About Jon Letko - Dentist and Mountaineer
Born in 1950, Jon Letko grew up in Canton, Ohio. The youngest child of a blue-collar family, he enjoyed a typical upbringing in Middle America. Letko’s father was a Canton steelworker, a man of discipline who took pride in his profession and valued hard work over nearly everything else. He passed this work ethic onto his 4 children – all of whom credit their father for the success they have be able to achieve in life.
Jon Letko was decidedly independent, even from a young age. He took little interest in team sports – despite having two older brothers who all played baseball. Instead, Letko gravitated toward individual sporting activities. He found joy in pushing his body – and his mind – to their extremes. After joining the track and field team in high school, Letko quickly realized he lacked the sheer athleticism required to compete in events such as hurdles or sprints. However, Letko has never been a quitter. He enjoyed running, but needed to find a niche to which his body was better suited.
One day, out of curiosity, Letko decided to stay after practice and see how many laps he could run before he got tired. After starting slowly, he gradually opened up his stride. Before long, he had found a rhythm. The laps began to mount. To his surprise, despite having already ran a considerable distance at practice, his legs simply weren’t getting fatigued. He had found his niche: long distance.
Thrilled to have something to focus his energy on, Jon Letko began training year round. As his physical endurance progressed, Letko became increasingly enamored with a competitive aspect that is unique to racing. Running a race, he will tell you, means doing battle with two enemies. Your opponents on the track of course, but also your own mind. In order to win, the runner must overcome his fellow competitors while simultaneously suppressing the physical pain that urges him to quit. Unsurprisingly, Jon Letko’s inner drive to push his body to its limits translated to success on the track. By the end of his high school career, he had developed a reputation as one of the best endurance runners in all of Ohio.
This reputation led to Jon Letko’s recruitment by legendary track and field coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon. The young Letko was offered a full time scholarship to attend the university and compete collegiately. Initially, he was reluctant to accept – the offer meant a huge change of scenery for the native Ohioan. Eugene is a vastly different place than Canton, and his entire family still lived close to home.
However, always adventurous, Letko decided that if he didn’t move to Oregon he might regret it for the rest of his life. After accepting the offer, he packed all his belongings into the bed of his 1970 Chevy C10 pickup and headed west.
Unfortunately, Letko’s collegiate career never panned out. From the start, a series of frustrating injuries kept him sidelined. Competition after competition, Letko was forced to watch the other runners from the stands. His frustrations were compounded by the arrival of star athlete Steve Prefontaine on the Oregon campus in 1969. Although Prefontaine was an unparalleled competitor, his personality rubbed many the wrong way. As Prefontaine quickly became a household name, Letko realized that perhaps there was more to life than running around a track.
It was during this difficult time that he met a group of students that had formed an outdoors club at the university. They operated weekend trips up into the Cascade Mountains – hiking, rock climbing, and exploring. Being from Ohio, Letko was entirely unfamiliar with such alpine activities. However, listening to the way these students described their endeavors, Letko found himself fascinated. These were not day trips; these were adventures. Going up into the mountains was not a hobby; it was a religion.
He began accompanying the outdoors club on their expeditions, and soon realized why. In the mountains, all of his frustrations melted away. He was free to explore, to chart his own path. In the mountains there are no certainties, and nobody setting the rules. The mountaineer must rely on himself – his own judgment, his own physical abilities. Always an independent person, this combined feeling of isolation and freedom was something entirely new to Jon Letko. It could not be found in a new city, nor out on the running track. And it definitely couldn’t be found anywhere in Ohio. What originated as a curiosity quickly became a passion – and shaped who Jon Letko is today. He began scaling higher and higher peaks – continually putting his skills and endurance to the test.