The journey is the ride
By Valerie Tucker
DDon't go telling Jim Albert he's just another elitist show-offy peak bagger. The Farmington mailman might look more like Clark Kent than Superman, but don't be fooled.
Let's review. In 2004, he trounced the competition in his first and only ice climbing contest at Quebec's Festiglace. At 50, he was the senior citizen of group of 25 competitors. The next oldest challenger was 31.
The wall of ice has become an international lure for climbers and thousands of spectators. Albert, with family and friends, traveled to Pont-Rouge to scale the frozen waterfalls of the Ile aux Raisins canyon
"I hadn't done a real speed competition before, but that's what counted, and I just did it," Albert said.
Speed was all that counted when scaling the 65-foot high wall of ice. In the first two heats, he whittled 72 seconds down to 57 seconds, earning a final climb with ten finalists.
"I had two good times, and I knew I would have to give it my best the next day," Albert said. "I just zipped up in 49 seconds."
It's still an exciting memory that's fun to relive and retell occasionally. There were prizes, photographs, celebrations, and the jubilant ride back to New Vineyard.
"Would I do it again?" Albert laughed. "Well, I was already one of the older competitors, so maybe that was good enough."
But it's mountain climbing that's the passion that has directed his life and shaped his character.
For example, he says everyone who lives in Maine should experience the thrill of summiting Mt. Katahdin at least once.
"It's a beautiful place," he enthused. "If you've ever flown over it in a plane, you can see how special it is, and it's right here in our own state."
The 52-year old Master Maine Guide and Farmington letter carrier grew up spending time in the woods with friends in the Skowhegan area. He began reading magazines and books about mountaineering.
"It wasn't a Boy Scout kind of thing for me," he said. "It was more than that."
He likes knowing he was the highest person in that particular country at that particular moment when he reached the summit. In the early '70's, he discovered the premier British climbing magazine, Mountain. He treasures the 20 years of back issues of serious enthusiasts' guide, which ceased printing in 1992.
"The British have always done it right when it comes to mountaineering," Albert said.
In recent years, he realized that he'd summitted four of the seven tallest mountains on the seven continents: Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina.
He inadvertently realized that if he summitted Mt. Everest in Nepal, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, and the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, he'd be entitled to claim membership in a loosely-affiliated worldwide club of a select few climbers.
Albert hates to categorize himself as one of those 'peak baggers.' Summiting the highest peak on each continent has developed in the past 20 years as bragging rights that's just not his style.
"Some people have the money for trips, guides, and all the gear, "Albert explained. "They get a kick out of saying they've done the seven summits. That's not my way. I work and save money and find the most inexpensive way to travel and don't have any sort of time limits or records to break. Some people even try to break their own and each other's records by making each climb faster and faster, jumping around from continent to continent. I'm interested in the sport of mountaineering."
Still, he admits, it would be fun to climb all of them.
"My past trips have each cost about $4,000, but the three remaining will be closer to $20,000 each," he said. "Maybe I won't make to the top of all of them, but I'll give it my best shot."
This year, he hopes to summit the Carstensz Pyramid, and he'll save for the climb up Mount Vinson in 2010 and Mt. Everest in 2013. That time frame can change, depending on finances. With luck, he'll have other financial backing by attracting sponsors for equipment, travel, supplies, and permits.
Albert expects dangers in New Guinea that have nothing to do with mountain climbing. The Indonesian climb will be risky because of political instability and the indigenous tribes who are not enthusiastic about foreign tourists.
"They have killed climbers who have gone into unfamiliar territory," he said. "Some expeditions have a helicopter drop climbers in locations far from these folks."
Everest will be more familiar terrain. In 1990, he was part of the International Peace Climb to the mountain, and although he did not summit, he's counting on tips from fellow climber John Bagnulo, Maine's first hiker to accomplish that feat last summer. Albert, Bagnulo, and Montreal-based friend and business partner, Manny Pizarro, plan to lead some expeditions in Canada.
He has had some adventures. He got stuck in a blizzard with climbing partner Marty Pike in chest-deep snow. On a Mt. Washington climb, 125-mile an hour winds lifted Pike's feet into the air while Pike anchored himself with his ice axe.
"Then, one time I got bonked on the head with a rock," he mentions casually.
During one climb, he'd removed his helmet during a rest break. Another climber accidentally loosened a rock, which rolled and ricocheted, striking Albert in the back of the head. His friends rushed him to a hospital, and he needed 13 staples to close the wound.
"Nobody would tell me how bad it was," he laughed. "They unrolled big roll of toilet paper to hold onto the back of my head and told me to not move all the way to the hospital."
His biggest fan and favorite climbing partner is his wife Kelly. She climbed Kilimanjaro in 2002, and she usually hikes to base camps on his other longer climbs.
Looking down from the edge of these steep precipices isn't the thrill it is for Jim, but she's always been an avid climber.
"Standing up there and knowing I did it was overwhelming. It was a very emotional experience," she said.
The weather can change dramatically, she said, and their climb on Mt. Blanc was derailed by fierce storms. On one trip, a severe lightning storm struck a piece of metal and injured another hiker.
"Sometimes, I just worry what the heck I've gotten her into, but she's a trouper," Albert said.
She has climbed Mt. Robson in British Columbia, Mt. Rainier in Washington, Mt. Blanc in France, the Matterhorn in Switzerland, and yes, she's climbed Mt. Katahdin.
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