Top of the World, Ma!

John Thompson climbs stairs to climb mountains

Published in 2008 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2008

Most Tuesdays, along about 7 p.m., John E. Thompson runs the stairs in his office building, 27-story Resurgens Plaza in Buckhead. Up and down, he puts in three or four round trips with no breaks in between. Most Thursdays, he walks those 544 steps, logging two or three stairwell circuits while toting a 40-pound backpack.

Sunday you’ll find him making two or three treks up Stone Mountain. The 56-year-old also works out with weights three days a week and rides his bicycle whenever he can.

No, the partner at Atlanta’s Fisher & Phillips isn’t insane, although if deposed, some Resurgens tenants might testify otherwise. His hobby is mountain climbing, and devotion to a grueling regimen pays dividends at high altitude.

“What most people don’t realize about mountain climbing is the endurance it takes,” he says. “You need sustained stamina over a long period of time, and when your energy reserves run low, the air is at its thinnest. At my age, I can’t afford to get out of shape.”

Since 1998, at a one-climb-per-year pace, Thompson has scaled some impressive peaks, including Mounts Whitney (14,497 feet), Shasta (14,162) and Dana (13,053) in California; Mounts Rainier (14,411), Adams (12,276) and Baker (10,778) in Washington; and Oregon’s Mount Hood (11,239).

Details are etched in his mind, such as the conquest of Mount Adams in 2006. “When we got to the top, there was a freshly made snow cave nearby,” he says. “Someone must have slept on the summit.”

Thompson’s highest ascent was 17,400 feet up Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba (18,490) in 2002, before altitude sickness—blinding headache, lack of coordination, muscle weakness—cut short the climb.

A wage-and-hour specialist, Thompson helps employers comply with the law. But the screen-savers on his office computer—dramatic views of various peaks—are an ever-present reminder of his off-hours passion.

Thompson’s wife, Kim, practices immigration law for a plaintiff’s employment law firm in Decatur. Years ago, the couple negotiated a marital accord on the limits of an avocation.

“My wife has veto power over my climbs, and she’s vetoed most of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest and K2,” Thompson says with a laugh. “Maybe I could do them at my age, but given my law practice, it would be hard to prepare for something like that.”

As a kid growing up in Atlanta, Thompson was fascinated by Annapurna, a book detailing the first conquest of an 8,000-meter peak. Author Maurice Herzog led the arduous 1950 French expedition in the Himalayas. Thompson still has the book and describes its panoramic photo of the summit with the wonder of youth.

A soccer player at Druid Hills High School, Thompson played the game in amateur leagues in Atlanta into his mid-30s before a shattered ankle led him to cast about for another pursuit.

“I messed around with golf for a while, but the game didn’t get its hook into me. Then [in 1996] I went out to the Northwest, and I saw Mount Rainier.”

Thompson spent the next year and a half working himself into climbing condition, and in 1998 he reached the summit of Rainier—a round trip that took some 19 hours. “It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” he says.

But he discovered he loved scaling big mountains in some hard-to-define, almost mystical way.

“I don’t completely understand it,” says Thompson, who usually climbs with a half-dozen fellow enthusiasts, led by guides. “I seem to have this inexplicable urge to explore what’s up there. And I love being in the snow and ice on a mountain. It’s so cold and crisp and such a beautiful place to be. The views can be astonishing.”

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