Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

94-year-old Mormon prophet to scale Mount Everest

President Russell M. Nelson explains why the church's name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Sunday morning session of the 188th semiannual general conference on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City. ©2018 by Intellectual Reserve Inc. 

A special April 1 exclusive

Russell M. Nelson, the 94-year-old spiritual leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has turned his sights to scaling the world’s highest mountain above sea level: Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Widely known for his physical prowess, Nelson, who was born in 1924, still plays tennis regularly and is even reported to ski, whizzing down the slopes in his native Utah.

Now, instead of skiing down a mountain, he will attempt to become the first nonagenarian LDS prophet to climb one. He has been in Nepal for weeks of on-site training for next month’s adventure, growing acclimated to the area’s altitude and gradually ascending to Base Camp.

There are always challenges associated with scaling Everest. The short window of opportunity between the end of winter and the onset of monsoon season means there is a brief period in May when it’s feasible—if exceptionally dangerous—to climb. And of course Nelson’s age is a factor, despite his clearly robust health.

If he succeeds, he will become the oldest person to ascend Everest – and by more than a decade. The current record is held by Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura, who was 80 years old when he completed the feat in 2013.

Nelson continues actively leading the Church from his position in Nepal, holding regular audio conferences with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.

And if the technology works, Nelson will still participate live in the Church’s semiannual General Conference this weekend, joining via satellite phone to provide an audio message to the religion’s more than 16 million members.

It will be the first time in Mormon history that a reigning prophet has delivered his remarks from outside the United States.

“It’s going to be a choice blessing,” enthused a church spokeswoman, emphasizing the great visibility that Nelson’s adventure is bringing to Mormons worldwide. “He is showing everyone the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom.”

The Mormon “Word of Wisdom” is a dietary law that promises that if members will abstain from certain substances—which modern leaders have taught include tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea—they will enjoy superior physical and emotional health. At least one study has shown that Mormons do indeed have a longer life expectancy than other people, by as much as ten years.

In addition to of course following these proscriptions, Nelson has reportedly also eschewed supplemental oxygen during his stay in the base camp. “He is relying entirely upon the Lord’s inspiration,” said an aide, who noted that the root of the word “inspire” suggests that a person is “breathing in” the Spirit of the Lord.

So far, Nelson has shown no ill effects from the altitude change, and has been known to rally others with rousing hymn sings of “High on the Mountaintop” and “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go” while the younger members of his delegation struggle for breath. Clad in a special moisture-wicking suit with his characteristic white shirt and tie, he makes the rounds each morning—counseling disheartened climbers in one tent, performing emergency open-heart surgery in another.

Nelson’s church work will not be limited to phoning into the office or addressing the faithful during General Conference. While in Nepal, he also plans to open the Base Camp Branch of the Church, which will cater to the needs of the ad hoc community of climbers who attempt to scale Everest each spring.

“This is a glorious new dawn for the Church and its people,” he is reported to have said. “Just breathe in some of that fresh, clean air. Take your vitamins, everybody!”


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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