Jon Tierney’s interest in climbing mountains started when he was a kid growing up in Claremont, N.H. “I was first intrigued by climbing as a youngster. My parents gave me a lot of freedom to pursue healthy outdoor activities. In middle school I was into camping and hiking,” he said recently when we met up at Parks Pond Bluff, a popular climbing spot in Clifton. “I climbed up and rappelled out of trees, climbed up and down into mica mines. In eighth grade I went with my parents on a trip to the Tetons and climbed and learned more stuff,” he said.
“I was a little too young to hang out with the New Hampshire crowd that was putting up new routes in North Conway and on Cannon, so I played locally, setting up anchors with pitons on granite train trestles and climbing with two older mentors. I used to relish going to their house to eye their gear. Then, in high school, at Stevens High, they had an outdoor program that was way ahead of its time, called Project Challenge, where I learned to climb ice and rock,” he said.
“All through high school and college I was also a competitive distance runner and as I got better at that I had less time for climbing.” When he went to college at Colorado State in 1979 he didn’t climb that much, and eventually found his way to Maine, where he finished his education at the University of Maine at Orono in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in parks and forest recreation, with additional study in education and emergency medicine. While he was at UM, he co-founded the university’s outdoor education program, Maine Bound.
During college at Maine and since, Tierney guided clients up the technical routes of New England, on Katahdin and in the White Mountains. He opened up a retail climbing shop, Alpenglow, in Orono and a guiding company, Acadia Mountain Guides, in Bar Harbor. He financed his climbing education by a combination of guiding and loans to achieve accreditation in several aspects of mountaineering, such as advanced alpine, rock and ice and ski mountaineering.
His list of certifications in a variety of disciplines would fill a page, and include the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education instructor certification. He has co-authored the Technical Rescue Standard for Maine Search and Rescue, a subject he knows well from working as a backcountry ranger and rescuer in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Denali National Park in Alaska. Over the years he’s been involved in rescues from Baxter State Park to Denali.
Tierney earned his most recent certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, which qualifies him to guide clients in Europe as well as the states. There are only around 20 American mountain guides who’ve earned the distinction.
During the training for the ski mountaineering exam for that accreditation, Tierney suffered an accident that could have been much more serious, but was bad enough, because he broke his back. “I was skiing along a ridge outside Valdez, Alaska, in a snowstorm and poor visibility. The upcoming exam was on navigating in bad weather. I might have skied too close to the edge of a cornice, because it collapsed and I fell through it,” he said.
But guiding clients and performing rescues aren’t the only occupations in which he excels. As an instructor, Tierney is recognized from the Washington County Community College’s Adventure Recreation and Tourism course to the University of Maine’s outdoor education program in Presque Isle. He has developed guide training programs from one end of the state to the other. “Much of my career has been focused not only on developing my own skills, but helping young people develop their skills and careers,” he said.
Still, he has managed to log several first ascents on mountains all over the world. First ascents are logged either by climbing a previously unclimbed mountain or by climbing a mountain using a new route. Among others, Tierney has about 30 first ascents of new ice and alpine routes in western China. He has completed a first ascent of a new summit route on Pico Leon, elevation 4,730 meters, in Venezuela. He has also guided clients on more than 40 successful high-altitude (over 18,000 feet) mountaineering ascents.
Now, at age 49, his career has taken on an added dimension from climbing mountains to flying over them as a flight paramedic with LifeFlight, the helicopter emergency transport service. He sees it as an extension of his mountaineering career. “For the better part of my adult life wilderness education and guiding has been my primary focus and emergency medicine my second career. Ironically, most guides and emergency personnel maintain second careers to make ends meet. I reversed that role this year to make medicine my primary focus. I hope to reach the point where I can blend them both well,” he said.
He’ll probably find a way to do that, he thinks, as his LifeFlight schedule “provides for blocks of time and I expect this to get even better in the future. This year I expect to guide or instruct three or four international trips; some with the U.S. Navy and Air Force and at least one big mountaineering trip to South America, China or Patagonia. I will always guide locally in Maine and New Hampshire,” he said.
Of all the accomplishments in Tierney’s long career in the mountains, including authoring guidebooks on technical climbs in Clifton and Katahdin, probably the one that’s most remarkable is the fact that he has made a career out of a job he loves. Because of that it’ll never seem like work.