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Sen. Mark Udall Conquered Many Mountains Before Climbing Capitol Hill

Courtesy Sen. Mark Udall
Sen. Mark Udall climbs Mount McKinley in 1992.

If you’re looking to connect with the Colorado electorate, you’d better know your way around a mountain — and not just those 14,000-footers the amateur climbers conquer on weekends.

A truly rugged Coloradan can tell the difference between native and nonnative species of blue sucker fish, painlessly swallows whiskey and might have to look outside the Rockies for a real challenge. At least, so says the state’s senior Senator, Mark Udall.

“There isn’t a Coloradan out there who doesn’t cycle, hunt, hike, golf, ski, fish or climb,” the Democrat told Roll Call. “We’re an outdoor state. It fits our worldview, and it’s how we define ourselves.”

That’s the turf where Udall says he earned his Colorado credibility, and it extends beyond the big black cowboy boots he wears with suits. Not only has the Democrat climbed 93 of the state’s 100 highest peaks, but he’s also conquered Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas and Mount Aconcagua (the highest peak in South America).

Still, his climbing résumé is incomplete. Udall and a team of five friends attempted Mount Everest in 1994 but had to turn back at 26,000 feet after a windstorm battered them for four days.

“We attempted a route that to this day has only been climbed once,” Udall said. “We knew we could make it if we went by one of the more common routes, but we were looking for something that would really challenge us. In the end, it meant that we didn’t actually reach the summit, but at least we made it home in one piece.”

Udall grew up with a close climbing partner in the family. His cousin Tom Udall isn’t just a fellow Democratic Senator. The New Mexico politician also joined him on the peaks. The two are sometimes called “the Kennedys of the West,” and they have countless stories from the trail.

“A friend of mine and I were returning from climbing a very difficult route on Aconcagua that involves being tied to the mountain while you sleep,” Mark Udall said. “On the way down, I saw somebody coming up who looked really familiar to me. It was Tom — I didn’t even know he was in Argentina.”

Before running for Congress, Udall parlayed his climbing skills into a career as an Outward Bound instructor. There, he took people from all walks of life — corporate executives, young adults, veterans and sexual assault victims — on trips into the wilderness.

“You can take the sense of empowerment that you get climbing back to your everyday life,” he said. “There’s a craftsmanship to climbing, and for me, it’s always been about how to translate that into other areas of my life.”

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