61-year-old Auburn woman rapidly ascends mountain climbing ranks

Tenacious Mary Vesper is a late-blooming adventurer who refuses to limit herself – but not at the expense of taking unnecessary risks. For instance, she makes it a habit of climbing mighty mountains, even reaching the summit of some of the tallest, most rugged peaks in the Pacific Northwest. “Mountain Mary” – as many of her friends call her – is a 61-year-old Auburn woman unafraid of new challenges.

Equipped for the task

Tenacious Mary Vesper is a late-blooming adventurer who refuses to limit herself – but not at the expense of taking unnecessary risks.

For instance, she makes it a habit of climbing mighty mountains, even reaching the summit of some of the tallest, most rugged peaks in the Pacific Northwest.

“Mountain Mary” – as many of her friends call her – is a 61-year-old Auburn woman unafraid of new challenges.

She likes to roller skate. She took up painting in her 40s. She wants to become a master gardener. She entertains the chance to parasail over the wide Columbia River.

“I work to try to find something new to do every year,” said a smiling Vesper, who appears considerably younger than her years. “Don’t limit yourself. Try something new every year. You still have time.

“Life should be fun.”

And exciting.

Vesper the mountaineer remains on a learning curve, but has proven to be a quick study. An instructor for the Mountaineers of Seattle, she needs two more successful climbs to graduate as an intermediate student. Her goal is to acquire the necessary skills to become a climb leader by 62.

Not bad for someone who didn’t seriously begin to confront the terrain until she was 54. Her first backpack adventure took her through Alaska’s difficult Chilkoot Trail. At 55, she negotiated E5, an extremely long-distance footpath that traverses Europe. Vesper began the trek in Germany, followed along portions of the majestic Dolomites and wound up in Italy.

Her growing resumé includes visits to 11 mountaintops, including the Cascade Range’s most notable: Rainier (14,411-foot elevation), Adams (12,276), Hood (11,249), Baker (10,778), Shuksan (9,127) and St. Helens (8,365).

Next up? Perhaps Mount Olympus, the tallest and most prominent mountain in the Olympic range at 7,962 feet.

Vesper recently attempted to summit Alaska’s mighty Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. But while trying to ascend to the 17,000-foot mark, she was turned back by the conditions. The grueling climb up Denali’s popular west buttress, the thin air and uncooperative weather sapped her strength and ultimately defused the mission.

She might try it again someday.

“I was pretty upset that I didn’t make it,” Vesper said. “The goal is to be safe and have fun. But ultimately, the goal is to summit.”

For Vesper, scaling a mountain is a physical getaway, a mental challenge.

“I like rock climbing the best,” said Vesper, who also dabbles in ascending inclined ice formations. “It’s like a mini vacation. There are no phones. People can’t get to me.

“You have to be locked in and concentrating on what you’re doing. It’s intense.”

Vesper’s steps are careful, calculated. She is aware of her abilities and abides by them.

“I don’t consider myself foolhardy,” she admitted. “I have too many people depending on me.”

Namely, her supportive husband, Merrill. An engineer for the City of Kent, he encourages his wife’s projects while he lives on kidney dialysis.

Vesper has a 28-year-old son, Drew. She has lived in Auburn since 1988.

Vesper – a graduate from the University of Washington in math and computers – worked as a statistician for the Port of Seattle. She also worked as a business analyst for King County’s Economic Development Council, served as an industrial development consultant for the state, and held various jobs with the IRS.

In retirement, Vesper is more active than ever before. And she continues to train hard, putting in her time at the Auburn Valley YMCA. She stays fit and sharp despite battling exercise-induced asthma, a condition brought on by climbing mountains.

“She’s truly an amazing person,” said her friend Amy Jahn, member enrichment coordinator at the YMCA.

Vesper is a kind and helpful soul, but a determined woman when put to a challenge. It took her three attempts to summit Mount Rainier, but she finally did it at 59, an emotional moment for her.

She is gritty and an adventurer at heart.

“I never thought of myself that way, but I guess I am,” she said. “I do things my way.”


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