While guiding the Seven Summits of the world in less than one year – a record setting feat – mountain guide Jim Williams also delivered indelible experiences to those he led.
During the ascent of Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Jim and his client, a wheelchair Olympian, faced the daunting task of reaching the top.
“He walked on his hands, we drug him on his back, we carried him and pulled his chair behind us; we did everything we could to get him up there,” Jim remembers. “In the end, because of the steepness of the slope, his face was in the snow while he walked on his hands. So we stopped there, just below the summit.”
That day Jim and the remaining crew went on to summit Mount Kosciuszko. The brazen wheelchair Olympian was elated. “He was so happy to make it as far as he did,” Jim recalls.
Spinning the globe to the howling summit of Mt. Everest in Nepal, Jim was prepping for descent when he detected a figure on the ground dusted in snow. Brushing snowflakes from the chattering body, Jim saw it was a Sherpa.
“I was the last person off the mountain so I was ensuring everyone had begun their descent,” Jim explains. “Had I not been there to move people down there was a greater possibility someone would have died, including the Sherpa.”
As Jim’s day approached the 22-hour mark, he carried the Sherpa down from the summit, feeding him hot tea and meds. He sacrificed his oxygen to the half-conscious man while he waited for another Sherpa to bring more. Ultimately the Sherpa lost some of his fingers and toes to frostbite, but Jim’s judicious intervention meant the man’s survival.
Prior to Jim Williams’ co-led ski expedition of the South Pole, only 11 people had attempted to conquer its sleeted chalky landscape. Just six had come out alive.
Jim not only oversaw the safe return of each person in his group who set out across the South Pole, he helped them set records.
“In our party we had the first Chilean and Indian to reach the South Pole and the first woman to reach the South Pole on foot,” Jim explains.
The group skied 900 miles in 50 days with just five days of rest. “We tried to make a movie about the exploration… but no one was interested because nothing truly bad happened, everyone had fun!” Jim muses.
What’s perhaps most impressive about this journey into the South Pole’s glaciated terrain is that Jim co-led the exploration before the invention of GPS. While this illuminated his savvy navigation skills, and later solidified his role leading the epic crossing of South Georgia, there were still hurdles along the way. After trip co-leader Martin Williams broke his hip skiing a ridge, Jim set up a solo radio call with a doctor. After the call ended Jim began cranking forward to catch up with the group as the skiers faded into the horizon. But when he looked up soon after, Jim saw no one.
“I’m out in the middle of the Antarctic and I no longer know if I’m going in the right direction,” Jim remembers. “So I took out my compass and took the bearing line we said we were going to follow and I followed it until finally, I saw them again. I wasn’t focused on the worst-case scenario; I focused only on reuniting with the group. A lot was riding on my decision-making that day and how I reacted; the crew was depending on me.”
Jim’s South Pole exploration remains a renegade mission of its time and one that he cherishes. “Before that trip, you could have traded places with me for a dollar,” Jim laughs. “Although we had been working on the trip for a while, I didn’t know if it would be successful. But once it was completed it was an experience you couldn’t buy from me.”
Despite several commercial attempts, by the year 2000 no one had successfully followed Ernest Shackelton’s 1915 route through the Antarctic’s unforgiving South Georgia Islands. Jim’s keen navigation skills, which came into play when he led the first overland crossing to the South Pole – before GPS – made him just the man for the job.
“I’m as familiar or more familiar navigating with a map and compass as I am using a GPS,” Jim admits.
Jim’s insatiable appetite for knowledge decidedly fueled the crew’s experience, too. “When you are following in the footsteps of a historical figure you try to experience what he did,” Jim explains. “The experience you’re after is tied to their account … that’s why for me, understanding the navigation that took place – how they chose the line – was more important than just following a GPS line. I find it really intriguing to have a map and compass and be out thinking like they did, with the same tools.”
The exploration also required Jim to confront his own fear (yes, he actually has one). The crew encountered ferocious waters during their 10-day journey by sea to the Antarctic. Jim described the manic maritime scene he witnessed from the crew’s Russian ice vessel: “Serious polar storms, high winds – 70 to 100 knots – and 10 meter swells. A cruise ship was crossing to the Falkland Islands and the waves crashed over the bow, decimating the windows and bridge. People had to be rescued.”
For days at a time, the group was confined to the ship’s swaying cabin. Once on land, Jim traded seasickness for resolute leadership, safely leading the crew through treacherous wind, ice, snow and rain until they completed Shackelton’s route after four days.