Thrill seeker-- Sense of 'adventure' drives area attorney to new heights

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

When he was very young, Robert Bancroft's mother was aghast to see her child climbing very high up a pine tree.

Now 51, he's never stopped climbing. Only now, he ascends nearly vertical sheets of ice. Or rock walls. And Bancroft also has climbed, or risen, to the top of his profession as an attorney specializing in wills and trusts.

"The desire to experience adventure has been with me since I was two years old," Bancroft said. "I guess I'd call myself a calculated dare-devil."

Want a few examples? He once flew a hang-glider off a 3,000-foot mountain. He's hopped freight trains and rode the rails as far as the state of Washington. Bancroft has hitch-hiked across the country three times. He's walked the entire state of Vermont using back trails.

Here's a few more. Bancroft has faced off with buffaloes in North Dakota and grizzly bears in Alaska. He's been on mountaineering trips to Mt. McKinley, rock climbing in several states and Canada, and scaled 10-story tall ice formations.

Bancroft also has accomplished other things that do not necessarily make the thrill pages of his diary. He was a youth soccer coach in Fenton for 10 years. And he won a Genesee County Bar Association award in the past for his pro bono work.

"In a lot of ways I'm very conventional," Bancroft said. "But I've just got the wanderlust in me, and it's taken me to a lot of places."

Bancroft was born in Fenton when the area was very rural.

"We would be in the woods every day, hunting or fishing," he said.

He ran track while at Fenton High School, making All-State once, before graduating in 1976. Bancroft then attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a degree in anthropology in 1982. But he had planned to enter law school, a decision Bancroft made when he was in high school.

"I always enjoyed arguing with my teachers," he said.

One in particular stood out; a teacher who took an ardent view against guns. Bancroft said he was not a gun nut, but as an outdoorsman, took the pro-gun stance in debates with the teacher.

Another thing that helped shape his law school vision was the movie, "My Cousin Vinny," particularly an exchange in the movie about a talent for "arguing." Bancroft went to the Detroit College of Law, and obtained his degree in 1986. He received a master's degree, specializing in tax law, from New York University in 1987. Bancroft's father believed the profession of law was "a cool idea."

"He always told me to take the path where it takes me."

In the early 1980s, Bancroft started taking his show on the road with summer cross-country hitch-hiking journeys, or playing like Boxcar Willie and hitching free rides on freight trains.

"I'd just take off," he said, making sure he had bus money to get home in case of emergency.

Many of the trips were to destinations where friends of his lived. It was his method of getting there that was unconventional.

"I didn't have much money, so this was the only way I could see things," Bancroft said.

While horror stories abound about individuals who chose these ways to travel, and later met with disastrous endings, Bancroft took precautions to make sure he didn't end up as a homicide statistic or victim in faraway zip codes.

"I had a sense of adventure, but not recklessness," he said. "If you take the time to think it through, you really reduce the risks."

Bancroft said he's witnessed some of the most breath-taking scenery while hitching those train rides. "Just spectacular mountain passes" would unfold as he sat in an open boxcar.

But he has had his share of tense moments. Bancroft said he would size up potential rides while hitchhiking and make a decision whether to accept or not based on a gut feeling. And being an All-State runner, "and a pretty good wrestler," in high school, he knew chances of some drunk chasing him down were slim, and he could handle himself if he did. He also carried a walking stick for protection.

"You don't minimize the risks, but think through all the scenarios," he said.

During one particular trip, the ride came from another U-M alum, who said he knew an elderly man who also graduated from the Ann Arbor college in the 1930s. The ride took him to meet the man--who was only known to him as Mr. Yost, president of Oscar Meyer foods.

"You meet a lot of characters on the road," Bancroft said.

But once he entered law school, the wandering bug had to simmer down some. He attended Detroit College of Law as a full-time student, and stayed "pretty focused," graduating in the top 10 percent of his class. His choice to go into tax law came from a law school professor.

"I had a professor I trusted and he encouraged me to go into wills and trusts," Bancroft said.

Bancroft got seriously involved in rock climbing much later in life, in his early 40s. And he said he enjoys his law practice a lot more since taking up the hobby.

It's also given him an insight into people and helping those less fortunate than himself.

"Many of the people I've met in my travels were dirt poor. But they've been pretty darn interesting and entertaining," he said.

His interest in climbing also grew out of his many hunting and fishing trips into the Alaskan wilderness. Those trips also nurtured his fascination with grizzly bears. Bancroft said he's encountered the animals about 100 times, with the bears sometimes being as close as 20 feet away.

"The places I go to fish, grizzlies are at the same place," he said. "So I've developed a real fascination with grizzlies."

Seeing the mountains on those trips stirred a quest to start climbing, and "it just took over from there," he said.

Meeting others with the same interests helped. Bancroft said he learned to climb in gyms that have climbing walls, which helped him overcome a fear of heights. Gradually, he learned the ropes of climbing and has sought out adventures ever since. But he said the fear is "part of the excitement" in climbing.

"You could die, and every person who has ever climbed knows this," Bancroft said.

He said the greatest draw in climbing has been the quest to be totally "in the moment."

"It's like an inner dialogue we carry around, to be totally immersed in the moment," Bancroft said. "Some people try to shut out everything by using booze, or other things."

But he uses climbing, in which he often finds himself hundreds of feet in the air, with only a few spikes and small strands of rope preventing him from a fatal plunge.

"That's the only place where you are thinking about only one thing. You are totally in the moment when you are out on ice or rock," Bancroft said.

"You have no choice to focus on anything else. Death is always a specter, and a companion, when you climb."

Bancroft said there is "no margin for error." "If you make a mistake, you'll die."

Some climb mountains because they are there, or as a sense of conquest.

"I don't," Bancroft said. "It's just another adventure." But he and his climbing partners always emphasize safety, and look at their routes up before sinking one pick into whatever slab they are going to climb.

"I'm meticulous about my safety. I'm not living a suicide wish. I just want the exhilaration."

Bancroft, who planned an ice climb the day after this interview in mid-January, said there are spectacular ice formations located right here in Michigan.

Bancroft, who lives in Fenton with his two children, Evan, 18, and Elise, 13, said he'll climb until he gets too old to do that. He already plans to fill that adventure junkie in him by taking up free diving.

"I've always been kind of a maverick anyway."

Bancroft said these death-defying climbs also help with his law practice.

"If you practice law the right way, it can be pretty stressful," he said. "This is a wonderful and constructive release for me. I come back from these trips, and I'm sore and bruised, because it is very hard. But it fells so exhilarating, and every apprehension is washed from your body."

He compares his climbing adventures of now to the romps in the woods way back to when he was a kid.

"We really haven't stopped playing," Bancroft said.

Published: Tue, Feb 23, 2010

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