It’s tempting to consider Geoff Tabin a real-life Peter Parker and ascribe his superpowers to his irradiated father, rather than the bite of a radioactive spider. But he credits his achievements to something more mundane: obsessive focus on self-improvement. “As a tennis player, I’d always stay a little longer than everyone else, hit a few more balls,” Tabin says. “And as a climber, I always came home in the dark. Where people would climb four or five pitches, I’d do 12.”
From Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, as a 15-year-old, to the Gunks during his years at Yale, to the Alps on weekends away from Oxford, Tabin ate up any adventure he could get his hands on. Then he discovered the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club, an organization dedicated to exploits of a more extreme variety.
Club president David Kirke had always admired the Vanuatuan vine jump, a rite of passage wherein young men dive from tall trees with only springy vines tied around their ankles to save them from impact. On April Fool’s Day 1979, Kirke and other club members, armed with bungee cords “borrowed” from a Royal Navy aircraft carrier and climbing harnesses, made the Western equivalent of the vine jump from the 245-foot Clifton Bridge in Bristol, England. Encouraged that no one had died, Kirke arranged another jump—from the world’s highest suspension bridge. On March 6, 1980, with the cameras of ABC’s That’s Incredible! rolling, Kirke, Tabin, and three other Oxfordians jumped from the railing of Colorado’s 1,053-foot-high Royal Gorge Bridge wearing tuxedos. Modern bungee jumping was born.
After graduation, with money from Oxford’s A. C. Irvine Travel Fund, Tabin and his climbing partner Bob Shapiro launched an expedition to Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya), a giant granite wall in central Irian Jaya and the highest point in Oceania. Sports Illustrated published an account of their month-long trek to the peak and back with porters from the Dani tribe. They commented on Tabin’s “cheerful disregard for society’s norms.” To this day, Tabin keeps a photo, hung prominently in his home, of himself on the summit, naked except for the long, curving penis gourd he’d borrowed from the Dani. After that, his stature in the climbing world grew.
Shortly after beginning medical school, he was invited to join a team attempting the last unclimbed face of Everest, the Kangshung. Tabin packed his gear and mailed Harvard a postcard saying he was off to Tibet and requesting they hold his place. He returned from an unsuccessful expedition to find himself kicked out of school. But, ever the terrier, he worked his way not only into his professors’ good graces, but back to Everest twice, supporting the team that conquered the Kangshung in 1983, before finally summiting himself in 1988. On June 22, 1990, he reached the top of Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the last of his Seven Summits.