"Life on the Vertical"

Climber Mark Synnott (foreground) will present “Life on the Vertical” on Friday night at the Clayton Center for the Arts, the latest National Geographic Live presentation.

When Mark Synnott says he’s aiming for the heights or that he’s on his way up, he’s not speaking theoretically.

A seasoned rock climber and all-round adventurer, he’s scaled some of the highest rock walls in the world. In addition, as a contributor to National Geographic, an author and a storyteller, he’s able to share tales of his climbing career, a pursuit he’s maintained for the past 35 years. At age 50, his enthusiasm for the sport has never wavered.

It’s little wonder, especially given the exotic locales where he’s gone to climb. The list includes Alaska, Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Patagonia, Guyana, Venezuela, Pakistan, Nepal, India, China, Tibet, Uzbekistan, Russia, Cameroon, Chad, Borneo, Oman, Pitcairn Island and Yosemite National Park. Last summer, he undertook his highest climb yet by ascending Mount Everest. To call him a risk-taker is clearly an understatement; indeed, his death-defying exploits would likely cause even the heartiest adventurer to give some pause.

Then again, Synnott knew from early on that it was his destiny to take on these challenges.

“I grew up near a cliff in New Hampshire,” Synnott recalled. “I came from a family of outdoorsmen. My dad was an outdoorsman, but he wasn’t into climbing. Still, I think he was fascinated by it. He would take me to this cliff and we would sit there and watch the climbers. Sometimes we’d be there to greet the climbers when they reached the top. We’d do that a lot, more than normal. I was a little kid, 7 or 8 years old, but my hero was Evel Knievel.”

Always willing to take a dare, he and a buddy decided to scale that neighborhood cliff with only a rope tied around their waists. Synnott was all of 15. His father not only knew of his son’s desire but actually drove him and his friend to the base of the cliff for their initial attempt.

“He was whatever is the opposite of a helicopter parent,” Synnott said, using the term that describes parents that hover over their children. “Here he was, driving me to a 500-foot cliff with nothing but a clothesline to hoist myself to the top. He knew his son was crazy, but he just thought, ‘Whatever.’ My mom was pretty hands-off too, although I don’t think she was aware of our plans. My parents were pretty loose with stuff.”

From that point on, Synnott’s mind was made up.

“I was a pretty lost soul as a kid, but as soon I touched the rock, I said, ‘Yup, this is what I need to be doing,’” he recalled. “And I never stopped. I’ve been going nonstop ever since, and I haven’t killed myself yet.”

Some people have a fear of heights, but Synnott finds the peaks provide an opposite appeal. It’s more than an adrenaline rush, he insists. Still that doesn’t mean he doesn’t occasionally worry about falling and doesn’t get scared if he finds himself in a difficult situation. He was asked if he ever gets so scared, he decides it’s no longer worth the effort?

“Yes,” he admitted. “But I never say I’m never going to do this again. I do say, maybe I shouldn’t be right here right now. Maybe it didn’t exactly work out the way I planned. I did one climb in Alaska where I genuinely thought I was going to die because I thought I was going to freeze to death. That was the only time where I said to myself, ‘If I get through this, I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore.’”

Nevertheless, he did get through it, and after waking up the next morning, encamped in his bivouac in a snow cave, he found himself so overwhelmed by the beauty of his newfound surroundings that he immediately changed his mind.

“It has an incredible lure to it,” he said when describing the sport’s appeal. “There’s a real magnetism to these peak experiences. It keeps me coming back.”

He not only comes back, but also looks for new cliffs to conquer. Synnott specializes in “big wall climbing,” cliffs so big they take multiple days to climb. The longest time it took for him to scale a ledge was 39 days. One wall took him 16 hours just to advance the equivalent of 200 feet. Frigid conditions can often impede the progress. He said that on that latter climb, his feet literally went numb.

Still, he persists.

“I’ve climbed with some of the best climbers in the world,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky. It’s pretty weird. I can’t say we have a good explanation for why we do it. It’s adventure, exploration, the ability to go to places where nobody has been before, seeing what’s out there, the curiosity about what are you’re going to find, what are you going to learn about yourself.”

Still a resident of the Granite State, he said he doesn’t know how many cliffs he’s climbed.

“I’ve never kept track,” he confessed.

Nevertheless, he’s managed to make a respectable income from writing books, consulting, appearing on the lecture circuit, contributing articles to National Geographic and running his own climbing company, Synnott Mountain Guides. He said he currently spends at least a third of his year away from home. His older children — he has four in all — are also climbers, and Synnott said that they understand why he chooses to do what he does. After all, it’s paid off pretty well.

“When I started, I was living out of my car,” he continued. “I only had one recurring monthly bill — and it was only $50 a month. I needed money for beer, but I kept it lean and mean. Then I got a writing gig with a magazine called Unlimited, a custom publication from Phillip Morris. It was a magazine for people who smoked Marlboros and they had 2 million subscribers. They wanted to do a story on rock climbing for their premier issue. I ended up doing 30 cover stories for them. They paid incredibly well and I ended up going all over the world on assignments.”

His latest book, “The Impossible Climb,” became a New York Times bestseller. His first book, published a dozen years ago, was called “Baffin Island: Climbing, Trekking, Skiing.” He’s working on a new book which will be based on his recent exploits on Mount Everest. He’ll be signing copies of his current book in its recently published paperback edition when he makes his upcoming appearance at the Clayton Center.

“You just have to try to avoid a bad outcome,” Synnott said of his efforts. “But you can’t avoid risk altogether, because life would be boring.”

Daily Times columnist, correspondent

Lee Zimmerman is a Maryville resident and longtime freelance music writer, reviewer, critic and blogger.

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