come home safely.
“Not coming home is the biggest fear.”
Fear and gratitude
But you can’t let fear call the shots. That’s the advice that Dr. Weasel shared. Instead, you use it to help keep you sharp. To make sure that you prepare accordingly, at stay focused on the task at hand. That focus sounds exhausting, but it’s also liberating. “On a mountain, you’re totally disconnected from everything else in life. I don’t have to worry about my patients. I don’t have to worry about what surgeries I have scheduled for the week,” Dr. Weasel explained. “The only thing that you’re focused on is the task that’s at hand. And that is something that is totally freeing.”
It also embodies a sense of gratitude, even when the experience isn’t exactly fun.
“Cotopaxi and Chimborazo were horrendous in terms of the experience on the mountain itself.” Dr. Weasel experienced whiteout conditions, freezing cold temperatures, and 40-50 mile per hour winds. After summiting, he just wanted to get off the mountain as quickly as possible — but there aren’t really shortcuts off of mountaintops. None that you want to take anyway. The whole way down, he was pelted with ice in such a way that he related it to being caught in a sandblaster, waiting for his face to bleed. “I came off that mountain and I have never been so happy to have a cup of hot chocolate and to be in a structure that wasn’t a tent.”
He describes the experience of that climb and descent as hellish, but the lasting takeaway remains gratitude.
The non-profit: The Wopila Project
That gratitude segues directly into the previously mentioned news coverage of Dr. Weasel’s non-profit, the Wopila Project. Wopila is a Lakota word that refers to gratitude for everything that life has to give, “for all of existence, and the blessings inherent in each moment.”
“I feel very blessed in my own life, both professionally and personally, and that has instilled in me a deep sense of gratitude,” Dr. Weasel told me. “When I look at everything I have in life, even the opportunity to climb Mount Everest for example, I want to find a way to give back, encourage others to do the same, and hopefully help others find gratitude in their own lives as well. ”
The Wopila Project is one of Dr. Weasel’s efforts to give back, and “in so remind us that gratitude and generosity are the primary remedies for discontentment, and no matter where we find ourselves may we be reminded that we all have something to be thankful for.”
Using the Everest bid as a way to bring attention to the non-profit, Dr. Weasel hopes that the Wopila Project can fund and construct a playground at the Lakota Homes housing community in Rapid City, and sustainable women’s health clinics in Nepal.
“Everest is only the beginning,” Dr. Weasel said. “My goal is to be the first Native American to summit the Seven Summits, then the Explorer’s Grand Slam. I hope that as I work to accomplish that goal, the Wopila Project can do some real good along the way.”
For more information about the Wopila Project, click here.
To support the Wopila Project, all profits from the Intrepid Daily store will be donated to the non-profit until Dr. Weasel returns from Mount Everest.