Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

by Nancy Duffy, photography by Phil Grout

Some people live their whole lives dreaming. And some, like Larry Johnson of Gettysburg, live the dream.

In May 1999, Johnson, along with other members of his expedition team, climbed Mt. Everest. They didn’t intend to summit the 29,029 foot mountain located on the border of Nepal and Tibet like most explorers; their goal was much different.

Johnson and the team launched to search for two British climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared in Everest’s terrain in 1924.

Johnson served as the logistician for the group, coordinating the emails between German scientist Jochen Hemmleb and American commercial expedition leader Eric Simonson for months leading up to
the March 1999 search. Each man brought an immense amount of knowledge from facts to climbing experience to this expedition; all had a common interest
to find Mallory and Irvine.

“Some expeditions set out to find these two young climbers,” but get sidetracked by the lure of the summit. On May 1, 1999, it was a “perfect day” and the group could have summited but “kept true to the mission,” Johnson explained.

Mallory was found.

Although Johnson had returned home prior to the discovery to manage the growing media attention, “when Eric’s call came through I was doing backflips,” he said.

Even though Johnson was nowhere near the summit, he considers the expedition as “the highlight of my mountaineering career.”

In Johnson’s study in his home just outside Gettysburg, there is a flag signed by the entire expedition team draped over the back of the couch. A wall of bookshelves is home to climbing guides, biographies, autobiographies as well as historical fiction – all about mountaineering.

Photographs of Johnson atop various mountains line the wall above a 125-gallon tank, complete with a variety of brightly-colored fish. The sound of the gurgling water provides the background music for the soft-spoken, quick-witted Johnson, who doesn’t realize that he is as much of a story as the mountain.

Johnson (center) hugs co-author Jochen Hmmleb at the Everest base camp, elevation 17,500 feet, in 1999 on the Mallory & Irvine expedition. Co-author Eric Simonson is on the right.

WORTH THE RISK

In his late 60’s, Johnson is unassuming as he recalls his early climbing days that eventually led to one of the biggest discoveries in history.

A 35-cent book started it all.

“This is it,” states Johnson, as he pulls the fictional novel Third Man on the Mountain by James Ramsey Ullman off of the crowded bookshelf in his study. The adventure story of a young mountain guide following in the footsteps of his father planted the seed for Johnson that he, too, wanted to climb “the perfect mountain.”

One problem.

Johnson is afraid of heights.

“Still am,” he chuckles, “I am uncomfortable with tall buildings.” But with a rope, he says, he is “okay” because the “closest trust relationship you have is the person you are tied to a rope with.”

Over the next 40 years, Johnson climbed everything from the rocks at Devil’s Den in the Gettysburg battlefield to Pole Steeple in Rock Creek State Park in Maryland, learning quickly that “you’re not willing to climb anything higher than you are willing to fall off of.” He also scaled Mount Rainier and Mount Adams’ summits in the Cascades.

All the while, he perfected techniques with less-than-perfect equipment.

“Every weekend in college,” he recalls, he would climb and “pretend to be studying.”

He followed life which took him all over the country and eventually climbing turned to reading because “there are no mountains in Michigan” which wasn’t frustrating, “just a lifestyle change.” He spent time as a camp counselor, played the banjo in a folk-singing group with gigs all over and worked at a newspaper.

For approximately 15 years, he founded and ran the Keystone Outdoor School, insistent on the ‘old school’ climbing rules of “language, knots, and safety, number 1.”

Each day, each new job, he kept his eye on Everest.

POWER IN ADVERTISING

One day, he saw an advertisement in Backpacker Magazine for Base Camp to Mount Everest.

“If I’m going to try that,” he thought, “I might want to try to climb something.”

He was drawn to another advertisement for a guided expedition to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. When he spoke to Andy Carson, it was as if “I had known him all my life.”

Johnson had to get in shape, jogging, hiking, and spending “money like I had it,” he recalls with a chuckle to prepare for the April 1985 climb.

He was looking for elevation, so he climbed mountains in Chambersburg at only 1,700 feet, ran 8 miles at a time on the battlefield to prepare for the Tetons. “Every step,” he remembers, “felt like the 100-yard dash,” and it was clearly the “hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”

But it was worth the risk.

“Come look at this picture,” he requests. He casually walks to the living room and points to a stunning photo over the fireplace: a cross made of ice axes, a statue off to the left, and a Gideon bible. This display marks the spot where Larry and Dottie, his wife of 27 years, exchanged ‘I do’s’ atop the Tetons on a cloudless day on June 29, 1989.

A minister, who just happened to be in their expedition group at the last minute, performed the ceremony, and other climbers gathered flowers for his bride and cleaned up a space for them to marry.

“I get emotional thinking about it,” says Larry.

And Dottie was not an avid climber.

But it was worth the risk.

FINDING DORJE

Years later, Johnson met a young Sherpa named Dorje while with other climbers at 14,000 feet on Tingri.

“As a hiking Sherpa,” he explains, “Dorje took care of everything including cooking and clean up.”

After several days of conversation with Dorje, it was clear that he wanted to be a “high altitude Sherpa” but needed to attend the Nepali Climbing School.

Quietly, Johnson went to a reputable trekking agency with money gathered from his climbing group and set up a scholarship for Dorje to attend this top-rated climbing school.

“Dorje was ecstatic when I told him about the scholarship,” he continues. “I left him all of my climbing gear.”

Dorje went from earning $500 a year to earning $5,000 a year as one of the top high altitude Sherpas on Everest.

When Johnson flew back for the press conference after the discovery of Mallory’s body, Dorje gave him a private tour of Katmandu, paid for everything, showed him stupas, which are ornate wooden buildings that have somewhat collapsed from earthquakes. “Talk about being uncomfortable,” laughs Johnson.

Back in his study, Johnson points to a wall hanging. “That’s a yak tapestry,“ he explains, “a gift from Dorje” who now refers to his long-time friend as ‘Oh, Great Larry.’”

He smiles.

“I’ve never had anyone call me ‘great.’”

Recently, Larry was reading Climbing Magazine “and there was a picture of Dorje at the summit [of Everest]. It felt really good.”

Everybody has a dream for something.

“I invested in his Everest, his dream,” recalls Larry, “I had it to give and I gave; it changed a person’s life.”

What [Dorje] doesn’t realize,” continues Larry, “is that he changed mine.”

He pauses.

“People are given opportunities and are afraid to take them,” he continues. “I’m just an ordinary guy who did some climbing; I got up and danced.”

More information on the preparation and execution of the search and discovery expedition of May 1999 can be found in Johnson’s book Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine.

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Author: HM

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