Vertically inclined

Cason Crane has spent five years taking on seven of the world's highest mountains in an effort to be a gay role model

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 11:50am

Cason Crane has been putting off starting his studies at Princeton University for two years, but it's not as if he's spent that time wondering what he wants to do with his life.

His first year, he studied Arabic and volunteered for various peace projects in Israel. This year, he's aiming to complete his goal of reaching the peaks of all Seven Summits - the highest mountains on the world's six continents. He's completed five and is preparing to scale Everest.

Crane's mother, Isabella de la Houssaye, worries about her son as mothers usually do, but other times she's been edging along a rock face in front of him, sticking a crampon in the jutting granite above him, or abseiling. They've also run side by side in an Ironman competition.

De la Houssaye, formerly a lawyer in Hong Kong before they returned to the US 14 years ago, took him up Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, at age 15. Her husband, David Crane, also encouraged Cason, the eldest of their five children, with his hiking interest.

"My love of mountaineering?" says Crane with a smile. "I blame my mother for that."

Crane has his own motive for climbing the Seven Summits: he wants to become the first openly gay mountaineer to do it. Dubbing it the Rainbow Summits Project, he aim to raise money and awareness for the Trevor Project in the United States, which provides a 24-hour hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (LGBTQ) as well as a question-and-answer page online, a secure online chat and a worldwide social network called TrevorSpace.

He also wants to be a role model in a field where there are next to none. He was inspired to embark on the summits project after Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old American student, committed suicide in 2010 following a spate of cyber-bullying.

But his mother has watched to see if he is capable both physically and mentally. "Like with any activity, people come at it with different levels of adeptness," says de la Houssaye, 49. "So you can have people who want to climb the Seven Summits but, for various reasons, are unable to. [Cason's] a very good climber. He's physically and mentally able."

Crane describes mountaineering as more often a slow walk uphill with some very real risks than sheer climbs.

In August, he and his mother climbed Carstensz Pyramid in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, perhaps the most technical climb of all Seven Summits and the most inaccessible, as a week of jungle trekking was required just to reach it. But the problems weren't just physical.

"We were preparing in Bali when we heard that a group of militants in Irian Jaya - which is very different culturally from the rest of Indonesia - were holding another mountaineer hostage," Crane says.

So mother and son and the rest of the team had to decide whether to try another time. Because of all the preparation they had done, they opted to forge onward.

"The only thing we agreed on was that we absolutely couldn't tell my father, as he would have made us fly back in a second," says Crane.

As it was, they had no problems, and the local villagers and porters were very friendly and helpful. But the mountain was a dangerous slog, particularly on descent. Ropes on a wet rock face had begun to deteriorate. "I swear, when I was rappelling, I started to hear the rope tear. I really freaked out and went down as fast as I could," Crane recalls.

Mother and son climb well together because they have a similar temperament. "It's important to know your strengths and weaknesses," says de la Houssaye. "Both of us are level-headed and have the ability to stay focused through days and days of lack of sleep and food. There are not a lot of people who can do that."

Even when you want to argue, says Crane, you have to stay focused on the task. The day he arrived to take on Mount McKinley in Alaska, four Japanese climbers were buried in an avalanche. Only one survived. "Avalanches are how good climbers die," he says.

His Everest team is led by professional climber Lydia Bradey, the first woman to climb the world's highest mountain without oxygen. Both mother and son trained with Bradey in New Zealand, and for Isabella, it was to reassure herself that her son could meet the challenge.

"When we were training with Lydia, it was quite evident that his skills were infinitely better than mine, and I'm a pretty skilled person," she says. "As a mother, you don't want to send your son off on a mission to get killed. As a parent, I wanted to see that he had those skills. He really is good at it, so he can go forward on this."

There are phenomenal dangers on mountain climbs, but de la Houssaye is philosophical about what may befall her eldest son. She also notes that more people are likely to die on the highway.

Crane says his father hopes his three brothers and sister won't acquire his love of mountaineering, as dad found a fellow climber dead in a tent one morning during a climb.

Crane and his team had to turn around on Mount McKinley last year when five days of snow and wind forced them to stay in their tents. So after Everest, he will return to Alaska in June or July to complete the seven.

Gay rights have come a long way in the US in the past 50 years, Crane says, but there's still a long way to go. At school,he was often teased and told he walked or talked like a girl or he had a "gay" walk although he did not necessarily fit the stereotypes. Even so, he has always been very comfortable with his sexuality, he says.

"A lot of the kids you talk to do struggle with defining who they are," says de la Houssaye. "It's tough. You want to have people to talk to ... I think you have to accept your kids as they are and be supportive in all circumstances and give them unconditional love."

Anti-gay sentiment can run high in the US, particularly in religiously conservative areas, where gay youngsters "really can be seen as the devil" and are forced to suppress their sexuality, she adds.

De la Houssaye will accompany her son to the Everest base camp, where he will spend the next two months preparing for the final ascent.

Although he has never faced mistrust from teammates over his sexuality, Crane once faced homophobic abuse from another team. So he hopes to be a resource for those who might be uncomfortable about discussing LGBTQ issues. He likes talking to young people about overcoming obstacles in life and achieving summits with their individual talents, he adds.

His next Everest, he says, will be becoming a student again in September and knuckling down to study. He plans to write a book about his Rainbow Summits Project but he's still unsure about his career path.

"The first openly gay US president," says his mother.

You can follow Crane's progress at rainbowsummits. org.