It all started with a calendar.
“I stared at that National Geographic calendar for a year,” says Gordon Janow, cofounder and co-owner of Alpine Ascents International, a mountain-climbing school and guiding company based in Seattle. One day, a picture of the Lofoten Islands in Norway, above the Arctic Circle, jumped out at him. “I just went to a picture.”
Janow didn’t grow up traveling. He was a Long Island kid, visiting his grandparents in Coney Island, going to school and playing sports in Merrick and Locust Valley on the North Shore.
After falling in love with the calendar, Janow quit his New York corporate job and took off hitchhiking through Europe. But his interest in Himalayan explorers from the 17th and 18th centuries took him farther afield. “I eventually took up some of the trails they were traveling on,” he says — through Pakistan, India, and Nepal.
Janow developed a pattern of alternating work and travel, selling travel articles and fiction to fund trips. On a trip to Seattle, he met Todd Burleson, a climbing guide, who asked him to write some brochures for his new company, Alpine Ascents.
After two months helping out, “Todd was like, ‘Great, you’re in charge,’” recalls Janow, and a business partnership was born. As Alpine Ascents’ program director, Janow could work and continue traveling for long enough to spend considerable time in places like Yemen and Iran.
Their partnership coincided with a growing international interest in climbing fueled by the publication of Seven Summits (by adventurer Dick Bass, who passed away in July). As more people wanted to climb the biggest peaks on every continent — Aconcagua in South America, Everest in Asia, McKinley in North America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Kosciuszko in Australia — their business grew.
While he loves traveling and trekking, Janow is not a mountaineer. He never had a big enough interest in technical climbing, he says. He oversees Alpine Ascents’ operations, written materials, research, marketing, and client care. Architecture and hill tribes are his biggest interests. “I lead tours in India, art and architecture tours, and treks in the mountains.”
The climbing school hosts classes and climbs at Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker, as well as in Alaska, India, and the Alps. And while they are not looking to expand, Janow still scouts for new treks for clients, most recently exploring Ladakh, India, a Buddhist region in the mountainous north where the Dalai Lama has a summer residence.
Janow is also the point person when things go wrong, as they did recently during the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. Alpine Ascents’ group at Everest base camp was spared, and Janow managed the communications between clients on the mountain and their families. With clients and Sherpa employees home safely, the company continues rebuilding infrastructure in the region.
“We are deeply involved,” says Janow of Thame, the town where their head Sherpa is from. “We were able to donate all our food and tents ... just to get [residents] settled.” While continuing to support repairs to the village, they also help answer longer-range questions like, “Do we rebuild [and] what kind of houses?”
Alpine Ascents’ long-standing support in the area includes the Sherpa Education Fund, created in 1999 for Sherpa children. The foundation, which just celebrated its first two college graduates, pays for private and boarding school and built a school in the Khumbu region to educate children closer to home. Operating schools is a challenge in this remote area, Janow says, where few locals are qualified to teach, and outsiders don’t stay. With its extreme dryness and dust and buildings heated with yak dung, “It’s like being sent to Siberia,” he says. “There were buildings, schools, and books” in the region, “but there were no teachers.” The new school will accommodate a kindergarten and first-grade class.
Locally, Alpine Ascents donates a North Cascades climb, which includes logistics, guides, food, and tents, to Seattle nonprofits a couple times a year.
Janow and his wife, Dawn, settled on Bainbridge Island, where they live with their children, August, age 15, and Cordelia, 11. They are busy theater and sports parents: Janow coached August in hockey for many years until he joined a higher-level travel team, and Cordelia is a semiprofessional actor who performs live and on screen in amateur and professional productions.
Janow’s passions come together in a big way this December when he and his son go to Ladakh to teach ice hockey to local residents.
“A bunch of locals somehow got a bunch of gear from the Canadian embassy about 10 years ago,” Janow says, and they’ve built some outdoor rinks at 11,000 feet above sea level. “It’s going to be freezing.”
Gordon Janow’s Favorite Local Hikes
Mt. Baker via Schriebers Meadow
Schriebers Meadow is used year-round for hiking, camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Get more information and directions from Washington Trails Association or the Forest Service.
Anyone can hike up to the spot where those seeking to bag the summit begin their ascent. Check conditions at nps.gov/mora, and be prepared for snow through August and for a steep descent.
For something a little easier, or more kid-friendly, head west from Seattle to Hurricane Ridge, which offers rolling trails along the ridgeline. Check weather conditions at