Career Profile: Jon Kedrowski

For years, the last thing Jon Kedrowski saw as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep was a poster of Mount Everest hanging on the ceiling over his bed. "I always knew I was an Everest kid, ever since I starting climbing mountains when I was 10," he recalls. While growing up in Vail, Colorado, the Rocky Mountains were literally in his backyard, and Jon's birthday just happens to fall at the height of the Everest climbing season. By the end of high school, Jon had summitted all of Colorado's "Fourteeners" (the state's 55 mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation). He went on to climb many other peaks all over the world, including scaling Alaska’s highest, Mount McKinley, in 2009 and Mexico’s three highest volcanoes that same year. These accomplishments whetted his desire to attain "the holy grail of mountaineers." On May 26, 2012, Jon achieved his dream of reaching the roof of the world, but only after narrowly surviving the worst tragedy on Everest since the 1996 disaster chronicled in Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air. On May 20, a violent storm forced Jon and his teammates to stop their first ascent just 800 feet short of the summit, and seven other climbers lost their lives on the mountain that night.

Jon's career plans initially called for a white coat and stethoscope instead of ice axes and crampons. After learning about the early explorers and surveyors of the American West, he realized that he could actually make a living by pursuing his passion for the outdoors. He completed his undergraduate training as a double-major in geography and chemistry (pre-medicine) at Valparaiso University. While interning at a sports medicine clinic in Vail, Jon continually felt drawn back toward a career in environmental geography and working in the mountains. "I kind of had this vision of doing some of the things I'm doing now... I just loved mountaineering more [than medicine]," he explains. After receiving his master's from the University of South Florida in 2006 and his Ph.D. from Texas State University in 2010, Jon was a visiting faculty member at Central Washington University for two years before his position was eliminated due to budget cuts. Today, "Dr. Jon" (as he's known to students and associates) is busy with consulting projects, speaking engagements, and promoting his new book, Sleeping on the Summits: Colorado Fourteener High Bivys, co-authored with meteorologist Chris Tomer and published by Westcliffe/Big Earth (available here). He is also planning for future book projects like Sleeping on the Summits about other peaks, and he is considering a possible book about the Everest tragedy, his eventual summit, and mountaineering policies at the world's highest mountain.

While he's not currently employed in a faculty position, Jon's academic and personal interests remain tightly integrated. For example, his dissertation explored perceptions of climbing and ecosystem management, providing him with opportunities to travel and to climb Mount Rainier more than 15 times in 2008-2010. He did similar research on Mount McKinley in Alaska in 2009. Owing to his reputation as an experienced explorer and established academic geographer, he was invited to collect field data for two different research projects during his Everest trip, which helped to offset the costs of the expedition and allowed him to further develop his publication and research record. For one project, he conducted interviews about human waste disposal and tested water quality in several villages for a proposed biogas composting project; for the other, he took air samples and GPS readings at 35 sites within the Himalayan region to help analyze the atmospheric impacts of climate change. These field experiences, in turn, contribute to his effectiveness as an author and lecturer: "I like to bring the geography right into your face!" Jon enthuses. "When I'm out in the field, I'm always asking myself, 'How can I use this in the classroom?'" He relies upon his personal photos and videos to enliven courses in introductory physical geography and speaking engagements, and he has integrated geographic concepts and technologies into Sleeping on the Summits. "I want to try to communicate to the general public that geography is fun, it can be easy to understand, and it is everywhere now," he explains.

As someone who's had to adapt to ever-shifting conditions, both in the job market as well as on mountaintops, Jon advises, "You always want to have Plan A, B, and C so you have plenty of options and can make yourself more marketable." While Jon is considering a return to academia someday if the situation is right, he will never be content to "sit on the computer all day pumping out work." His career is testament to his belief that "as a geographer, you're going to learn a lot more in the field than from a textbook."


This profile was first published in 2012 by Dr. Joy Adams.