Andrew Harris celebrates reaching the summit of the Grand Teton with his sister Amy and Max Hammer. PHOTO: Julie Ellison @joolyhart
Andrew Harris celebrates reaching the summit of the Grand Teton with his sister Amy and Max Hammer. PHOTO: Julie Ellison @joolyhart

The Story Behind the First Person With Down Syndrome to Climb the Grand

Pro skier Max Hammer helps guide Andrew Harris, who has Down syndrome, to the summit of the Grand Teton

Max Hammer has done a lot of cool things in the 29 years he's been on earth. Born and raised in Jackson, Wyoming, he grew up as a top ski racer and competed on the U.S. Ski Team from 2006-2008, where he became the NorAm overall champion in the super combined. After his racing career, he transitioned to the world of alpinism, becoming an Exum Mountain Guide as well as a featured athlete in numerous ski films.

But Hammer said that nothing compares to what occurred last Friday, when he and his fiancé, Amy Harris, guided his future brother-in-law, Andrew Harris, to the summit of the Grand Teton. Andrew, who goes by the nicknames “Bob” and “Ducky,” became the first person with Down syndrome to climb the 13,776-foot peak in Grand Teton National Park. From the trailhead at the base of the Tetons, they reached the summit after 12 hours of hiking and climbing more than 7,000 vertical feet, with Hammer on short-belay and Amy, also 29, providing encouragement and support for Andrew, 32.

"As a personal moment, that was probably the proudest thing I've ever done athletically or been involved with," Hammer said Wednesday. "I know Amy and I, at the summit, felt like, 'Holy cow, I cannot believe this just happened.' Andrew's emotions at the top were flying so high. He was just buzzing with excitement and stoke. He couldn't stop looking around in amazement. It was still a long way down from there, but I'll definitely never forget the summit."

Andrew Harris takes on a technical section of the Owen Spalding Route on the Grand Teton. PHOTO: Julie Ellison @joolyhart

Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that affects about 6,000 births per year in the United States, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. Most of those affected have mild to moderate cognitive disability, but many are active and independent. Hammer and Harris include Andrew, who lives with them in Reno, Nevada, in their daily activities, such as long hikes, sport climbing, swimming, and running. While there are myriad factors that are unpredictable in climbing a mountain—weather being a huge one—they were confident in Andrew's fitness and ability to get up the Grand as long as everything else lined up.

Hammer said the achievement shows that people with Down syndrome or other disabilities are capable to do whatever they want, they just need the support and love to get there. While they had never done anything as ambitious as climbing the Grand before, Hammer said it was only a matter of combining the things Andrew loves and seeing them come together.

The project had the endorsement of the National Down Syndrome Society, which provides support, employment and health opportunities, and advocacy to help individuals with Down syndrome find and participate in inclusive activities, including skiing. The organization has more than 100 ambassadors, including 10 with Down syndrome. Eric Henderson, well known throughout the ski and outdoor world and who has a daughter with Down syndrome, has become a key conduit between the outdoor world and those with cognitive disabilities. Henderson was part of the support crew during last week’s mission, along with mountain guide Zahan Billamoria, videographers Mark Fisher and Eric Daft, and writer/photographer Julie Ellison.

“The fact that Bob did it with his team and was able to summit in one day, that’s a great accomplishment in itself. It shows the world that people with Down syndrome are capable of doing what we are all capable doing, and sometimes more.” —Michelle Ray, National Down Syndrome Society

“The fact that Bob did it with his team and was able to summit in one day, that’s a great accomplishment in itself,” said Michelle Ray, Director of National Inclusive Health & Sports Program for the NDSS. “It shows the world that people with Down syndrome are capable of doing what we are all capable doing, and sometimes more.”

While it can be tough for family members to know exactly how to care for a loved one with Down syndrome, Hammer said it starts right there within the walls of a home.

"The first thing I realized is family support is number one," Hammer said. "I've learned that from the Harris family. They love and support Andrew to the fullest. There's a lot of organizations that can help, because people with Down syndrome want to be helpful and social and have everything that everyone else wants in life. Andrew loves being with people. He loves having his own jobs, whether that's in our house or in our community. He probably wants to show up to work more than anyone I know because it means he can be around people and his friends, and be part of the community. That's what he really wants."

Love is all you need. Amy Harris helps her brother Andrew toward the summit of the Grand Teton. PHOTO: Julie Ellison @joolyhart

On Saturday, Hammer and Harris will get married in Jackson Hole. As they've prepped for the wedding, people have been spotting Andrew around town and reached out to congratulate him for climbing the valley's proudest peak.

"He's been loving it," Hammer said. "People have recognized him now, and nothing makes Andrew happier than for people to stop and say hi and give him a high five. It's kind of mind-blowing all the positive feedback we've received, and it makes your heart swell when you see that support."