Jack and Betsy Northam, PLNU head baseball coach and events assistant for PLNU’s music department, respectively, are more than avid climbers – they are record holders, inspirations, perhaps even legends. Betsy recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, a peak among a collection of ascensions for the couple. In 2011, Jack climbed California’s Mount Whitney for the 100th time – an accomplishment only about 10 people can boast. Most amazing, his first trek up Whitney was after he had turned 50.
We asked Betsy to tell us about her and her husband’s recent climbs and their love of the sport.
How long have you been hiking/climbing?
My first memory of hiking/backpacking was when I was 9 years old. It was August and my family was staying in a friend’s cabin at the Whitney Portals because my sister wanted to climb Mount Whitney for her 11th birthday. The group included my father, my older brother, both of my sisters, me, our cousin, and me. After spending one night at what is now called Trail Camp, we reached the summit of Whitney in the late afternoon, but didn’t get back to the cabin until after dark.
What got you interested in hiking and climbing?
Growing up, my father took my siblings and me backpacking and hiking for our summer vacations. It is a favorite childhood memory of mine, which I wanted to pass on to my children, so my husband, Jack, and I took our oldest child on his first backpacking trip when he was 16 months old. Our family summer vacations were always trips to the Sierras, and all three of our children have returned as adults to hike in the Sierras with us. That says to me that we succeeded in giving our children favorite childhood memories!
You and your husband make a great team, climbing Mount Whitney several times together. How do you divide the responsibilities during the treks?
Mount Whitney started out as just a single day hike that was planned to follow our usual week of backpacking. The summer before our first trek up Whitney, Jack and I hiked 2.8 miles of the Lone Pine Lake Trail, via the Mount Whitney Trail, just to fish and have lunch. But as we watched people coming back off the mountain that afternoon, we decided to plan to summit the following summer (1997). We were able to get permits. We trained hard, made the summit, and got back down to the Portals in 14 ½ hours, which is a fairly average time. That night at dinner, we had no intention of coming back to do it again. But driving home the next day, we started rethinking the trip and the next thing you know, we were planning another summit for the next summer.
The following year, we took a trip up to the top with my sister and her husband, who is a cancer survivor. He wanted to prove that he is still alive and healthy. In a frigid cloud, standing next to the summit hut, he took off his jackets and put on his red “I’m a Survivor” t-shirt, so we could take his picture, which he hand delivered to his doctors at Stanford Hospital. My sister and her husband came with us again the next summer just to prove it was not a fluke. We were now on our fourth summer and summit! We knew we were coming back that August for another backpacking trip, and decided to try it again to see if we could shave some time off of the trip. In 2001, we ended up with four more trips to the top.
How did Jack decide to start pursuing the 100th climb?
We were now familiar enough with the mountain lore and were placing names with the faces of people we had met there. And we met a handful of hikers/climbers who have been on the top of Mount Whitney more than 100 times. Jack set his sights on this as a goal, and we started planning our summer trips around making this happen. Well, Jack has now been on top of Mount Whitney 117 times. He really enjoys pushing himself hard to see how fast he can get to the top. He has even completed six “doubles,” which means starting at the Whitney Portals, and hiking up to the summit and back down again, twice.
But while he enjoys fast ascents and adding up the summits, I enjoy exploring the whole mountain. I have only been to the top 51 times. We usually know when we start if I plan to get to the top, or if I plan to explore a new area and then meet him on the way down. There is enough of my father in me that I want to see what is over this ridge or around that corner!
How did you come to decision to take on Mount Kilimanjaro?
I love the Sierras, and I love Mount Whitney. I am happy to be there anytime, but I also need to see something new each year. Kilimanjaro was my something new for this year. Jack did not go to Africa with me; he likes his mountain. He went to Lone Pine and hiked up Whitney every other day for two weeks, and my sister went to Africa with me, along with a few other friends. First we went to Zanzibar, the spice island, then to Kilimanjaro, and then on safari. She stayed in Moshi while I climbed Kilimanjaro. It was an amazing trip! But I still love the Sierras! Jack’s fastest time to the top of Mount Whitney is 3.5 hours, which is two hours faster than I have ever climbed it. So when we decide we are hiking together and I am going to summit, my “job” is to set the pace. If I hiked at Jack’s Whitney pace, I would not make it to the top. So, I lead and he follows, playing photographer and taking pictures. When we cross fellow hikers I say a quick “Hi” and keep hiking, while he stops and talks with them. He can easily catch up to me. We summit together and hike together all the way down.
What inspires you to continue when you get tired?
I have a favorite “technique” when I get tired. I sing hymns in my head. They feel like songs of praise to God for all his glory and the majesty of the gorgeous mountains I am privileged to hike in. I always feel close to God in the mountains.
On Kilimanjaro, however, instead of just singing in my head I was singing very softly and quietly to myself. Or so I thought! Amber was hiking right behind me and she told me after we got off the mountain that she could hear me and that it helped her get to the top as well!
I also name off the flowers as I walk by them. I use this as a means of distraction, so I don’t think about being tired or out of breath. However, on the Kilimanjaro summit day, we hiked up in the dark, and we could not see if there were any flowers! And the only plants that grow on the summit are lichens and the everlasting Helichrysum newii. It is too high and too cold for anything else.
What was your favorite or most magical moment during the Mount Kilimanjaro climb?
Watching the sunrise from Stella Point was very emotional for me. Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano, which still has a crater rim. Most routes up to the summit reach the crater rim at Stella Point, and then you traverse around the rim to the high point at Uhuru Peak. You descend back the way you came to the Barafu Huts high camp. When we got back to Stella Point, we stood there and watched the sunrise. I thought of my father and the sunrises I had seen with him. I know he would have been delighted to know that I was on top of this mountain. There is something very powerful about standing on a ridgeline or a peak. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that you can succeed. This belief in myself has transfered into everyday life, and I consider the lessons I learned from my childhood while hiking in the Sierras to be one of the gifts my father gave me. I definitely felt his presence that morning.
What is the next mountain you plan to climb?
Mount Williamson and Mount Tyndall are the next two “fourteeners” north of Mount Russell. I have already climbed Mount Langley, Mount Muir, Mount Whitney, and Mount Russell (this is their order from south to north). Williamson and Tyndall would be a backpacking trip over Shepherd Pass. I hope to do this next summer.
The “Strong Sisters” from my Mount Kilimanjaro hike, Kelly, Amber, April, and me, all agreed that Tyndall and Williamson sounded like a good reunion hike for the four of us next summer!
Jack and I now give a seminar at all five locations of Adventure-16 [a southern California outdoor and travel outfitter with stores in Los Angeles and San Diego counties] on how to climb Mount Whitney in a day.