The Teacher who Conquered the World

Record setting alumnus balances teaching with exploring

John Dahlem ’65 is not only unlike most University of Oregon graduates, he is unlike most people in general. Forget one in a million—statistically speaking, John Dahlem is one in 173,780,488 (give or take.)

You see, the school principal and retired historian is one of only 41 people to ever complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam: climbing the highest point in each of the seven continents and reaching both poles. When Dahlem stood on the summit of Mt. Everest in 2009 with son Ryan, he became the second-oldest American and the senior half of the oldest father-son team to ever do so; and when he reached the South Pole in January 2013, completing the Explorer’s Grand Slam, he became the oldest person and one of just nine Americans to ever achieve the feat.  

It turns out, Dahlem is a historian who has spent a lot of time making history himself.

California native John Dahlem moved to Eugene sight unseen in the early 1960s, and played football for John Robinson’s “Ducklings” during an era in which the likes of Mel Renfro, Bob Berry, and Dave Wilcox led Len Casanova’s Ducks. Renfro, Berry, and Wilcox parlayed their success on the football field into a combined two Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions, two Super Bowl rings, and 18 Pro Bowls; while Dahlem gave up his football career to focus on academics, earning his bachelor of science in history from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1965.

During his time at the UO, Dahlem was first a member of, and then the president of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He also stayed in ROTC beyond the required two years in order to collect the $50 per month stipend, and was commissioned a lieutenant.

“The Vietnam War was starting at that time, and they didn’t want to slot me in right away so they said they’d pay for any other education,” Dahlem said. “I picked up my masters at UCLA in Latin American history, and then it was time to go into the Army. I spent two years in the Army, including a year in Vietnam where I was a company commander. I spent a year there during the Tet Offensive. I ran boats for the Army as a boat company commander. I came back from there, and always wanted to teach kids so I got into education.”

Dahlem received a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, and then returned to Southern California to teach psychology and Californian history. A challenge from his students though, took his life in an entirely unexpected direction, and it was all, well, uphill from there—in a manner of speaking.

“Some of my students when I was teaching said they’d like to climb Mt. Whitney,” said Dahlem. “It’s the highest mountain in the continental United States. We got together, and took some of my former students and climbed Mt. Whitney.”

With an elevation of 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney is 3,266 feet higher than Mt. Hood, but a comfortable enough climb that Dahlem repeated the trek with his family several years later. That got Ryan interested in climbing as well, and when the younger Dahlem was 20 he suggested to his father that the pair climb Mt. Rainier, the 14,441-foot stratovolcano southeast of Seattle. That set in motion a chain of events that took the pair from the sunny Californian coast to the summits of the highest peaks in the world.

“We met Phil Ershler, one of the guides on Mt. Rainier, and he said if we ever wanted to climb more to let him know, because we’d be good enough to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro,” said Dahlem. “He said, ‘It’s in the summer.’ My son graduated from Stanford and worked in their admissions department, so the only time we could climb was during the summer. But 19,000 feet? I thought, ‘No, we could never do something like that.’ But my son said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ We did Kilimanjaro, and after that Phil became our guide all along, and we just kept going.”

John Dahlem (67) played freshman football for the
University of Oregon's "Ducklings."

After Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet, the remaining “Seven Summits” mountains are Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia (7,310 feet), Vinson Massif in Antarctica (16,050 feet), Mt. Elbrus in Russia (18,510 feet), Denali in Alaska (20,320 feet), Aconcagua in Argentina (22,841 feet), and Mt. Everest, on the border between China and Nepal and the tallest mountain on Earth (29,035 feet). John and Ryan spent a decade checking them off the list, one by one, and finished with Mt. Kosciuszko, which the entire family climbed together.

First summited by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, Mt. Everest is both imposing and unforgiving. The final 3,000 feet lies in the death zone, where there is insufficient oxygen to sustain human life. One climber dies on the mountain for every 25 who reach the summit, and 2014—where 16 Sherpas died in a single accident on April 18—has been the deadliest on record. Climbing the mountain is such a feat that a relieved Hillary, upon his return to basecamp 1953, is said to have exclaimed, “We knocked the bastard off.”

The harsh conditions on Mt. Everest can cause problems for even the most experienced climbers, and it was no different for the Dahlems. At altitude, a climber’s appetite is diminished and the human body begins to waste away. John and Ryan spent 45 days on the mountain, during which time they each lost more than 20 pounds. In that weakened state, even climbing in ideal conditions is a challenge. But when a storm springs up, bringing with it 30-mile-per-hour winds and blizzard conditions, it’s close to impossible—and that is exactly what happened while the Dahlems, John’s Sherpa Danuru Sherpa, and the team were in the middle of the five-day round trip from their camp to the summit.

“You can walk in 30-mile-an-hour winds, but not very well,” said Dahlem. “We had that, it was snowing, it was cold, and we could hardly see. It was a white out. We couldn’t see very far ahead, which wasn’t really a problem as we were attached to ropes. As I tell some people, that part of it was somewhat nice because there’s a couple of spots you have to go across that are totally exposed. It’s about a foot wide, and it’s 10,000 feet down on either side. If you slip and fell off the line you’d be dead. We couldn’t see that, but we knew what was there.”

It took the party 12 hours to climb the final 3,000 feet, and when they arrived at the top the storm had reduced visibility to barely 20 feet. Standing on the highest point on Earth, John reached inside his down jacket, produced a well-traveled green felt triangle, and posed for a photograph.

He was holding his trusty University of Oregon pennant.

Physically and mentally drained, any energy that could be spent celebrating was instead conserved for the trip back down Everest. The team made it back to camp in half the time it took to get up—John slid part of the way—and only once they had safely returned could they reflect on what they had achieved.

“It was a great moment,” Dahlem said. “People ask how you feel up there. You made it and you’re so excited, but gosh, you’ve got to get down. There’s never a moment where you’re jumping up and down. You’re uptight the whole time; we did not feel any total elation until we got back to basecamp. At basecamp you’re through all of the dangers. That, getting back from Vietnam, and marrying my wife and having kids were the happiest moments of my life.

“Sharing it with my son was so important. When we got back to basecamp he had a beer and I had a diet coke, and that was our celebration.”

Once the Seven Summits had been climbed, a friend suggested trekking to the North Pole. Once that was crossed off the list, another friend suggested trekking to the South Pole. Ryan, now married and with a son—Colin, as a reminder of the time spent on Mt. Everest’s South Col—sat out the polar expeditions, leaving John the only Dahlem exploring the Arctic and Antarctic.

“We pulled sleds—not from the edge of the continent, but from the last degree,” he said. “We’d go for 10 days in the north and south, and you pull your sled and set everything up at night. At the North Pole there’s a lot of noise with the ice cracking up. At the South Pole, we’re all pulling our sleds and you can [only] hear that. At one point I pulled my sled off to the side, and it was the only time in my life I couldn’t hear anything. It was like being in a soundproof room. It was the most amazing situation that I’ve been in. I sat there, and just—nothing. That was neat.”

That same UO pennant that was unfurled atop Mt. Everest also accompanied Dahlem to the South Pole in -40oF temperatures, to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam. A photo of John holding the pennant on Mt. Everest was e-mailed to then-UO head coach Chip Kelly, which earned Dahlem an invitation to meet Kelly—an invitation that led to him giving the team he once represented on the gridiron a pep talk the night before a game.

Despite spending part of each year in far flung locales across the globe, Dahlem had no trouble finding time in his schedule to return to Eugene to meet Chip Kelly and the Ducks. John and wife Sioux ’65—a fellow UO graduate whom John calls the real hero in the family, for letting him spend months out of each year climbing mountains—return to campus every fall to attend a football game with John’s fraternity brothers. The team now plays at Autzen Stadium, a far cry from his days slogging through the mud at Hayward Field, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his love for his alma mater.

“I loved my four years here,” Dahlem said. “I got homesick my first year, but loved it. I loved the fraternity life—we weren’t into drinking and carousing, it was just a lot of fun and brotherhood. It was a wonderful university with wonderful people. When I graduated, my father’s present to me was a lifetime membership in the alumni association.”

In fact, Dahlem has only one regret from his time at the UO. Being the oldest person to set exploring records is due, in part, to getting started later in life than other climbers—despite attending college in a state filled with mountains.

“I wish I had gotten out more, because then my mountain climbing would’ve started earlier if I’d gone out into the Cascades,” he said.

The past president of the California Scholastic Federation and a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a coach, Dahlem keeps himself grounded through teaching, even though his head is often literally in the clouds. The UO football team is just one of the many groups he has spoken to, imparting the lessons he has learned through climbing to people looking for their own motivation.

“I like talking to the young kids to get them out, and I like talking to the elderly,” he said. “We’ve done some local groups in our community. It’s not that they’re going to climb Everest, but everybody has their own Everest. You’re 80 years old, just get out to the mailbox and get going, walk around the block. We encourage them.

“We like talking to people and encouraging them to get out.”