IOWA Magazine | 05-03-2018

Mountain Roots

14 minute read
The UI was once home to one of the world's most prolific mountain-climbing clubs. (Yes, really.) Now the next generation of the Iowa Mountaineers' founding family is carrying on that alpine tradition.
Iowa Mountaineers founder and avid travel photographer S. John Ebert, center, with sons Jim, left, and John in 1966 atop Grand Teton in Wyoming.

The day dawned bright and blue over the Sierra Nevada in July 2011 when they set out on the trail. Jim Ebert guided his hiking party through soaring pines, over teeming streams, and up craggy slopes. All the while, they peered at their destination: the granite peak of California's Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet is the highest point in the lower 48 states.

The hike was partly to scout the John Muir Trail for a later trip with Jim's nonprofit organization that helped people with disabilities experience the outdoors. But it was also a chance for Jim to share another adventure with his family—this time with son Justin Ebert (08BA) and nephew Nick St. John. An accomplished mountain climber and instructor, Jim for decades had led one of the world's most active mountaineering clubs in the unlikeliest of places: Iowa City, Iowa, elevation 668 feet. His parents, S. John and Ede Ebert, had founded the Iowa Mountaineers at the University of Iowa in the 1940s, and Jim helped build it into one of the largest clubs ever affiliated with the university.

A tall and mountain-like figure even at 64, Jim had shepherded thousands of climbers to the summit of some of the world's most famous peaks. He'd been planning this Mount Whitney hike for months—not knowing it would be his last. Before the trio could reach the summit, a rescue helicopter touched down for Jim, its roaring blade kicking up the mountain dirt and echoing across the valley below. As paramedics took over, his son, Justin, looked out over the California wilderness and found a glimmer of comfort: There was nowhere else his father would have rather been.

Red rock crunched underfoot earlier this spring as Justin Ebert wound his way down from the rim of Bryce Canyon into its labyrinth of otherworldly sandstone spires. A trail guide, Justin was leading his first group of hikers of the season across canyon country in southern Utah, while following in the bootsteps of his father. Just as Jim had made it his life's mission to introduce people to the wonders of the outdoors, Justin, who majored in geography and environmental studies at the UI, was guiding newcomers through Utah's backcountry. After this trek through Bryce Canyon, the group would explore four more national parks in the coming days, including Zion and Arches.

John and Ede Ebert Outdoorsman S. John Ebert and his wife, Ede, founded the Iowa Mountaineers in 1940 at the UI. At one time it was said to be the world's largest university mountaineering club.

This marks the second season for MountainBased, a Las Vegas-based adventure travel company operated by Justin and his brothers James and Jared Ebert, and their cousin, Nick St. John. Raised on tales of the Iowa Mountaineers' daring expeditions, the latest generation of the Ebert family is carrying on the proud tradition of adventure and exploration. Over the course of its 56-year history, the UI club hosted more than 2,500 courses, outings, and expeditions—from hikes at Coralville Lake to intrepid climbs in remote corners of the world. An estimated 76,000 people participated in activities led by the Iowa Mountaineers, summiting some 1,300 mountains in 17 alpine countries. At its height, the club's membership swelled to as many as 6,000 students, faculty, and other climbing enthusiasts, who conquered legendary peaks like the Matterhorn, Grand Teton, and Mount Kilimanjaro.

Today, MountainBased leads its camping and hiking excursions from Las Vegas into southern Utah—a region the Ebert brothers' grandfather knew well. In summer 1940, S. John Ebert took the Iowa Mountaineers on their first official trip west, traveling through Zion and Bryce Canyon on their way to the Pacific Coast and Mexico. "The mountains weren't accessible to most people in Iowa, but that wasn't an excuse not to go," says James Ebert, the eldest of the brothers and president of MountainBased. "It's such a big world with so many beautiful places. The ability to go and see that and share those experiences with others in a safe way was always important to the Iowa Mountaineers, and those same philosophies are what we've carried on."

A 1950 Iowa Mountaineers expedition ascends Mount Victoria in Alberta, Canada.

John Ebert was working as chief engineer for the UI's public radio station, WSUI, and hosting a weekly show called The Woodland Rambler, when he placed an ad in the Daily Iowan announcing a new mountaineering club. On Feb. 29, 1940, seven people attended the club's first meeting in the UI Engineering Building, including John's wife, Ede Steinberg Ebert (35GN), who shared her husband's passion for travel. They adopted a name, the Iowa Mountaineers Club, which may have sounded like an oxymoron to the uninitiated, but was true to the Eberts' goal: bringing their fellow flatlanders to the mountains, and bringing the mountains back to Iowa through John's travelogue film lectures.

The Eberts' enthusiasm for the outdoors was infectious, and club activities became popular extracurriculars. The Iowa Mountaineers hosted cross-country ski clinics in local parks, hikes through the Amana Colonies, and film screenings at Macbride Hall. Each summer, the club embarked on an ambitious climbing trip across North America. Getting to the mountains, however, proved just as challenging as the rock climbing. Before the modern interstate highway system was built in the late 1950s, the Iowa Mountaineers' bus contended with rugged roads and blown-out tires en route to places where few ventured. That included epic road trips to Mount McKinley in Alaska and the volcanos of Mexico.

Jim Ebert Jim Ebert, the son of John and Ede, took the reins as president of the club in later decades and led the Iowa Mountaineers until it went inactive in 1996. In his later years, he ran an outdoors nonprofit for people with disabilities. His brother-in-law, Dennis St. John (77BS, 88MA, 92PhD), and daughter, Jean Ebert Alvarez (11BA), also were involved with Alpenglow Adventures.

The club was largely made up of women in its early years because of World War II, but enrollment surged into the hundreds as more men joined after the war. By the late 1940s, the Iowa Mountaineers had their own campus clubhouse—a small building that was originally a Navy Pre-Flight School classroom on the west side of the river. Members met each week to watch travel films, play table tennis, and chart upcoming trips.

In 1949, John Ebert and Arthur Wendler (32MA, 36PhD), a UI physical education professor, introduced the first for-credit mountaineering course at an American university. They taught the basics of rock climbing on weekend trips to Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin and the Mississippi Palisades in Illinois. Members also chronicled their exploits in two publications—a monthly newsletter called the Iowa Climber and the scholarly Iowa Mountaineers Journal.

In the decades to follow, the Iowa Mountaineers broadened their scope with expeditions to the wilds of South America, Europe, and New Zealand. They climbed alongside some of the most renowned mountaineering guides of the era, including Paul Petzoldt and Fred Beckey, and logged numerous first ascents. During a nearly month-long trip to the Sawtooth Mountains in 1947, the Iowa Mountaineers became the first climbers to stand atop 18 Idaho peaks. Following tradition for first ascents, the Iowans named a number of those mountains after people and places back home, including Mount Hancher (in honor of the UI president), Mount Ede, Mount Ebert, and Mount Iowa. The names of the latter two can still be found on Idaho's maps today.

"When one unfamiliar with the club hears its name for the first time the inevitable question is asked: "'Where are there mountains in Iowa?'" John Ebert once wrote. "The answer is obvious. There are no mountains in Iowa. There are no mountains in any of Iowa's adjoining states. There are cornfields and cow pastures, and in abundance too, but these insult the integrity of the serious mountaineer. So unlike the Colorado Mountain Club and other groups with a climber's paradise in their backyards, the Iowa Mountaineers had to find them on their own."

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The Ebert family plans to relive a classic Iowa Mountaineers trip next year. Their travel company, MountainBased, is organizing a summer 2019 expedition to Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains that will recreate a 1947 Iowa Mountaineers adventure. For more information, email

Mountain climbing is dangerous business, of course, but the Iowa Mountaineers boasted an unblemished safety record. According to the club's history books, no Mountaineer ever suffered so much as a twisted ankle, much less serious injury, in its 56-year history. Still, climbers came home with plenty of harrowing tales.

MountainBased Employee Photo Jim and Margie Ebert's three sons—James, Justin, and Jared Ebert—and their nephew, Nick St. John, continue the family legacy through their Las Vegas-based adventure travel company called MountainBased.

On a trip to Tonquin Valley in Alberta, Canada, in 1962, a grizzly bear charged three Iowa Mountaineers hiking out of the backcountry. The climbers dove into an erosion ditch, just out of the bear's reach. The grizzly—believed to be the same bear that had mauled a ranger 10 days earlier—stood growling over them for a time before giving up and disappearing into the forest.

On a brighter note, the mountain air had a way of bringing people together. In a 50th anniversary booklet compiled in 1990, the club estimated that more than 1,200 married couples had met through the Iowa Mountaineers—including one mountaineering couple who wed atop 867-foot-tall Devils Tower in Wyoming. In fact, Jim Ebert first struck up a friendship with his future wife, Margie St. John Ebert (82BS), when she enrolled in his rock climbing course at the UI.

"The Iowa Mountaineers were social media before there was social media," says Margie, who today works as an academic services coordinator for the UI. "When you brought nice people together to do something fun and adventurous, it made it easy to make friends. I always say that even at the bottom of the Grand Canyon or the top of Kilimanjaro, you're going to run into somebody who was connected to the Iowa Mountaineers."

The club formally disbanded in 1996, the year S. John Ebert died at age 88. Jim and Margie had a young family to raise, interest among students had waned, and times had changed for climbers. Where once the Iowa Mountaineers would go days on an expedition without spotting another party, guided climbs had become big business and the world's highest places more accessible than ever.

Iowa Mountaineers travelers packed into a hybrid "truck bus" on weeks-long journeys to places like Alaska's glaciers, the Canadian Rockies, and the volcanic peaks of Mexico in the 1950s and '60s.

The Ebert brothers and St. John rolled open the garage door behind Margie's Iowa City condo earlier this year when they returned from Las Vegas for a visit. Inside were piles of boxes filled with artifacts from the heyday of the Iowa Mountaineers. There was a large hand-painted sign leaning against a wall that read "Alaska Expedition 1955." A storage chest filled with rusty ice axes. A pocket-sized journal crammed with itineraries and fold-out maps for an African safari in the 1950s.

The garage also housed boxes of the Iowa Mountaineers' old slides and movie reels. An avid photographer and videographer, John Ebert diligently documented each adventure on Kodachrome slides and 16-millimeter film. When he returned from trips, he presented his "Travel Adventure Film Series," which featured stunning vistas that many Midwesterners had only seen in the pages of Life magazine or National Geographic. John would become a well-known lecturer beyond the UI, presenting his travelogues across the U.S. and Canada for nearly three decades.

"He was a photographer at heart," James says of his grandfather. "He always liked climbing, but he realized that the pictures and videos that people were most excited about seeing were from the top of mountains. So he quickly realized he needed to become a better climber, and he learned by surrounding himself with experienced climbers."

The Ebert brothers and St. John have only just begun sifting through the artifacts and images, most of which have largely remained untouched for decades. There's talk of making a documentary or creating a digital repository, though the size of the collection is daunting. Flipping through photos of their parents and grandparents waving the Iowa Mountaineers flag at high altitudes, however, the brothers and St. John find plenty of inspiration for their new outdoors company. "Our goal really is, how can we create another garage like this 70 years down the road?" says St. John, who has begun digitizing the old slides to use in MountainBased's marketing.

Says Jared, the youngest of the three Ebert brothers: "There's something about helping people disconnect from the crazy lives we have today and getting them out to some of the most beautiful places in the world. That's what our grandparents did, and it's something we're passionate about doing."

A line of climbers trudges up a snowy mountain.

Justin Ebert remembers the dazzling sunrise that morning seven years ago in Death Valley National Park when he embarked for the summit of Mount Whitney with his father and cousin. "It's just so beautiful," remarked Jim as they strode between massive trees and by rushing waterfalls. But a few miles into the hike, Jim, who had been in seemingly perfect health, collapsed on the trail. Doctors would later tell his family that an enlarged heart was to blame for his death.

Jim's passing marked the end of an era for the Iowa Mountaineers and the thousands of students he taught. But his sense of wanderlust—he was always mapping out that next big adventure—lives on with his sons. "Our dad never said, 'Oh, someday.' Rather it was, 'How can we make it happen?'" Justin says. "That mindset is certainly something that inspires us every day."

Last fall, the Ebert brothers and St. John traveled to Spain for a journey that would have made their dad proud. In his later years, Jim became a tireless champion for people with disabilities. He worked as a director for an Easterseals summer camp in Kentucky, then founded a nonprofit called Alpenglow Adventures to take people with physical disabilities to places like Machu Picchu in Peru, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and the Grand Canyon.

In Spain, the MountainBased team met with their family friend, Juan Botero, a former mountaineer with a neuromuscular condition that confines him to a wheelchair. Botero's goal is to make a major trek on all seven continents, and he'd already crossed off several destinations with Alpenglow Adventures. With Europe next on his list, Botero partnered with the Ebert brothers and St. John to hike a 73-mile portion of the Camino de Santiago, a historic pilgrim route that runs through the northern part of the country. Using a mobility device called a Trailrider—a recumbent single-wheeled vehicle that allows one person to pull and another to push—the family transported Botero across the Galicia region. After a week of traveling through the Spanish countryside and cobblestone towns, their journey ended at the doors of a grand cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a beacon for pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

The men exchanged hugs, took photos, and soaked in the ancient city. But soon, talk turned to what's next. In the enduring spirit of the Iowa Mountaineers, it was time to start planning their next great adventure.

The Ebert family plans to relive a classic Iowa Mountaineers trip next year. Their travel company, MountainBased, is organizing a summer 2019 expedition to Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains that will recreate a 1947 Iowa Mountaineers adventure. For more information, email

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