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Gary Fallesen
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In Memoriam: Jim Doenges

Jim Doenges, who served full-time on the staff of Climbing For Christ during our early years (2006-2008), started the Colorado Front Range Chapter, and was a part of six Evangelic Expeditions (including the inaugural missions to Denali, Kilimanjaro and Nepal), graduated to the next life on July 16, 2018. He was 58 years old. He was survived by his wife, Teresa.

Jim once was lost and this is the story of how he was found. This story originally appeared in Issue 1 of The Climbing Life (now our quarterly magazine The Climbing Way) in Spring 2005. You can hear more from Jim in a 2012 radio production from Words to Live By.

I Want What He Has

A man seeks the hope, joy and peace he sees in his climbing partner

Jim Doenges was alone. His girlfriend left him, he lost his job and then his mother died. “I’d never experienced the death of someone close to me,” he says.

Jim Doenges was empty. He tried exorcizing the demons by going to the mountains and climbing something that pushed his personal limits. He took a hardcore, 12-day class in Washington with the American Alpine Institute in 1988, ending up in a tent on Mount Baker and the classic Mount Shuksan with a guy named Dave Lesh. The pair hit it off, discovering that they shared the lifetime goal of climbing Mount McKinley. A friendship and climbing partnership was formed.

The following winter, while doing some of the western highpoints together, Doenges recalls: “We were in the tent and I looked over and he was reading this little – oh, my gosh – it’s a Bible! Dave’s one of those Christian whackos! I’m reading about someone’s death climb on Mount Iceberg and he’s reading the Bible. But, hmm, he’s not pushing it on me.”

The pair kept climbing together. They went to McKinley in 1990, sharing a tent for another 21 days. Lesh would pray before he ate. Christian whacko.

“McKinley was an awesome experience,” Doenges says. “I didn’t want to leave.

“After I came back I went to Africa for my brother’s wedding in Ethiopia. He works for CARE.”

Doenges returned to his home in New Mexico with questions in his head. He turned to Lesh for answers. “He always had a very short answer,” Doenges says about his friend, who lives in Southern California. “Or he’d even say, ‘Well, Jim, I don’t know.’ That clicked with me. He admitted he didn’t have all the answers.”

Doenges and Lesh continued to climb together. They spent months in the same tent. “Classic lifestyle evangelism,” Doenges says now of Lesh’s relationship with him.

Lesh and his wife even invited Doenges to join them and their two young children on the Great American family vacation. “All five of us crammed in a Jeep Cherokee,” Doenges remembers. “That’s a nightmare for a single, partying guy. But Dave had something I didn’t have. He had a hope, joy and peace about him that I didn’t have.”

He wanted what Lesh had. Little did he know that Lesh also wanted Doenges to have what he had – a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“I found out later that his entire family was praying for me – that my heart would soften and I would come to know the Lord,” Doenges says.

In 1996, Doenges again found himself wanting. The void in his life was swallowing him. It was time, once more, to head for the hills. He called Lesh and they decided to climb Mount Whitney, the California peak that stands taller than any other mountain in the contiguous United States.

“We went up the Mountaineers Route in wicked winds. We were getting hammered and loving it,” Doenges remembers. “We got up an awesome steep snow climb and I was totally out of gas. Physically, I was in great shape, but I was hollow inside. I had nothing going for me. I turned us around.”

God’s fingerprints were on this bailout. As they descended safely that night, a major storm blew in. But Doenges didn’t see the providence in this experience.

“I deprived Dave of the summit,” he says. “I was just down, down, down.

“Back at home I’m living alone. I’m unemployed. I don’t know who to talk to or how to mourn.”

He went hiking almost every day in the hills above Albuquerque, N.M. One day, as the sun was setting with the type of beauty that often takes our breath away in the mountains, he heard himself say out loud: “Thank you, Lord.”

“I remember thinking immediately, ‘Where’d that come from?! I don’t believe that!’” says Doenges, who then started walking, quickly, as if trying to get away from something – or Someone. “Looking back, that was one of those times God was working on me, softening my heart. But I was saying, ‘No, no, no. I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps.’”

Doenges and Lesh decided to climb Mount Hood in Oregon. But, first, Doenges had more questions for Lesh. Serious questions.

Avalanche danger on the mountain led the two friends to decide against climbing, choosing instead to ski. “We’d ski down, get on the lift and I’d start asking questions – ‘OK, how can there be one God and there’s the Trinity?’” Doenges says. “He’d patiently explain. Then we’d zoom back down the slope.

“I was not into skiing. I wanted to ride the lift with Dave. ‘OK, if everything is predetermined, how does prayer work? How is the Bible the Word of God and not the word of men?’ Ski down, ride up. All day long. A couple times, he’d say, ‘I don’t know. When we get back to the lodge let me look it up in the Bible.’

“It raged on over dinner. ‘Salvation. What does that mean?’ I wanted to commit. I wanted to believe. But I can’t. I can’t pull the trigger. Dave tells me, ‘You have to ask Jesus into your heart. You have to admit you’re a sinner, that you need and want him in your life.’

“Dave had to get me over my need to be a more righteous man. I was scared of getting a thumb’s down from the Guy who created thumbs.”

Doenges couldn’t sleep that night. He couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop feeling as if he wasn’t worthy.

The next morning, after more discussions over breakfast, Doenges finally bowed his head and his heart. He prayed aloud. He spoke to God.

“I asked Jesus into my life,” Doenges says. “It was powerful. I was hyperventilating afterward.”

He looked at his climbing partner and said: “Now what?”

“Now,” Lesh told him, “we’re going to go climb Mount Hood.”

Up they went, ascending toward the aptly named Pearly Gates on 11,239-foot Hood.

“I’m high as a kite,” says Doenges, a Climbing For Christ staff member living today in Colorado. “I’m so full of energy. I feel, literally, like a refrigerator has been removed from my back. Never mind the heavy pack I’m wearing.

“We get into a blizzard. Horizontal snow. I’m like, ‘This is great, Dave.’ We set up our tent and it’s really rocking. For hours we thought it was going to shred. We had to keep going out and shoveling the snow off the tent. I’m getting a crash course in intercessory prayer. But I’m as happy as can be. ‘Now we get to go to heaven, right Dave? Now’s the banquet, right Dave? Let’s pray, Dave. Let’s pray again. Let’s pray some more.’ Finally I passed out from exhaustion.

“God was so good to us. We woke up gasping for air. Only the very top of the roof of the tent was not covered with snow. We unzipped the tent and it was a wall of snow. I punched through the snow and in came the sweetest, purest air I’ve ever breathed.”

It was the breath of life. Everlasting life.

“Literally,” Doenges says now, “a new day had dawned.”

Jim Doenges’ life was one storm after another, like the blizzard he encountered on Mount Hood (photo at top of page), before a new day dawned (above) and he was born again.


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