Finale on Paul Ryan as Mountain Climber

At least as far as I'm concerned. Two disclaimers right off the bat:

  • I don't know anything about mountain climbing and so am at the mercy of other people's judgments on what is significant or not. (In contrast to marathon running, which I do know about and where I therefore felt entitled to be suspicious of the claimed results.)
  • Like, apparently, many other people, I drew the wrong inference from Paul Ryan's comment about making "close to 40" climbs of Colorado's "Fourteeners," the 54 summits at elevations of 14,000 feet and above. I understood him -- as did some journalists, political figures, and climbers in Colorado -- to mean around 40 separate mountains. His spokesman clarified that he meant around 40 climbs, of a smaller number of peaks. 

For both reasons, plus the abundance of actual substantive topics to deal with, I plan to steer clear of this and all other athletic-performance-related issues about the candidates for the foreseeable future.

But to wrap things up:

1) Craig Gilbert, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote the original story, back in 2009, about Ryan's mountain-climbing record. He has now written an update and amplification of exactly what Ryan told him then. Here are relevant parts from the original interview:

Ryan: "My mom was very outdoorsy ...  We spent our summers doing backpacking trips in the (Colorado) back-country, you know, Snowmass Lake, Capital Peak, spent all our summers doing that ...  went all over White River National Forest, just the whole Elk range. I mean I've climbed every fourteener in that range and the three around there ... So I got into climbing fourteeners when I was 12, with my brother, Stan. My mom got us into that."

Question: "How many fourteeners have you climbed? Or how many times?"

Ryan: "38. I think that's my last count."

Question: "Those are just climbing peaks that are 14,000 feet?"

Ryan: "I've done it 38 times. ... I've done 38, but I think the number of unique peaks is something like twenty... no, no it's like thirty or something like that. I counted it up a year or two ago."

Question: "Most of those in Colorado?"

Ryan: "All of them are in Colorado. So I think I've climbed like 28 (peaks), and I've done it 38 times, because I've done a number of them a few times. So I was, you know, kind of into that stuff."

Give this a close look and judge for yourself; the phrasing is interesting.

2) I have received a ton of mail from people identifying themselves as climbers, some strongly critical of Ryan and even the "close to 40 climbs" claim, some strongly supportive of him and resentful of press attention to this question, especially by me. Here is a representative note in the first category:

I live in Rockville, MD, and have been going out to Colorado every year since 2001, and once in 1998, to climb 14ers and do other hiking. I have summited 29 different 14ers and a number of them twice or three times. Never would I say to anyone that I have "made nearly 40 climbs of 14ers". Many people would say they have climbed a few but they don't remember how many. But since Ryan knows he has "made nearly 40 climbs", then he would know how many different ones he has climbed. Everyone whose hobby is climbing 14ers knows exactly how many he or she has climbed ... that is the figure of interest. What does it mean anyway to say you have "made nearly 40 climbs"? 40 attempts? 40 actual summits? 40 times climbing three different peaks? It actually sounds like someone exaggerating their accomplishments, something like a marathoner striking over a full hour off his time.

When standing on a summit, it has never crossed my mind until now, that the other people standing there might be potential presidential contenders. I think the suggestion that hiking or climbing is a qualification for high office is questionable. Abraham Lincoln himself would not walk to the top of Maryland Heights near Harpers Ferry (which is not difficult for the average hiker). Here is a comment from one of his companions when he tried: "I showed the way until we got to a path where it was right straight up, when Lincoln backed out. I think it must have reminded him of a little story about a very steep place; at any rate around they turned and went down the mountain."

And another sample:

I'm not sure the 40 climbs gets him off the hook, given the challenge.  I'd bet that nearly 40 turns into maybe high 20's, with most of them on a couple of peaks close to where he typically summers. As the one commentator noted, the logistics just don't work otherwise unless you're one of those folks for whom it's almost a 2nd job.

As to whether those are 'easy' peaks or not, who can say.  Hey, what he actually did is impressive, maybe not that much (I leave it to real climbers to say), but he's pretty clearly tried to wedge himself upward into a semi-elite level.  Or maybe he forgot and is now trying to go with 'oh, I was just guessing what an 'average' climber would have done.'  Seriously, the guy's excuses ...

So far, he's a guy who sat the bench on a high school basketball team who's claiming to be a starter at a mid-major college, figuring who will know who was on the Central Arkansas or Wisconsin Green Bay team 25 years ago.

3) On the other hand, here is a sample "get off his back" note:

As much as I really hope PR does not become the next VP, I don't think he's done anything wrong with his '40 claim' - the number of ascents is a legitimate metric. In fact the type of personality that re-climbs peaks is one that I'm more at home with than the type that is always looking to tick a new one off the list.

As someone who has climbed a lot of peaks and kayaked an inordinate number of rivers all around the world, and who has a detail-orientated brain, occasionally OCD, I can tell you that there is no log of what I've done - there's my memories, and that's it (there is a short log from when the military required I make one, but that's now a decade old, and nowhere to be found). Most of my friends are the same way.

And one more:

It is pretty apparent from your blog that you have no idea about Colorado mountain hiking trails or the facts about Colorado's 14,000 foot (or higher) peaks known by Coloradoans as "fourteeners".  I am not in very great shape anymore, certainly not a workout nut like Paul Ryan and I have personally climbed three 14ers, two in one day when I was a younger man in average shape.  I did this years ago (in the 90s), but I would not be surprised to hear that someone in great shape like Paul Ryan has made more than 40 climbs (he said he has been vacationing here for many years and is now in his early 40s).
 
I climbed Mount Lincoln (14,293 ft) and Mount Democrat (14,155 ft) in one glorious day with some friends since the base of the climb was only 3,000 feet and 3.5 miles up Mount Lincoln and not much different up Mount Democrat (only a mile or so between their bases).  I also hiked the Bar Trail (much tougher, longer, but prettier) up Pikes Peak (14,115 ft) just west of my home town of Colorado Springs though that was a hike of around 12 miles and a hike elevation of nearly 8000 ft.  By the way, there are no formal records like there might be for marathons (I've never done one of those so I can't speak intelligently about that) other than a book you can sign at the top of some of these peaks.
 
I really wish you guys would stick to questioning Mr. Ryan's, Mr. Romney's and his opponents' stands on policy issues in the next four years...that is much more important to the voting public.  This sniping over ridiculous non-issues like his marathon times (he admitted he made a mistake and was made fun of by his own family) or now the fourteeners he's climbed strikes most of us as juvenile and petty.  Please do a good job of vetting the future policy plans of both sides and tell us what you think that means instead of picking on this dumb stuff.  We would appreciate much more of the former and much less of the latter.

Advice accepted. I am leaving the rest of this to the mountaineers.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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