Jason Yue: No summit out of reach

Charlotte Collins
5/30/2018

The mountain climbing lifestyle calls to mind images of long stretches of time spent training and planning, a scout-like understanding of procedures and safety, and a deep appreciation for the diverse beauty of the nation’s landscapes, often fostered during early childhood. Even those who have not evolved into seasoned hikers can likely think back sentimentally on their own Americana-infused memories of backpacking trips in heavy July heat, kicking along sun-scorched dirt trails, or chasing fireflies and swatting mosquitoes on moonlit Midwestern campgrounds, or even the first faint pinpoints of stars overhead after escaping the light pollution of the city.

Jason Yue doesn't really have any of those memories; Yue is a kid from Chicago, a self-described “city slicker.” He’s a student in systems engineering and design, and had spent more of his nontraditional undergraduate career navigating startup culture than the outdoors. The extent of his hiking experience was aimlessly wandering through the retired landfill behind his home, which led into a forest preserve. But that was before he met Alec Eickert, and before the two of them would embark on a journey to climb to the highest point in every state in the USA.

Yue at Alabama's highest point in Cheaha State Park.
Yue at Alabama's highest point in Cheaha State Park.

The idea was initially Eickert’s, but he wasn’t quite prepared to put it into action at first. The two met through a mutual friend and quickly found that their ambitions to explore were in alignment. Yue describes Eickert as “the type of person who runs 100 miles per hour at whichever interest is most current to him.” Neither of them had strong experiences with climbing or camping, but they were bound together by their will to see Eickert’s vision through, and Yue knows that it often takes “someone else to light the fire” in order to realize goals that seem overly-ambitious at first.

With Yue’s prodding, the two put the idea to the test.

50 States 50 Summits is the name of their project, and so far they’ve hit eight of the 50 summits they set out to reach (Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida). The trip will take them through the summer of 2019, with travel to climbing locations sandwiched in between the short periods of freelance work to fund them.

Yue pictured at Florida's highest summit, 345 ft at Lakewood Park.
Yue pictured at Florida's highest summit, 345 ft at Lakewood Park.

“The funny thing is before this trip, I didn’t have a deep relationship with nature. It’s not as if I went camping every summer on the Mississippi since I was five,” says Yue. “However, I think something is changing inside me, but I haven’t figured out a way to articulate it yet. I’ll get back to you on that.”

Yue likes being a catalyst. This isn’t the first time he’s poured energy into realizing a friend’s dream; a video in which he takes a friend flying for the first time ever went viral with over 500,000 views on YouTube. Another video on his channel shows Yue helping plan an elaborate proposal for his roommate’s girlfriend. The couple were both in ISE and are now married.

Yue's videos are a part of his bucket list. The descriptions under each provide a succinct mission statement: “The dream is to cross 100 items off of my Bucket List. For each item I accomplish, I hope to help someone along the way.”

In keeping with his love of documenting the high points of life, Yue will be making the experience into a film. He's shooting the documentary completely by himself, though he has never made a film before. Aside from a summer internship and a strong appreciation for documentary cinema (Yue was named an Ebert fellow at the University in his junior year), Yue has little classical training in filmmaking. But he's learning as he goes, which is generally his preferred method.

"People often say, 'Oh, I’ve never hiked before,'—I don’t know [anything] about hiking! Or, 'I’ve never made a documentary before,'—I don’t know [anything] about making a documentary!” says Yue. “For me, the trick was just to start and I figured it out along the way, and I’m still very much in this process."

Yue in Arkansas with a University of Illinois flag at Mount Magazine State Park's high point, Signal Hill.
Yue in Arkansas with a University of Illinois flag at Mount Magazine State Park's high point, Signal Hill.

One of Yue's overarching goals for 50 States 50 Summits is to showcase just how possible it is for people to realize a dream they might have dismissed before even considering the logistics. He knows finances can be a daunting barrier for those trying to bring their dreams to life and wants to demonstrate that his kind of adventure can be done on a dime, so he plans on being transparent about how much money was needed to fund the trips.

Yue hopes people will be more inclined to start their own personal journeys if he’s able to do the “groundwork,” and forge a path and a community so that when others decide to take the leap, they’ll “feel like [they] have an in.”

"People come up with reasons about like, 'Oh, I can’t travel, I can’t see these states, I can’t go to national parks, it’s expensive I don’t have the time, I don't have any of this,'” says Yue. “I’ll show you how much money is in my bank account, I’ll give you the exact path we went down, I’ll tell you even the shops we went by and if you tell these people Jason and Alec sent you, you’ll be welcomed in as a friend. I want to get rid of as many excuses as possible that people would put into their heads on why they cannot do this."

Yue at Charles Mound, the highest point in the state of Illinois at 1235 ft above sea level.
Yue at Charles Mound, the highest point in the state of Illinois at 1235 ft above sea level.

Throughout the first leg of the journey, Yue has found that climbing and camping settings often lead to fast friendships.

"When you travel in the outdoors, everyone gets it, there’s this mentality of helping out one another," says Yue. "If you’re like 'Crap, I don’t have a match,' there will be people who get it, people who have been in that exact situation before, people who won’t hesitate to give and offer help."

Traveling throughout the 50 states has given Yue the unique opportunity to collect patches that make up the quilt of American life. He didn’t foresee his interest in engaging with acquaintances about personal topics, like their political thoughts, but those conversations have been a side-effect of the journey that he believes captures an interesting “snapshot” of America.

“We’ve interacted with so many people, you know, I’m not one to speak politically, but it’s’ a very interesting time period where I think politics is talked about a lot,” said Yue, “It’s really cool to interact with someone from Georgia and see where their mindset is, and then you go to Ohio or Illinois or Mississippi or Michigan, you talk to someone there and you start to see these parallels in human conversation."

A preliminary timeline for the journey.
A preliminary timeline for the journey.

While getting off the grid and into the wild has facilitated connections with new friends, it’s also been a study in clearing his own head.

Throughout his short time in the industry, he’s encountered some of the tougher facets of an engineering entrepreneur’s lifestyle. Despite taking his engineering problem-solving skills and creativity with him on the road, he feels restored by being able to apply them to a less traditional setting.

Yue recognizes that the process of building startups is “glorified” in modern media but he believes those images don’t always capture the full reality of working in today’s world. He’s struggled with rough days at the office and having work problems follow him long after clocking out.

“You take it home with you,” said Yue. “You get beat up at work, you’re going to get beat up at night, too, because you’re going to think about that. And having experienced really dark places in entrepreneurship, there’s just something so resoundingly peaceful about nature, something so pure.”

Reflecting on the last few years, Yue feels like he owes his ISE education and the relationships he built in Champaign for jumpstarting his journey. With the knowledge he has and the network he's built so far, he believes no dream, nor summit, is truly out of reach.

“When people ask, ‘where did this all start?’ it started in the ISE department,” says Yue. “Just from the creative freedom and the support."

WATCH: YUE'S DOCUMENTARY TRAILER FOR 50 STATES 50 SUMMITS

For further reading on the journey: 50states50summits.com

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Asu Ozdaglar is the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She will be speaking November 18.