POR: Jose Iglesias March 08, 2009
Forget the couch, give Jose Iglesias a mountain
Jose Iglesias is as comfortable climbing a mountain as he is walking around his house.
Actually, he might be more comfortable on a mountain.
“Everything’s safe,” Iglesias said. “You feel at home.”
Iglesias is technical director of the Mesa County Search and Rescue Technical Rescue team as well as one of the best mountain climbers in America. The Technical Rescue team saves people or recovers bodies from some of the county’s most extreme terrain.
When Iglesias moved to the United States in 1994, he was one of just five people certified as a mountain guide through the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association, or IFMGA, he said.
To earn that internationally recognized certification, Iglesias completed nearly five years of coursework and fieldwork to demonstrate his capability in the following areas: rock climbing, ice climbing, backcountry skiing, Alpine climbing and canyoneering.
In other words, Iglesias can do it all.
Despite his knowledge and experience on 3,000-foot rock walls or in Colorado’s backcountry, Iglesias takes every safety precaution every time out. He doesn’t take chances because his profession and hobbies are risky.
“Every time you go to the mountains you learn something new,” he said. “I know that I know a lot of stuff through all these years climbing, but there is always something new. In nature, we are the last link of the chain. Every time we go to the wilderness, we are the last creature that can survive there.”
As Iglesias likes to say, “nature always wins.”
Iglesias grew up in Northwest Spain and began climbing as a teenager, taking advantage of mountainous regions in his home country as well as other mountainous regions of Europe.
He admits that the climbing culture in Europe is more rabid than the culture in America. He misses European climbing circles.
“You have mountain clubs in every town,” Iglesias said. “Mountain clubs are ... a physical place with coffee, beer, books and stuff. It’s open every day after work, so people go after work and meet other people and make plans for the weekend.”
In America, Iglesias said, there are mountain clubs,but members communicate via e-mail, so there is not that daily person-to-person contact he values.
Iglesias was 18 the first time he climbed Mont Blanc in the Alps and was smitten with mountain climbing. With a summit over 15,000 feet, Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in the Alps.
“The first time I climbed Mont Blanc was when I really, really got hooked to the mountains,” Iglesias said. “It was a big goal for me. ... It’s the heart of the Alps. The Alps is where everything started.”
His first summit of Mont Blanc did not immediately exalt Iglesias to professional mountain guide. He spent years learning more about technique, different terrain and uncontrollables such as adverse weather before his IFMGA certification was complete when he was in his 20s.
About the time Iglesias was certified to be an international mountain guide, his younger brother died in a mountain climbing accident. Iglesias was not with his brother at the time of the accident, but it made a life-changing impression on him.
Iglesias became more involved in training mountain rescue teams. He never joined a professional rescue team while living in Europe, but he did teach the professional mountain rescue teams how to do their jobs in such extreme ranges as the Alps and Pyrenees.
“I was happy just taking people climbing and teaching safety,” Iglesias said. “I was busy teaching guides and rescue teams and did many rescues with them during their training.”
Iglesias remembers one rescue vividly. He was with friends in the central mountains of Spain on a recreational climb. The trio were staying at a hut near peaks popular for ice climbing and
Alpine climbing. In the middle of a blizzard, two strangers came to Iglesias’ hut needing help after their friend fell 400 feet off the side of a mountain, He had broken bones and was bleeding, but he was alive.
Iglesias and his friends hiked two hours to the accident site, found the man, and built a snow cave to spend the night because a helicopter could not fly in the weather conditions.
The next day, rescuers came in by foot and a helicopter found a small hole in the blizzard to land on some rocks. Iglesias and other rescuers walked out onto a nearby frozen lake and lifted the injured man safely into the helicopter.
“That was pretty intense,” Iglesias said.
It wasn’t until moving to Mesa County in the mid-1990s that Iglesias officially joined the Mesa County Search and Rescue Technical Team, where he is a volunteer. Iglesias, who is sponsored by Loki and Mammut, is typically called upon for searches and rescues in the Colorado National Monument because of its terrain.
After a childhood and early adulthood spent in Europe, Iglesias moved to the United States at the urging of some friends and for a change of scenery — Iglesias saw his best friend die in a mountain climbing accident.
He met his eventual wife, Jeanne Lelonek, while mountain biking in Moab. The couple eventually settled in Grand Junction, and now have a son, Miguel Iglesias, 6.
Having a family has slowed Iglesias down — a little bit.
He still enjoys guiding summer rock climbing trips but now guides with Exum Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons and guides less at Mount Rainier in Washington. He writes for Barrabes, a European climbing magazine, and is working on a book about his adventures.
The one thing that has perhaps slowed Iglesias more than anything was surgery in January to remove a cancerous tumor on his kidney.
Iglesias doesn’t really like to dwell on his cancer because follow-up tests have been positive, and he was told he’ll be back climbing mountains this summer.
On Feb. 12, Iglesias and some friends went on his first long hike after surgery. He ate lunch and hiked in the Ute Canyon.
In 48 years, Iglesias has seen the world from atop its tallest mountains. He has traveled to most continents and speaks four languages.
But he is not done.
“I did a lot of stuff, and there’s still more stuff to do,” he said.