One of the happiest moments of my life with @andrewbobduckyharris and @amyjessharris !! These two are full on champions, and making it to the top of the Grand Teton was a surreal experience. Huge, huge thanks to @zahan007 , @exumguides , @fishercreative , @ndssorg , @jxnhende , @ericdaft, and @joolyhart (who took this photo). Also, everyone along the trail including @bendh , who encouraged us, we cannot thank you enough. #ndssathleteambassador #duckygoesup #yoloorbolo #turtlepower #iclimbedthegranttetonwithbobhammer
Perched high above Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Grand Teton is the crown jewel of the Teton Mountain Range and a peak full of lore in the mountaineering community. Considered a classic, it features several different routes of various difficulty. First skied by the legendary Bill Briggs in 1971, the 13,775-foot summit also carries a heavy cache of respect in the backcountry skiing and riding community.
It’s been climbed by all sorts of people: women, men and people of different races. But never by a person with Down Syndrome. Until this weekend when Andrew Harris made the nearly 7,000-foot ascent with his soon-to-be brother-in-law Max Hammer, an underground charger who’s made iconic appearances in several ski films (Google Max Hammer, TGR, or Max Hammer, Jumbo Wild). Hammer, along with his fiancee and Andrew’s sister, Amy, accompanied Andrew up the majestic Wyoming peak last weekend, and into history. The team included the Hammer-Harris clan, Zahan Billimoria of Exum Mountain Guides, Mark Fisher from Fisher Creative and another videographer to document the achievement, as well as Climbing magazine’s Julie Ellison (the publication will apparently run a feature on the trip next spring). Using the Owen-Spalding Route, the group departed at 5:30 a.m. and reached the top 12 hours later.
Hammer and Amy Harris first brought up the idea of scaling the Grand with Andrew last year. It’s Hammer’s home mountain range (he grew up in Jackson) and the former ski racer and Exum Guide himself thought they could get Andrew–also known lovingly as Bob–up the mountain.
“Andrew, ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a fit dude because he’s from an active family that eats well and exercises regularly,” Hammer told me. “He was already a runner, hiker and he’d done some climbing. We talked about it quite a bit and we wanted to make sure he was on board. We showed him pictures, trying to give him as much of an idea as we could. He was always into it, he’d been to Jackson and seen (the peak).”
So Hammer and Harris went to work, with Hammer putting Harris through as many situations as he could to simulate the climb from hiking, to scrambling to technical climbing and repelling. But the actual climb still blew the doors off any training they did. “I still don’t think he knew what he was getting into,” says Hammer.
Hammer says Andrew was as well prepared for the technical aspects on the high ridgelines near the summit as any of them. But the long hike through loose scree fields and exhaustingly-long gullies sapped the energy out of the 32-year-old Lake Tahoe-native, who had to dig with everything he had to make it through the miles of loose footing. Hammer says Harris was the opposite of most people near the nerve-wracking, knife-like ridgelines at the top: giddy and joyful on the clean, exposed rock because of the better footing and happy to be out of the slidey scree, slowly trying to find good foot placement.
Then disaster nearly struck at the summit. Hammer and the climbing team were alerted to an emergency where a climber had fallen and suffered a serious head injury. Part of the group split off to help as Hammer and Amy Harris worked to distract Andrew and lead him away from the accident and the whirring rescue helicopter to try and reach the summit after coming so far. “You don’t really want to expose anyone to someone injured on the same route, but we particularly didn’t want that for Andrew,” Hammer said. “Maybe he would have been fine, but we didn’t want to take a chance. We didn’t want weird images in his head at that point.”
And it was worth it. Avoiding serious mental hurdles, when the team reached the summit, an emotional joy spread over the group that none had experienced before. In a welling of tears, hugs and hand shakes, they celebrated Andrew’s Grand summit.
“Amy was literally talking to him every step of the way,” says Hammer. “When we got there he burst out with this emotion and happiness and accomplishment. It was shooting out of his hands and eyes. All three of us, we kinda’ of lost it with emotion. Oh my God, it was amazing.”
Putting Andrew’s accomplishment in perspective in the climbing community is tough because of the lack of record. The Grand Teton is a classic so it’s not on the death-defying scale. It’s harder and more technical than Idaho’s Mount Borah or many of Colorado’s 14ers. It’s less of a winter death march than Alaska’s Denali with more technical climbing than Washington’s Mt. Rainier. As far as the greater Down Syndrome community, there was a teenager who reached Everest Base Camp in 2013. But this is nearly certain: Andrew Harris is the first person with Down Syndrome to reach the summit of the Grand Teton.
“We did a fact check and no one with DS has been documented climbing it,” says Michelle Ray, the director of the National Inclusive Health and Sports Programs with the National Down Syndrome Society, which fully supported the climb. “It’s amazing for any person let alone someone with DS. I believe what Bob did just shows that people with DS are capable of doing anything anyone else is capable of doing.”
And Andrew’s recovering well. “He’s tired, it took a lot out of him,” says Hammer of Andrew, who’ll be a groomsman in the Hammer-Harris wedding this weekend in Jackson Hole. “I think he’s proud of what he did. He’s been feeding off the energy of others who have noticed his accomplishment. Someone noticed him on a trail hike the other day after seeing him on Instagram. They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re that guy.’ He really loves it.”
Learn more about the National Down Syndrome Society at NDSS.org.