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September 2004

Hiking up, diving down

This is the second installment of a two-part series looking at older staffers who are particularly devoted to outdoor pursuits. This month, we profile Dave Kennison, who’s climbed Longs Peak 75 times, and DJan Stewart, a passionate skydiver. Last month, we profiled Jack Fellows, who surfs at every opportunity, and Betty Valent, one of the organization’s top runners.

Dave Kennison outside the Mesa Lab.

Dave Kennison

The first time Dave hiked up Longs Peak, slipping in fresh snow and fighting dehydration and nausea, he swore he’d never do it again. But that was 74 ascents ago.

Dave, an SCD software engineer, is a flatlander from Iowa who has come to love the Colorado mountains. He has climbed every fourteener and about half the state’s thirteeners, but Longs is easily his favorite. He has tackled the 14,259-foot peak at least once a year since that initial ascent in 1980, taking a variety of technical and nontechnical routes despite such ailments as arthritis, a bad back, and heel spurs.

“It’s just a magnificent peak,” he says. “Of all the fourteeners, it has the best combination of accessibility to Boulder and fascinating routes. When you’re at the top, you feel like you’re on top of the world.”

Little in Dave’s childhood would have pointed to an obsession with Colorado’s northernmost fourteener. He recalls being a nerdy kid in school who was such a slow sprinter in gym class that he calculated he ran the 100-yard dash at the same pace a top runner could run a mile. Worse still, he took up smoking.

But in 1979, years after moving to Boulder, he put the cigarettes away. Within a few months, he had a lot of excess energy. He decided to expend it climbing mountains.

He took his first major hike, up Mt. Fairchild (13,502 feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park, on August 14, 1980. Just three days later and still fatigued from Fairchild, he started up Longs with three friends, including SCD’s Dick Valent and Fred Clare.

Dave wore tennis shoes even though the mountain had six inches of fresh snow. He didn’t take enough water, got nauseous from eating too much on the way up, suffered from leg cramps, and struggled to navigate the mountain’s exposed ledges without slipping. “For someone from Iowa, this was a steep, dangerous, weird place,” he recalls. “I was just so relieved when we got off the mountain.”

His take on Longs? “I was never going up that peak again.”

But he loved being on top of the mountain. In 1981, with far more experience in Colorado’s high country, he returned to Longs for a more enjoyable ascent with better shoes and lots of water.

Over the years, Dave has had a variety of adventures on the mountain.Sometimes climbing alone and sometimes with friends or family members, he has contended with ice, rain, snow, and lightning. His favorite climb may have been the day that he hiked to the top in a steady drizzle and had the summit to himself in the mist. “It was really amazing,” he recalls.

The strangest experience may have been when he saw a group of hikers on the peak who had carted up steaks, a grill, beer, and even lawn chairs. On another occasion, he ran into a wedding party descending from the peak, including at least one man in a tuxedo.

Dave has taken a number of routes up the mountain, although he has never tackled the famous and forbidding Diamond. His favorite way up is Kiener’s Route on the mountain’s east face, which he has climbed both roped and unroped. His record roundtrip time is a bit under six hours — several hours faster than the typical hiking time.

Since 1989, Dave has suffered from arthritis, and he also contends with back problems. Nevertheless, he hopes one day to log his 100th ascent of the mountain. That’s no record — former guide Enos Mills is said to have climbed it at least 300 times — but it certainly would be a personal triumph.

As he puts it, “I joke that I want to climb Longs Peak 100 times so that if, God forbid, I live to be 100 years old, I can get up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and say, ‘Well, I’m still averaging one trip a year up Longs Peak!’”

DJan Stewart

ESIG's DJan Stewart after a jump at Mile-High Skydiving in Longmont.

“I was only going to do it once, but then I was hooked.” So says DJan about her introduction to skydiving.

DJan, a writer/editor in ESIG, was so hooked after her first jump back in 1990 that she’s since gone on to make about 3,400 more jumps. She’s now a certified skydiving instructor at Mile-Hi Skydiving Center in Longmont and a regional director for the United States Parachute Association, which puts her in charge of safety and training for the entire mountain states region.

“I can’t imagine my life without skydiving,” DJan says. “It’s been an incredible journey, I think the greatest passion of my life. A tiptoe landing under my parachute after a perfect skydive is amazingly enjoyable.”

DJan obsessed nervously for three months before her first jump, which a friend cajoled her into as a way to celebrate his birthday. After, she knew she had to jump again even though she was still afraid. “The feeling of being more alive because you’ve faced your fears is real,” she says. “And the more afraid you are, when you leave the airplane, all that fear gets translated into ecstasy.”

After two more tandem jumps, DJan did a solo jump which required her to open her own parachute. “It was incredible and I loved it,” she says. She went on to make 300 jumps that first year, and never looked back.

Along the way, she met a fellow skydiver named Ben. The two were married in 1994 during a free­fall at 5,500 feet above Loveland and recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary with another freefall.

Freefall is the period of time,­usually lasting about a minute, before the jumper opens the parachute. It’s DJan’s favorite part of skydiving. The highest she’s jumped from is 23,000 feet, which gave her more than two minutes of free­fall time. She usually jumps from 12,500 feet above ground level. “When you’re two miles above the ground, you no longer relate to the ground in the same way,” she says. “Your body thinks it’s going to die, so you need to make new connections in your mind in order to bring your brain into the equation.”

Jumpmasters DJan Stewart (left) and Ron Bright (right) during a freefall with student Paul Bennett on Father's Day 2004. (Photo by Chris Pope).

After she got her instructor certification, DJan found that her perspective on jumping changed. “I stopped being afraid for myself, and started being afraid for my students,” she says. “But proper training takes care of that concern.”

DJan has had to pull her reserve chute only twice — once when she tangled with another skydiver and a second time during a malfunction. She had a serious accident in 2000 in which she broke her pelvis during landing. “I was devastated and didn’t think I’d ever jump again,” she says. But she recovered quickly: three days after the accident she asked Mickey Glantz (ESIG) to bring her laptop to the hospital so she could continue her work, and six months later, she made a jump. “It all came back to me and I’ve made over 800 jumps since then, and I also learned to fly a parachute a lot better after,” she says.

DJan, who made her first jump at age 47 and is one of the oldest active instructors in the country right now, says she’s not sure why skydiving is stereotyped as an extreme sport. “You go out to the drop zone and you’ll see people in all shapes and sizes and walks of life,” she says. “There are a lot of older skydivers.”

Still, she worries a little about her physical ability to teach students as she gets older, and she appreciates being involved with the United States Parachute Association. “I’ll stay involved in the political sense even when I’m no longer able to jump,” she says. “And I hope to be able to log my 1,000th jump with a student before I stop acting as an instructor. I’ve got over 900 already. Then I’ll concentrate on becoming a better freefall videographer.”

• David Hosansky and Nicole Gordon

Also in this issue...

A COSMIC project

Up-the-Hill Races, more popular than ever

Clues in an ancient lakebed

Random profile: Inger Gallo

A computing ambassador

Warren Washington receives Vollum Award

Short takes

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