Jan 282013


John Fletcher talks about the multi-purpose ice axe he uses for a variety of jobs while talking about climbing at his office at ECU. (Rhett Butler/The Daily Reflector)

John Fletcher talks about the multi-purpose ice axe he uses for a variety of jobs while talking about climbing at his office at ECU. (Rhett Butler/The Daily Reflector)

“We need to develop our tax base further and diversify revenue sources.”

Chris Padgett

interim assistant city manager

By Kim Grizzard

Monday, January 28, 2013

Since taking his post at East Carolina, John Fletcher has taken the university’s name to new heights.

Nearly 19,500 feet to Kilimanjaro. More than 18,500 feet to the top of Russia’s Mount Elbrus. Fletcher, the associate provost for enrollment services, has raised the ECU banner at the highest peaks in Africa and Europe.

“It’s kind of a recruitment deal,” he said, laughing. “I take my ECU flag now wherever I go.”

Fletcher has plans to take the flag to the pinnacle of South America later this year. It is part of his higher aspiration: to scale the seven summits, the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents.

It’s a lofty goal for a man who has only been mountaineering for seven years. Fletcher, who played football in high school and later worked as a whitewater rafting guide, talked his brother into joining him on a climbing expedition to Mount Rainier in 2006.

But the 55-year-old traces his interest in mountaineering to his Boy Scout days. Born in Puerto Rico, Fletcher moved around as a child due to his father’s military career, but in his teen years, the family settled in Tennessee, where Fletcher developed a love of the outdoors. He was a middle schooler waiting with his father in the orthodontist’s office when he read an article about expedition-style mountaineering in a National Geographic magazine.

“I looked over and said, ‘I’m going to do this,’” Fletcher recalled. But it would be almost 35 years before he would make good on his promise.

“I was kind of getting to that age where it was like, ‘Well, you know, if you don’t go now, you’re just not going to be able to go, objectively,’” he said. “When I was 49, I decided I wanted to go give it a shot.”

After Ranier, Fletcher made his first attempt at Alaska’s Mount McKinley, also known as Denali. His team made it up to 17,200 feet but got caught in a storm and had to remain in camp for more than a week.

“It came a ferocious storm, and literally we could not go higher to the summit and we could not descend to a lower elevation because of the storm,” Fletcher said. “Really cold, 30 inches of snow, 50 to 60 mph winds. It was pretty miserable.”

Still, Fletcher would not let circumstances keep him down. He reached the summit (20,230 feet) on his second attempt and also ascended Orizaba in Mexico (18,701) and Cotopaxi in Ecuador (19,348).

There are more mountains Fletcher would like to climb. The remaining summits are Carstensz Pyramid, Vinson and Everest.

Time is not necessarily on his side. Fletcher, who will be 56 in July, is decades older than most climbers on any expedition.

“Except of the last trip I was on, I’m always the oldest,” he said. “If you lined up 50 people, I don’t think they could pick me out as being the mountaineer.”

To keep pace with climbers who are often as young as his students at ECU, Fletcher works out four nights a week. When the weather is warmer, he sports a heavy pack on walks with his wife, Jan, and their dog, Bella, to prepare for carrying more than 120 pounds of gear on an expedition.

With no mountains nearby for training, Fletcher participates in CrossFit, a high-intensity strength and conditioning program designed to prepare him for the unforeseen challenges that can come with mountain climbing.

“He’s doing amazing things for a guy his age,” Brandon Johnson, owner of Tier 1 Fitness, said of Fletcher. “He’s probably one of the most goal-oriented individuals I’ve ever met.”

Paul Stafford, 44, an engineer and part-time skydiving instructor who met Fletcher on a climbing expedition in 2008, described Fletcher as “a slightly slowed-down version of the Energizer Bunny.”

‘He is the absolute epitome of the tortoise and the hare,” Stafford said. “He is slowly making progress all the time. No matter what he’s doing you can count on him to be leaning forward and taking the next step.

“We’ve seen younger guys — fresh out of high school football, getting ready for Marine Corps boot camp — give up or hit a wall,” he said. “I think being (older), you develop a bit of mental toughness.”

Though the climbs present obvious physical challenges — such as cold, altitude sickness and falls — Fletcher finds the mental aspects of the climb to be more challenging.

“You have to be prepared for whatever it’s going to do,” he said. “It could snow all day. The wind could blow all night or for nights. The mountain dictates.”

Mountaineering is a dangerous sport. Five people died on Mount McKinley in 2009, the year Fletcher reached the summit. Among them were two physicians that he and his team met on their way down. Still, Fletcher feels relatively safe.

“Even the best-prepared, best-organized, best-led, bad stuff happens,” he said. “(But) I’d almost say it’s more dangerous driving down Greenville Boulevard.”

For Fletcher, the rewards far outweigh the risks. He enjoys the challenge and the camaraderie of the climb.

“I think it’s a lot about adventure,” he said. “I really like the team aspect of it. If you said you’ve got to go and do this by yourself, I wouldn’t be interested in it.

“I get a lot out of the people that I climb with. I’ve made some great friends.”

He often uses stories from his climbing experiences to encourage students who are struggling to overcome obstacles. He advises them to set their goals high, even if there is not a mountain climb involved.

“I never thought I’d get a doctorate (he received his from Auburn University). I was a pretty terrible undergraduate,” Fletcher said. “I tend to set goals for myself that are maybe a half a step further than I can actually get to.

“I want to encourage people to get out there,” he said. “It may not be climbing mountains, but just get out there and find your passion, whatever it is. Find a challenge.”

via The Daily Reflector.


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