Aspen Times Weekly cover story: 3 friends, 1 mission, 2 continents
September 5, 2012
There were those nights of boozing, of late-night philosophical talks between friends within the walls of college apartments. The nights spent tossing around a future filled with plans to change the world.For most, the 3 a.m. conversations are packed away like the rest of the college belongings somewhere in our parents’ attics. But nevertheless, as traditional as the tossing of the cap at graduation, we make our way to our careers at advertising agencies, doctors’ offices, marketing firms, schools, banks and so on. Why? Because, let’s be honest, where exactly are those wild adolescent ideas going to take us?
There are some who are trying anyway. At 23 years of age and fresh out of college, Jonathan Ronzio, Ryan Sarka and Ethan Lee are willing to drop everything to find out.
Beginning in early January, the three friends will set out from Aspen to accomplish a project they came up with in college called “Between the Peaks,” a six-month-long journey across North and South America to summit two of the world’s greatest peaks while volunteering with 13 nonprofit organizations in 11 different countries along the way.
To start, the three will touch down in Argentina, where they will summit Mount Aconcagua at 22,841 feet, and, after months of travel between, will end the trip with the summit of Mount McKinley, or Denali, in Alaska at 20,320 feet.
From now until the beginning of the expedition, the three plan to raise $40,000 to cover the cost of the climbs, gear, living and traveling expenses and the hiring of a film crew to chronicle the entire trip for documentary purposes.
According to Jonathan, Ryan and Ethan, however, who plan to live out of a camper van as they travel through 11 countries and complete a weeklong volunteer project in each, the summiting of the two mountains – while personally fulfilling and exciting – will not be the primary focus of the trip.
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“All of us have talked a long time about wanting to climb mountains in North and South America,” Jonathan said. “We got into the mindset that so many people go on climbs just to have another mountain under their belt, and we wanted to make our trip much more than checking a peak off the list.”
Jonathan, who left a job at a video-production company out of New York a year ago to pursue a mountaineering dream here in Aspen, came up with the name “Between the Peaks” to focus on the idea that true success lies not in personal achievements but in the ways in which an individual can impact and give back to a community.
“The most important goal was to make the project diverse so we could split our time and immerse ourselves within these communities,” Ethan said. “We sought and formed relationships with small organizations that don’t necessarily have a lot of international funding in order to make the biggest difference possible.”
Ethan, who has continued a lasting friendship with Jonathan since high school and came to Aspen to fulfill similar aspirations, says his excitement lies within the anticipation of the journey, of the people and experiences he will witness along the way.
Aside from the obvious challenge of summiting the two mountains, the three men foresee the hardest part to be the conflict of pulling themselves away from every project and leaving a community for another after only a week’s worth of work.
“We only have six months to do so much, and with every new country will come the uncertainty of a new place and environment,” Ethan said. “We truly don’t know what will happen from one place to another, but I suppose that’s the part that turns us on the most.”
On the other hand, the three refuse to turn a blind eye to the deadly consequences each mountain has demonstrated to fateful climbers who have gone before.
Separate from their individual triumphs – like triathlete and renowned snowboarder Ryan, who successfully rode his bike across America, rock-climbing enthusiast Jonathan, who climbed glaciers in Switzerland and New Zealand, and thrill-seeker Ethan, who claims his first summit on Mount Washington to be the force for an infatuation with climbing from then on – together the three work daily to prepare for their biggest climbs yet.
So far here in Aspen, the men have fourteeners Pyramid Peak and Castle Peak under their belts and at the end of the month will look to the summiting of Mount Rainier in Washington state – a glacier climb with a bottom-to-top elevation gain of 13,000 feet – as their biggest prep for the summiting of Denali.
But, Jonathan said, if push comes to shove and weather conditions aren’t favorable, or if the majority is against moving forward, they know better than to jeopardize their lives – and everyone else’s, for that matter – just for the summit.
“Last May, we went back east to New Hampshire for a Presidential Traverse,” he said. “The first day, we made it to the summit of Mount Madison, and we were feeling great and ready for the next. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of 80-mph winds. … We could have pushed on but instead turned around. … Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and that’s OK.”
According to Ethan, they have discussed the possibility of hiring a local guide who knows the mountains and can direct them up the best routes.
“There are people who will argue you aren’t a mountaineer unless you tackle it completely yourself,” he said. “I definitely respect that view, but there is also a fine line you tread between being all in and being smart. … We might hire a guide who knows the mountain, but we will definitely not hire anyone to carry our stuff.”
Moreover, for Jonathan, Ethan and Ryan, no amount of climbing could bring them more fulfillment than the volunteer work they will offer to the organizations within each country. As the group recalls, if anything were to snowball from the trip, it wouldn’t be a compulsion to climb another mountain but rather a desire to share their story with schoolchildren and pass on the message that there is always a way to achieve your own goals while seeing the world and making a difference.
With less than four months to go until three young friends leave everything they know to chance and embark on a half-year journey full of unknowns, the biggest motivation they will carry with them is the truth that there aren’t many times in people’s lives when they have the opportunity to experience a trip of this magnitude and dedicate their time to something this big.
“Everyone has one life to live, and many talk about wanting to see the world,” Jonathan said. “This trip is our way of fulfilling that desire to see the world while helping people and the environment. Maybe there isn’t a profit or publicity in the end, but if by doing this we can communicate that there is a high point in life, that by helping others and finding a new existence you can reach a greater summit, then we together have done our part.”