Tim Hansel (1941-2009)

This weekend, Tom Smith (Summit's Executive Director) and I will be traveling to San Diego for Tim Hansel's Memorial Service. Tim Hansel was the original founder of Summit Expedition in the late 60's and early 70's (the date varies, depending on who you talk with). I'd like to take a moment to introduce you to this ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life, impacting countless lives and heavily influencing the idea of "wilderness ministry". (All quotes in italics are Hansel’s own words.)

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.


Anonymous said...

This book was recommended to me by a co-worker. I just finished the book and I am purchasing two copies for my personal library. I work in the counseling field in CO and I have found Mr. Hansel's message to be absolutely inspiring.

Ed Buell said...

I am copying, to MP3, 4 talks that Tim gave at Successful Living Conventions in 1988 and 1990. About 6 hours altogether. He spends time on the Dancin' Book, Holy Sweat, and Eating Problems for Breakfast. If any of your who loved Tim would like a copy, please contact me on Facebook (Ed Buell) Meeting and listening to Tim was a highlight of my life..I only recently heard that Tim had gone to be with the Lord.

Anonymous said...

Rejoicing knowing he is with our Lord and Savior in his glorified new body. I was a "caller" once after reading his books. To my huge surprise Tim answered the phone! We spoke for awhile then he sent me the most amazing package of inspirational writings. Although I never was able to attend Summit God used the principles I learned from reading his books in other experiential education venues and in my personal life and heart. Thankful for his ministry.

Anonymous said...

He put my mom in a few of his books

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a page contribution to a long-lost Great Uncle here! I knew about him writing a couple books, but didn't know ANYTHING about him doing wilderness adventures!! How cool!

Toni (daughter of Lindy who is son of Ken...)

Anonymous said...

Tim Hansel. What a wonderful man of God. A man that discovered Joy in a life for of Pain.
This Man through Christ has given me the greatest gift that I treasure and hold close to my heat. A gift of joy.
A gift that keeps on giving. Thank you Tim.

Anonymous said...

Tim changed my life. He was my high school instructor. He turned me on to life and awoke my potential (remember that little "potential" vase he would demonstrate with? Right when you thought it was empty, there was always just a little more to pour out) He got me through cancer, gave me confidence and was one of the best role models in the world. I have thought of him so often over the years and am sadden that he is no longer with us. His footprint will be forever with us all.

Anonymous said...

I am a member of chronic pain family! My pastor gave me the book "you gotta keep dancin'" this past week. Only a few moments ago on your blog did I know that he had died. I am just now reflecting
on how incredible God is in the ways and means he works through. Even in death, Tim's legacy was ministering to me!
I was crushed between two forklifts and after three surgeries on my leg, six on my hips, and two (soon to be 3) on my back, along with many other broken bones. After pastoring a church for the last seven years, I am now going into anywhere I can/God leads me as an evangelist to bring the gospel to as many people as I can. Although I was not a climber like Tim, my life since my accident has paralleled his in several ways. This book will be with me always, so that when I begin to cave into my pain, I will open the book and be reminded and inspired by his words.
I have had a couple of other accidents that were severely painful in that moment that they occurred. However, when they healed the pain was gone. The pain that I now experience from my knees to my shoulders is not normally as extreme as those other accidents were. Occasionally the pains in the back are close to that painful, but as a norm they are not. Without any hesitation I would trade my usually less intense chronic pain for one of those extreme pains that seems blinding to your brain in a New York minute! That is, I would rather have one of those mind blowing pains each week than this pain that I have every day for the rest of my life!
The key for me is that I am continually amazed that God has used me and my pain as an avenue to meet people to tell about Christ! How blessed am I?!
Thank you to you for sharing your life through this book that is now touching mine! With true Christian love brother, I am.....

.... Grateful for grace,
Gregg Hall
A.K.A. dogpreacher

Unknown said...

I am in tears of joy knowing Tim is without pain in the greatest wilderness ever with Jesus. I met Tim at a conference I attended at Azusa Pacific College when I was a youth pastor in the early 70's.

I will never forget and always cherish meeting him. It was shortly after his accident. The joy he had as a result of Jesus' obvious presence in his life truly was infectious.

In fact, passwords that I use are influenced by things I learned from Tim. Imagine that!

I have tears of gratitude, joy and relief flowing down my face as I type this knowing he is experiencing his greatest adventure!

Anonymous said...

i just started reading The Book 'You Gotta keep Dancin'30/07/14. it is inspirational, it has made me feel that my situation is nothing at all, and a feeling of guilt that people have gone through tougher things and are holding on, then why do i cry over something that i don't have.

i am inspired. i tap into the grace of Tim to leave a legacy for posterity that when someday i am no more people can point to me and say that She was an inspiration.

Cyndy Marshall said...

I'm so sorry to learn of Tim's death. [sigh] but he is now free of the pain and he is dancing with Jesus ! and standing on Mt tops !! His book "You Gotta Keep Dancing" changed my life, and helped me to go on after my son was killed in 2001. I was just trying to list 10 Books that changed my life on Facebook, and YGKD was one of my top 10. Then I wondered what became of Tim and found your blog. He obviously impacted 1000's of others, Thank you again for your great blog about him.

Gini Walker said...

Today is 9/18/14 and I'm currently reading YGKD. I decided to google Tim's name to see what others were saying about him and since the book was written in the '80s I wanted to see if he was "for real"...I felt mixed emotions that he died in 2009 - joy for him, sorrow for us. 35 years of chronic pain and the testimonies of friends, family and colleagues affirm his right to talk about pain + joy. It also inspires me to share his story with others. See you in eternity Tim...looking forward to meeting you!

Doug Tawlks said...

Tim was my mentor, teacher, coach, employer and friend. He taught me what the heart of life was about and helped me understand that Jesus is safe, but following him is dangerous. He reproduced his life in me as I went on to do wilderness ministry, speak and quote him on several occasions. He was an infectiously joyful person and I will never forget him.

He used to quote Helen Keller, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all." Amen.

Dan Silva said...

What a friend I have in Jesus...and in Tim Hansel. We worked together at San Carlos High School, where the outdoor ministry was born. He made us better people. We can keep his memory alive by passing his books along... Please do so.

Jeanne Hammond said...

Incredible message, timely for me!! Praise God Tim did not waste his sorrows! It takes courage to live with pain. It also takes so-journers and I'm grateful that he put his struggles onto the written page for encouragement! There is a lot of wisdom in YOU GOTTA KEEP DANCIN"! Ever so grateful for this book.

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

Thank you Tim Hansel (founder of summit expedition) for really transforming my life and helping me realize my potentials. Thank you for helping me discover my role model Buckminster Fuller. Thank you for helping me understand the meaning of life. Thank you for helping me become visionary. Thank you for helping me find purpose as in life. Thank you for helping me know God at a deeper level. Thank you for making me know that the best place to listen to God is in the wilderness. Thank you for turning my theology into biography.Thank you for making me a peak performer and a servant leader. It all started when I found your book "Holy Sweat" while in High School.

Anonymous said...

If something good happens it’s “Glory to God, he is so powerful!” If something bad happens “Oh it’s Gods will. God works in mysterious ways. Farther along we’ll know all about it ”. I wish I could fool myself into believing. It would be such a comfort to believe in a God who loves and cares about me. I wish I could but reality always kicks in. If there is a loving God then why doesn’t he go ahead and show up and end this thing. Instead he keeps cranking out milllions of beautiful babies who through no fault of their own but their parents are Muslim they most likely will end up being a toasty smell that just really turns God on! Why not go head and end it so hell wont be so full of burning tormented souls. How many do you need in hell God before you say”Yeah I reckon that’ll be enough” “No wait! On second thought I’d like to have a few more billion roasting down there. I mean it just smells so damn good, don’t it?”

Mrs M Correa said...

Oh my gosh. I'm so very sad to just learn of Tim's demise, bringing tears to my eyes. I've been widowed for 2 years come April 25, 2019. The sadness was so overwhelming, unable to focus/consentrate or doing any of the things I love doing the most. After just recently reading the book "You Gotta Keep Dancing" I'm more motivated and hopeful. I came across this by accident, while searching for the organization Ignite to order another book from him and found just what I need, "Through the Wilderness of Loneliness" I'm sure he is loved by people he never met or met him, myself included. Mrs M Correa

Unknown said...

I heard Tim speak when I was 16 years old. I am 62 years old now and a member of the chronic pain club. I, too, am about to lose my wife because of addiction to pain killers and the resulting anger associated with the daily pain and relentless lack of sleep at night. I just ordered two of his books. I remember also that he used to keep small toys in his pockets so he would be reminded of his kids throughout the day. My son struggles with addictions and I have always kept a picture of him when he was little in my car to remind me of the little boy I once had before addiction took him from me. Thanks Tim.

Clay said...

Sounds like Tim
I remember the toys . . . he had a windup woodstock from peanuts he'd let dance across his desk.
Called his boys "midget gurus" for how much he learned about Jesus from them

Clay said...

I remember that vase soooo well