In 1941, Timothy Jon Hansel was the second of two boys born to Art (an insurance salesman) and Ruth (a beautician) Hansel. Shortly after his birth, the family moved from Minnesota to Seattle, where Hansel lived until he enrolled at Stanford University, having earned a football scholarship to the prestigious California school. Hansel would go on to complete both an undergrad and graduate degree while at Stanford, and after turning down a job offer to coach on the Stanford staff, Hansel took off for New York to work with Young Life. A variety of teaching and coaching jobs followed, intermingled with frequent trips into the wilderness.
"The wilderness is still the finest place to train servant leaders because it is a non-neutral learning environment which demands change, and fosters community, trust, and interdependence. The wilderness encourages wholeness, reminds us of what is true and real and affords us an opportunity like no other to encounter God as He is without distraction." Holy Sweat (1987)
In the 60's, Hansel was teaching Social Studies at a public high school in California, and was growing increasingly disturbed by the lack of motivation and apathy shown by his students. He wondered if a weekend camping trip would help. Amazed at the transformation that occurred, Hansel began to take groups of high school students into the wilderness, at first just for the weekend, but the trips grew longer and longer. His initial forays convinced him of the effectiveness of outdoor, experiential-based education and led to the formation of Summit Expedition, one of the earliest wilderness-based ministries in the United States.
One of Tim's first business cards
“Apathy is one of the big things to deal with for today’s kids. So we put them in stress situations. We get them up on a three-pitch rock climb. They concentrate entirely upon what they are doing, bringing their awareness up to a peak. There’s no room for apathy…” Hansel, quoted in Backpacker, Summer 1974.
Throughout the 70’s, Summit continued to grow, taking hundreds of students into the wilderness. Although the ministry was impacting many people, finances were always a concern, forcing Hansel to work as many as four jobs at a time. In addition, he married and fathered two children, embarking on the adventure of marriage and fatherhood. As Hansel continued to direct the ever-growing ministry of Summit, his real ministry was about to begin.
Hansel and Peb Jackson--that appears to be the south ridge of Madera Peak in the background
“David was halfway across the snowbridge when my crampons balled up. I slipped. Just as I was beginning to stop, my feet went over the edge. The momentum gave gravity just enough of a nudge to cause me to flip upside down.”
Several years after he founded Summit, Hansel and another instructor had completed a climb on North Palisade Peak in the Sierra Nevada. Descending from the glacier in the late afternoon, Hansel’s crampons balled up with snow and caused him to fall into the crevasse, landing heavily on his upper back and neck. Although he got up and hiked the 20 miles to the car, the damage was done. Cracked vertebrae. Crushed discs. Fragments of bone lodged in his neck. The result was chronic, debilitating pain that would be with him for the next 35 years.
An early GoForIt! course
“I feel almost dismembered this morning by outrageous pain. It is almost comical to have reached such a ludicrous level of disorder. Me, with my desire to be agile and free, barely able to get up and out of the chair this morning. Teach me to live in new ways, O Lord. Teach me and show me your ways in the midst of this.”
The pain was relentless, and would come to define the remainder of Hansel’s life. The lifelong athlete, the champion of backcountry travel, the intrepid mountaineer--he would be forced to leave the ministry he started and loved because of the accident. His boundless energy was now funneled into speaking, and writing. Twelve books would ultimately flow from Hansel’s pen, but he’s most remembered for one—“You Gotta Keep Dancing”, originally published in 1979. Although written by an accomplished mountaineer and outdoorsman, YGKD found the strongest reception among those who might never experience the outdoors—those who were suffering from pain, sorrow and disabilities. Hansel inspired thousands, maybe millions, with his strong message of perseverance, faith, and the option to “choose joy” despite your circumstances. Pain was inevitable, but misery was optional. It was this attitude that continued to inspire people throughout the last years of his life.
“I began to realize that it wasn’t my imposed limitations that held me back as much as my perception of those limitations. It wasn’t the pain that was thwarting me as much as it was my attitude towards the pain.”
Ginger & I came to Summit in 1998, 19 years after “You Gotta Keep Dancing” was published. When I joined the full-time staff, I was amazed at how many people contacted Summit after reading one of Hansel’s books. Even today, 30+ years after it was published, we continue to receive phone calls and messages from people inspired by Hansel’s message.
Finally, I’ve been in and around the wilderness ministry field for the better part of two decades, and interacted with a large number of organizations that use the adventure-based recreation as a ministry tool. I’m not sure when and where the concept of “wilderness ministry” first emerged, but here’s something I do now: there are numerous organizations that work in the wilderness and many of them were influenced directly or indirectly by Tim Hansel. Many of the founders and leaders of today’s wilderness industry were students or staff that experienced the passion, the vision, and the inspiration of Tim Hansel. I’m lucky to consider myself one of that group.
The Memorial Service will happen Saturday morning in Carlsbad, California.