Niels Tietze, 31, November 13
Niels Tietze died in a rapelling accident on FiFi Buttress in Yosemite.
I met Niels in 2010, shortly after the death of his brother Kyle. The family had asked for donations to the Himalayan Cataract Project in lieu of flowers. In reaching out to thank them, I met the force of nature that was Niels. The youngest Tietze child came to observe my day as an ophthalmologist in my clinic at the University of Utah. He was two years shy of graduation from Westminster College and had just returned from his second season living in Camp 4 and working on Yosemite Search and Rescue. He said he was considering following his father, Chris’s, path into medicine.
After the clinic finished with our last patient, Niels politely said, “Dr. Tabin, I understand you like to climb. I’d love to join you sometime.” Thirty minutes later we roped up in Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake City. His crazy skills and strength were immediately evident. The next weekend we set out to climb Washerwoman Tower in Canyonlands, Utah. During the four-and-a-half-hour drive we discussed philosophy, medicine and life. He was incredibly bright and extremely well-read.
Niels also told me he had tweaked his ankle in a bouldering fall. He could still lead the climb but hoped I would hump the rope and rack to the base. He disgorged a huge pack from his truck and helped me swing the pig on. I sweated and staggered up the long, steep approach, assuming he had packed a gigantic rack for the six-pitch climb that included long splitter hands, off hands and wide sections. Arriving at the base, I opened the bag to find two ultralight 8mm ropes, a tiny singles rack that would have made me nervous on a short 5.7 pitch, an enormous watermelon, a heavy cast-iron machete to cut the watermelon, and a large cooler filled with ice and six beers. A wry smile spread across his face as he watched me observe what he had made me carry. Later, over cold beers and watermelon at the base, after a great climb, I graduated from Dr. Tabin to Geoff.
He asked to help the Himalayan Cataract Project in our work delivering eye-care in the developing world. I told him there was not much he could do with just his EMT training for YOSAR, so Niels went to Kathmandu, Nepal, and studied intensively at the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, a partner of our organization, to become an ophthalmic technician. In spring of 2012, in the midst of his course, he took advantage of a long weekend to fly into the mountains, race to base camp and do a one-day up-and-down ascent of Ama Dablam with Ueli Steck, Freddie Wilkinson and Scott McIntosh. He then began working tirelessly in Africa helping to deliver care to the destitute in remote regions.
Two years after Kyle’s death, Niels’s other brother, Eric, died in a fall while soloing the Grand Traverse in the Tetons. The grief of having lost both of his brothers devastated and tormented Niels. His parents’ grief became a major factor in his life. Our philosophic discussions deepened and darkened. Loyalty and family were top priorities. We talked of a possible career for him as a doctor. Niels took pre-med courses and did well enough in his grades and MCAT score that he could have gained admission to a top medical school. At the last moment he decided to defer his application and climb with close friends in Patagonia. He continued climbing hard around the world and excelling as an ophthalmic assistant.
Niels’s energy was infectious and highly contagious. He loved whatever climb he was on at the moment. His Yosemite accomplishments ranged from the Nose in a Day as a teenager with his brothers, a free ascent of the Salathé (5.13c) on El Cap, El Cap and Half Dome one-day link-ups, and a nighttime free solo of the Rostrum after an all-day rescue with YOSAR. Last October, he, Mason Earle and Nik Berry worked a new 5.14 free route on El Cap. They climbed almost every pitch free and planned a ground-up complete ascent this spring. His desert tower and Zion resumes were also prodigious. He was the ultimate Indian Creek rope gun. He notched major first ascents in Africa and Patagonia and on big walls in the Alps and Dolomites. He was scheduled to leave in a week to join me in Ethiopia for three cataract campaigns followed by 10 days of climbing in South Africa with Timmy O’Neill.
See full version of this obituary here: Niels Tietze, YOSAR Member, Dies in Yosemite.
Peter Guerra, 11, November 14
While the rest of the Climbing Club kids were off cracking jokes, Peter Guerra would ask Matt Price, his Climbing Club coach, for more exercises.
Climbing Club is a youth program in Durango, Colorado, for kids who want to gain climbing skills but not compete. It is also a feeder program for Team Durango, a competitive climbing program that at the time I ran at the Rock Lounge climbing gym.
One day last spring, Peter stopped me and asked, “What do I need to do to be on the team?”
I said, “Have fun, work hard, and respect your teammates,” and from that moment climbing became a part of his soul. He attended our Youth Summer Program from the first day to the last day, and in fall joined Team Durango, relocating with it to a temporary location in a Cross-Fit gym when the Rock Lounge had to shut down. During our Thursday walk up the hill to the local bouldering crag, I learned that Peter also played baseball and golf and liked working out with his mom.
At his first comp, to which he arrived with his father, Peter climbed for the whole three hours. I looked over at one point, noticed him holding his hands, and asked him to show them to me. Reluctantly, he complied. His hands were bright red. I told him to take a break. He did not want to. I said then to go cool his hands in the water and come back. He did and with a big smile went back to work.
At only 11, he had what it takes. Over the next few months, Team Durango would meet once a week at the Catacomb Cross-Fit gym for an hour workout followed by 30 minutes of core and cardio. Peter never complained, even when I could see him struggling to keep up. He just held that big smile, said, “I’m tired but I can do it,” and kept working. One Thursday as we walked back from our bouldering workout, Peter asked me how he was doing and what he needed to work on.
He told me, “I’ve been doing the extra core workouts at home like you said to do.”
I said, “I can tell.”
He said, “Thank you for giving me the chance to be on such a great team.”
One day we had a team trip to a climbing gym for a daytime workout in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about a three-and-a-half hour drive and Peter’s first team van ride. He could not have been more excited. At the gym, the team worked out for several hours, then left for a team dinner. When the bill came Peter made sure to pay for his own meal, and when it turned out that one of the kids had forgotten money, Peter quickly said, “I have some I can give you.”
Peter was loved by his Team Durango teammates, who gathered after his death and put on a memorial vigil at Peter’s favorite boulder problem. As Cat Shirley, a team member, wrote, “Peter, we will never forget you and your passion for climbing. That much motivation and try-hard is rare in someone so young. We love you.”
Peter was born in Durango on February 15, 2006, and died November 14, 2017. After a team workout Peter had wanted to put in a little more work. While on the pull-up bar at his house, he must have slipped, and the stretch band he was using to assist him wrapped around his neck. The coroner confirmed his death was an accident.
Climbing meant so much to Peter that his family has set up a memorial fund at the Bank of Colorado (3130 Main Avenue, Durango, CO 81301, 970-247- 5151) in his name, Peter David Guerra. His father asked if I would use the money for a scholarship program for young kids to get out and climb and to help rebuild the Rock Lounge Climbing Gym. I plan to build the youth climbing wall in honor of Peter.
Fred Beckey, 94, October 30
On a drizzly Saturday at the Mountain View Cemetery on Icicle Road in
Leavenworth, Washington, six climbers picked up a modest wooden
coffin to carry Fred Beckey to his last bivy spot. Fred had quietly
succumbed to heart failure at the home of his good friend Megan
Bond. The climbing world had lost one of its greatest icons ever and its
crowned Dirtbag King.
Beckey and I had shared countless climbs, endless car rides, several
chilly bivvies, thousands of cups of coffee, and even, in the 1970s, a
double date, in a friendship of over 47 years.
“Beckey” was everywhere, usually before anyone else, racking up
more first ascents than any other North American climber. From his
first ascent of Mt. Despair in the North Cascades in 1939 at age 13 to
his thousands of other FAs across the globe, Beckey was unstoppable.
His list of partners read like a Who’s Who of famous climbers. Heinrich
Harrer joined Beckey for the first ascents of Mt. Hunter, Mt. Deborah
and the Northwest Buttress of Denali, all in 1954. Harrer—who also
made the first ascent of the Eiger North Face, with Anderl
Heckmair, Ludwig Vorg and Fritz Kasparek—later penned the memoir
Seven Years in Tibet, and Brad Pitt eventually played his character in
the Hollywood movie by that name. Once I asked Fred who should star
when someone made a movie of his life.
Fred said, “Just no surfers. Maybe Leo DiCaprio … before he gets too
One afternoon in California I received the classic Fred phone call,
which hundreds of climbers have received over the years and usually
began with, “Beckey here! Are you in town?” and led to, “Do you want
to go climbing tomorrow?” But this time Fred said, “I’ve met two girls
at the airport, and they want to go to dinner. I need you to join us.”
As it turned out, the two women were flight attendants in town for the
evening and Fred had asked the same question, “How about some
dinner?” so many times they finally cracked. After dinner we broke
into the home of one of Fred’s friends in Westwood. I thought I heard
Fred say it was his brother Helmut’s house and that he was out of
town, but I never asked again. The women were twice my young age
of 19, and Fred a dozen years older than they were. The wine flowed and Fred danced around the living room like Fred Astaire, charming
Over the years Beckey chalked up so many first ascents it is hard to
list them all: Forbidden Peak, Mount Waddington, the East Ridge on
Devils Thumb in Alaska, The Northwest Buttress on Mt. McKinley (now
Denali), Mount Deborah and Mount Hunter in Alaska, The East Face of
Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies (with Yvon Chouinard and Dan
Doody), the Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower in the
Bugaboos, and hundreds of routes in the Sierra, Cascades and the
Western States. The routes extend from desert towers to big walls, from
beautiful Sierra faces to snow and ice monsters in Canada, Alaska and
the Cascades. Even beyond the ascents, consider all the attempts, the
adventurous near misses, the bad-weather delays and exploratory
forays, and the scope is staggering.
During the past 20 years, Fred stayed at our home so many times that
my daughters named the guest room the Fred Beckey Room. Young
climbers were always honored to stay there, yet many times,
Fred was too embarrassed to slip under the clean sheets and would
haul in his sleeping bag and sleep on top of the bed, leaving handfuls
of dirt and sand deposits from his last bivy. The bathroom floor
would also be covered in sand from his pants, shirt pockets, and nooks and
Fred has been called the original dirtbag climber, but what many do
not know is that he was also an intellectual and a researcher, writer
and historian, with a degree in Business Administration from the
University of Washington. His bestselling guides to the North Cascades
are called “Beckey’s Bibles,” and his Challenge of the North Cascades,
Mountains of North America and Guide to Leavenworth Rock Climbing
are so detailed they could only have been written by someone who had
been there. A must-have for any climber is Beckey’s 100 Favorite
North American Climbs, a coffee-table book of beautiful photographs,
with route descriptions and the history of each climb.
My favorite Fred Beckey book has to be Range of Glaciers: The
Exploration and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range. Published
when Fred was 80 years old, it is the work of countless hours of
research from archives across the United States and Canada, folklore,
official surveys and history as well as personal experience. For years
Fred would turn up at my house and drop off a box or two of paper
scraps, napkins, envelopes, sheets of yellow pads and almost anything
else you could write on, all covered with facts, research and insights. One day Fred dropped by, collected his boxes, and said that they were
off to his “editor.” I felt sorry for the editor!
A few years later, our doorbell rang and there was
Fred with a giant grin on his face, holding a copy of the first run
of Range of Glaciers. I read it cover to cover and realized that every
word was Fred’s, set down by someone beautifully in love with
mountains and exploration.
Always on the cutting edge of low-cost housing, Fred perfected the art
of couch surfing and automobile bivvies. He once told me he had
discovered the “Holy Grail” of housing. You could rent a storage unit for
about $100 a month and park your car inside. You could then sleep in
your car and use the lights and electricity in the unit. Best of all, during an extended trip you could leave all of your excess gear
safely stored there. “No maintenance and no irritating neighbors!”
In his later years Fred lived in a cozy home in the Seattle suburbs,
with a nice office lined with old photos and folders of plans. The last time I visited, there was a photo on his computer of a striking peak in India. At 94 he was still planning his
Caleb Ladue, 25, October 22
Snow day, high school 2009. Caleb called. “What are we doing?”
Bring your skis over, I said, and a waterski rope. I had a plan. By noon we had built a kicker of a jump on one side of a road and a landing ramp on the other. I fired up my family’s snow machine and packed out a runway. As usual, Caleb volunteered to be the guinea pig.
With Caleb in tow, I lined up the snowmobile and opened the throttle. At the last second, I swerved the machine, and all 6 feet 4 inches of Caleb hucked off the jump, cleared the gap and landed flawlessly on the other side.
A car drove by, and Caleb’s light-blue eyes lit up from under his oversized hat. A few minutes later my Subaru (not his, he insisted, “because your car is shorter”) was parked under the jump.
“Just go faster this time,” Caleb said—and cleared the roof rack.
Caleb Edward Ladue entered this world on April 18, 1992. Early on, his parents, Mary Anne and Winslow, instilled in him a deep love for the mountains and adventure. Caleb was on skis before he was 2. He and his older brother, Arlin—his greatest hero—grew up on the edge of Lake
Champlain in Charlotte, Vermont, where they spent their summers on the water and their winters on the slopes.
Caleb ski raced in high school, but despite being one of the best on the team, he preferred the backcountry, where he could make his own decisions on where to turn. He played Ultimate Frisbee and in 2010 was named Vermont Ultimate Frisbee Player of the Year. In high school he also found rock climbing, in the gym at first and then at local crags.
Caleb would go on to summit El Cap and Denali; to climb alpine routes across South America from Bolivia to the Fitz Roy massif; and to earn his AMGA level two certifications in rock climbing, alpine climbing and backcountry skiing.
As with most activities he tried, Caleb made academics seem almost effortless. Despite the occasional missed school day to crag at Rumney or deep-water solo on the cliffs of Lake Champlain, and almost every powder day, he maintained straight A’s throughout high school, earning a coveted free ski pass all four years. When he graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School in 2010, he went off to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Back in Vermont over the first college vacation, he told me, “College is actually kind of hard. I mean, I had to teach myself how to take notes.” Apparently, he had breezed through high school
In 2014 Caleb graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in neuroscience, and gave himself a five-year plan. He would try to make it as a climbing guide, and if that didn’t work, he’d enroll in med school. In the next three years, he reached lead guide status for the prestigious Rainier Mountain Institute (RMI) in Washington, summited Rainier 36 times, and guided clients
internationally from Denali to Aconcagua to the Fitz Roy massif. Between trips, he climbed or skied in Yosemite Valley, Jackson Hole and across Colorado with his adventure and life partner, Audrey Sherman.
On October 22, Caleb Ladue took his last run. He had broken trail that day up Cerro Cortaderas(17,050 feet) near Santiago, Chile—his and a partner’s first of many ice and ski objectives in the central Andes. But when his partner felt signs of altitude sickness and the conditions worsened below the summit, the team, which included three Chilean guides whom they had befriended,
decided to turn around. Caleb also led the ski descent. Near base camp, he disappeared into a crevasse.
“I’m quite familiar with missing Caleb. If I were to draw our trajectories over the last four years, our two lines would look random,” Audrey said at the celebration of Caleb’s life. “And there was—and is—so much to miss. The ease of his smile, his smelly clothes, his unwavering confidence and competitiveness, his romantic side, the bottomless appetite, his emotional
support, and his love of life.
“[H]e radiated with energy and gratitude. He would let childlike yippees tumble out over simple things …. In ordinary moments, Caleb would turn to me and say, ‘I love my life. It’s just so fun.’”
Caleb wanted to do, see and experience everything he could, and to improve himself every day. He really did live his dream—he created it. More than anything, he inspired those around him to do the same. He taught us to get up and go even if the conditions sucked, to stay hungry, and never to pass up a full moon. He believed in us when often we did not believe in ourselves.
Hayden Kennedy, 27, October 8
Hayden Kennedy possessed a special kind of magic, conjuring fierceness and humility in equal parts. Preternaturally athletic, he also had a legendary ability to make beers at the bar disappear. His humor might descend to the gutter, but his intellect and sensitivity were enchanting. He rejoiced in the mountains but respected and feared their cold bewitchment.
Hayden Kennedy charmed anyone who crossed paths with him in the mountains, at the cliff, or anywhere. Yet his complex alchemy may have overwhelmed him in the end.
After the love of his life, Inge Perkins, was killed in an avalanche in which Hayden, too, was partially buried, the young alpinist took his own life. Hayden’s spirit had died in the avalanche, while suicide rendered the final blow to his body a few agonized hours later.
Though he was 27 when he died, in his hometown of Carbondale, Colorado,
Hayden never stopped being that kid who could climb harder, ski better, and suck the marrow of the world in a way that most of us did not have the courage to do. His hometown climbing crew watched him transform from gangly teenage sport climber to one of the foremost young alpinists in the world. We gawked at his strength, but murmured nervously about the audacious risks he took in the mountains.
The arc of Hayden’s few short years as a climber reads like a lifetime resume of a veteran pro: authoring 5.14 trad FA (with Carbondale Short Bus in Indian Creek, Utah), free climbing the Hallucinogen Wall (5.13R) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison with Nik Berry, making the FA of Cerro Torre’s Southeast Ridge “by fair means” (without using the in-situ bolts on the mountain face) with Jason Kruk, and receiving two Piolet D’or awards for routes in Pakistan and India. The first, in 2013, was for the South Face of the Ogre with Kyle Dempster, and one in 2016 was the East face of Cerro Kishtwar with Marko Prezelj, Manu Pellissier and Urban Novak.
Those are just some of the greatest hits, but as “HK” himself wrote on eveningsends.com, “I don’t really see the point in recording my climbs or hyping them up.” In between the big climbs were countless unrecorded days on the road and a blur of pitches with friends on rock, snow and ice.
For HK, the climbs were not as important as the friends and companions with whom he shared the adventures, and those included his father, Michael. Hayden believed in the power of climbing as a transformative experience and its ability to forge strong and beautiful partnerships, the “true, lasting meaning,” as he wrote in his essay.
Style mattered to Hayden, and he had a deep respect for the natural world, as instilled in him by Michael and nurtured by his mother, Julie, whose lust for life certainly rubbed off on her child.
In contrast to the joy Hayden sought in climbing, much of his fame came from chopping the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre and the angry furor that
followed. As the internet lit up following the deed (carried out upon his and Kruk’s descent after climbing runout 5.12 without clipping the old controversial bolts), HK solidified his disdain for hype and what he and his Slovenian friend Marko Prezelj called “tasty talk.” In a highly unusual move for a young climber in the modern world, he severed ties with social media completely.
Again, to understand Hayden’s complex accord with the mountains, we can turn to his Evening Sends essay, published just weeks before his death. In this piece, Hayden ruminates on the meaning and loss in the deaths of his friends Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffin. He loved and missed his brothers-of-the-rope the way we now miss him. He wrote:
In many ways, I am still processing what has happened to my dear friends. Waves of sadness overwhelm me at times, making it hard to stand up or focus. At other times I am able to think only of the enchanting adventures, contemplative conversations, and the simple yet enriching moments we shared as friends. These pendulum shifts between various emotions will never go away, as I am starting to learn…
I resent that my friends are gone, and I also hate that I have those feelings. I don’t want to be the guy who judges or resents my friends for their choices in the mountains because I know how it feels to be judged for decisions I’ve made…
HK’s hard-won wisdom can help pull us from the brink of overwhelming grief over his death. If I take his advice and forgo judgments, my thoughts can linger on sweltering days in Rifle talking shit in the shade while we waited for the heat to subside before the evening sesh began. I can smile thinking of a comical scene racking for Rainbow Wall in Red Rock. The young-gun Hayden flung the hand-sized pieces he deemed unnecessary across the parking lot. The old-man Chris scrambled to the pieces and wrestled them back on the rack as Hayden cackled, “Kalous, if you have hands, you don’t need gear!”
Perhaps my most wistful and cherished memory of Hayden is just his crooked grin and shout of “Miles!” as he rolled through our condo door and saw our baby boy. Unlike so many climbers his age who are allergic to the commitment of kids, Hayden thought our son was the best thing that ever happened to my partner, Steph, and me. From the moment Miles was born, even before, HK started and ended every communication asking after him. When I think that our boy will never know his “Uncle” Hayden or share a climb with him the way I was lucky enough to do, the reverie crumbles, and I’m back to the grief.
I can only hope that the stories of Hayden Kennedy will continue to be told and someday delight and inspire Miles and his generation to respect the mountains, lust for adventure, and simply be kind to the world.
Donations to preserve wild public lands can be made in Hayden’s name to
Inge Perkins, 23, October 7
I first met Inge in August 2016 at the base of Mount Hooker, an alpine big wall in the Wind River Range that sees little traffic. She and her partner, Hayden Kennedy, were hunkered down in a cave that they had made their home for three weeks. As my friend Anne Peick and I came down Hailey Pass with our packs, we were warmly greeted by the two with hugs and offerings of BBQ ribs here in the middle of the backcountry. Instantly they asked us our plans for the trip.
“Jaded Lady,” Anne and I both said, referring to a 15-pitch 5.12- on Hooker.
The evening went on with Inge beating us in Rummikub, a numbers game, and both of them asking all about our objectives and our lives. At some point during the night I realized neither had said anything about what they had climbed.
“Inge,” I asked, “what have you two done here?”
“Oh, Jaded Lady,” she said, adding that the next day they had done Hook, Line and Sinker, a scary runout alpine 5.12b. Inge may have been the first female to climb this route, and she acted like it was no big deal. In fact, she quickly changed the subject to asking about me, what I did for work, and how I liked living in Kelly, Wyoming. Inge always wanted to know someone first as a person and second as a climber.
She also put the focus on Anne and me, actually telling us that we were “so strong” and inspired her. This seemed strange to us, because Inge was doing laps on Mount Hooker before we even showed up. After getting out of the Winds I looked through Inge’s Instagram photos and found only one photo posted of her climbing on Hooker. That was it; nothing more.
Last winter Inge took a year off from Montana State University, where she was studying to be a math teacher. No one knows the extent to which she skied that year in the Tetons, because conversations with her would never reveal her accomplishments in the mountains or she would downplay them. Blake Votilla, a good friend from Jackson and Montana, told me a story from that year about how he and Inge completed a multi-day ski traverse. On the last day of the traverse they skied for 18 hours, with one last peak to go.
Inge decided she wanted to summit the peak even though it had been a long day, and she had to make it back for an 8 a.m. exam. They summited, made it back to Bozeman at 8:30 p.m., and Inge still got an A on the test.
This past summer Inge and I climbed the seven-pitch Bean’s Shining Wall (5.12-), put up by Greg Collins and Hans Johnstone at 12,000 to 13,000 feet on the Grand Teton. Inge climbed the whole route without falling. Never once on that fun day did I hear about what she had done the day before. Weeks later Chance Burlston, another good ski partner and friend of hers, told me that they had run up granite to the top of Jackson Hole Mountain resort, a 4,139-foot elevation gain, then down to Teton Thai—where she drank three Thai Iced teas with bourbon. The next morning she met me in the Kelly Yurt park for a 7,000-foot-elevation day on the Grand Teton. She walked quickly ahead of me on the approach, the whole time asking questions and talking about everything but climbing.
Inge loved the adventure of pushing herself in the mountains, but she also loved connecting with people and developing relationships. In September, in Kelly, Wyoming, as I hugged Inge goodbye, not knowing it was the last time, she looked at me and said, “Call me, Dana, not just to go climbing, but I want to talk to you about life and how you are doing.” Last summer was the beginning of a friendship and climbing partnership.
Inge died in an avalanche while skinning up Imp Peak, outside of Bozeman, Montana, where she was studying math and living with Hayden. Hayden was partially buried in the slide but eventually able to dig himself out and spent hours searching for her.
Inge grew up in Bozeman and in recent years had also lived in Lander, Wyoming. Her many top-level accomplishments include climbing Rodeo Free Europe (5.14a), at Wild Iris, Wyoming; Manhattan Project (5.14a) and Vesper (5.14a) at the Fins, Idaho; Roadside Prophet (5.14a), in Rifle, Colorado; The Strawberry Roan (13c/d), Little Popoagie, Wyoming; and No Country for Old Men (5.11, trad, 14+ pitches) in the Black Canyon, Gunnison, Colorado. She won the Montana Bouldering Championships in 2015 and 2016, the Montana Randonee Championships , and the PsicoRoc 2016, a deep-water soloing competition over Summersville Lake, West Virginia. She made the first female solo of the Cirque Traverse, in 17 hours (after getting off route and climbing climbing the first four pitches of another route on Pingora before having to traverse back to the SE.) “But I never got off route after that,” she texted me later, “and had such a good time!”
The family requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in Perkins’ name to the Wyoming Outdoor Council for land access and conservation and to preserve wildlife habitat.
Brian Soong, 34, September 28
Brian Soong had a steely-eyed resoluteness that could be intimidating. But you spoke with him, you realized that if you cracked the right joke—often one of an inappropriate nature—his boyish grin would shine through.
Brian, a longtime New River Gorge climber, was irreverent to the point of gruffness, but at his core a deeply kind and caring man and a natural teacher. People mattered to him.
Delila Causevic, co-worker at Universal Air Travel Plan, Inc. (UATP), in Washington, D.C., and fellow climber, says, “He was a gentle, kind, generous, luminous soul. We were all better, and kinder, and lighter in his presence.”
Ray and Dren St. Clair, proprietors of the eponymous Ray’s Campground at the New River Gorge, practically adopted him as their son, bestowing on h the title of Honorary By-God West Virginian.
Brian wore many hats throughout his professional career, with jobs ranging from work as an English teacher in Asia to, in the U.S. most recently, one as a marketing analyst at an airfare-regulation company. A Michigan native, he settled in Washington, D.C., and Virginia in the last years of his life, but he always spoke most fondly of the several years he lived and worked in Taiwan.
He loved climbing in the New, and he was a repository of information about nearly every route in the area. Five-star classics, zero-star rusted relics, trad, sport, 5.9 or 5.13, he climbed them all. He was also a presence on Mountain Project, quick to lend a digital hand to beginners or contribute a mid-1990s obscurity of a route to the database. Brian saw the beauty in everything, and his perspective was infectious. Cynical and objective-driven as I could be, Brian made me step back, slow down, and appreciate the precious and wonderful activity we were fortunate enough to do.
Brian was a gifted photographer, though he would always downplay his talent and shy away from self-publicity. He would always schlep his camera, tucked away somewhere in his vast 80-liter bag, to the crag while forgetting non-essentials like climbing shoes and harnesses. He took breathtaking photos, and his respect and appreciation for the world and the people in it came through in them.
When life dealt him the cruel diagnosis of colon cancer at the age of 33, Brian handled it with the same strength of character with which he approached his climbing. He was told he would never climb again. He instead put a protective patch over his chemo port and joined us at the New between treatments. Every climb he did post-diagnosis was a joy for him, but then again, he had always treated climbing like the gift that it is.
Brian’s life was cut woefully short, but in the time he had, he made the world a more beautiful place. He touched the lives of others, made enduring friends, and left art behind in the terabytes of amazing photography. He also left mementos—risque cartoons and hilarious dirty limericks—all over the world, scrawled on Post-It notes or the backs of napkins The students he taught in China and in the States wrote to his wife after his passing to express how their lives had been influenced by him, even a decade later. I know for certain the indelible mark he has left on me.
He is survived by his wife, Helene, who received over $10,000 dollars in donations to Brian’s memorial fund. The money is pledged to the New River Alliance of Climbers for re-equipping routes and anchors.
Norman Dyhrenfurth, 99, September 24
At a 50th anniversary celebration of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE), the revered elder statesman Nick Clinch said that even aside from achieving the first American ascent and the first ascent of the West Ridge, the venture was “unbelievable” in launching at all.
“In the United States, there was absolutely no interest in mountaineering by the general public,” Clinch said. “Even worse, many people viewed it negatively.” Despite the context, Norm Dyhrenfurth, team leader, initiated and carried out the expedition. Clinch said, “[E]verything, the success of the expedition, the positive effects on American mountaineering, and even this celebration—all rest upon the foundation of Norman’s extraordinary organizational accomplishment.”
Age 44 at the time of the AMEE, Dyhrenfurth was a Swiss-American mountaineer, filmmaker and director. He was born in Breslau, then located in Germany but now in Poland, to two Himalayan explorers, Gunter Oskar and Hettie Dyhrenfurth, according to www.theuiaa.org, which states that the parents were awarded a gold medal for alpinism at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As a boy Norm climbed in the Swiss Alps with his father.
In 1937 he moved to the United States with his mother, eventually becoming a film professor and head of the film school at UCLA during the 1950s. He was a cameraman and / or photographer on the Swiss Mount Everest expedition of 1952, on an international expedition to Lhotse in 1955, and a 1960 Swiss expedition to Dhaulagiri.
As of 1961, when Dyhrenfurth received his permit, Everest was known to have been climbed only in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, and three years later by a Swiss expedition. A Chinese expedition also claimed an ascent from the north, at the time disputed but now considered plausible.
Working for three years, Dyhrenfurth secured grants and much sponsorship, bringing in the National Geographic Society and a team of scientists for research; he undertook the filmmaking; and he chose the team with care and creativity.
The AMEE was the only expedition on the mountain. Tragedy struck when the young Jake Breitenbach was killed by a collapsing serac, and conflict developed within the team, with Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld aiming for the unclimbed West Ridge, and Dyhrenfurth, joined by Jim Whittaker, choosing a better chance of success on the South Col.
Dyhrenfurth himself had actually picked out the West Ridge on his previous expedition to Everest. “If we can pull this off,” he wrote in his journal, “it will be the greatest achievement in the history of Everest.”
Yet on the mountain he was committed to the threshold goal of ascent, writing, “If, later on we say, ‘We tried the more difficult route of the West Ridge and bogged down,’ that will be a very lame excuse for all the people who backed us.”
He was known for a democratic approach, with frequent meetings and discussions. Hornbein believes Dyhrenfurth’s “unautocratic style” laid the foundation for the team “to continue caring and bonding” over the ensuing decades.
The team split into two, competing for supplies and human power. Dyhrenfurth headed up a better-supported group on the South Col, and the others launched an ancillary effort on the West Ridge.
Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu climbed to the summit May 1 in a blizzard, with temps of 35 below and winds of 60 to 80. Dyhrenfurth, filming, reached high camp at 28,200.
Four more climbers, including Hornbein and Unsoeld on their route, done alpine style, as well as Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad on the South Col, reached the top May 22.
The expedition made worldwide news and the covers of Life and National Geographic, and the climbers were honored by President John F. Kennedy at the White House.
Over the years Dyhrenfurth worked on the 1975 Clint Eastwood film “The Eiger Sanction,” filmed on the Eiger, and the 1982 feature “Five Days One Summer,” starring Sean Connery, shot on location in the Alps.
In 2012 Dyhrenfurth, a slim and vigorous 95, attended the Everest celebration hosted by the American Alpine Club in San Francisco. When a discussion moderator, Wade Davis, brought up the conflict of the expedition, Dhyrenfurth said, “I was responsible for the results of the expedition. Tom, I’m sorry, I worked for three years to get the money.”
Hornbein said with a laugh, “I’m surprised some of the team is still speaking to me, 50 years later.” He added, “One of the most satisfying and most enduring things about this expedition was that we pulled off competing things.”
All present credited Dyhrenfurth for preventing the expedition from descending into acrimony.
Dyhrenfurth’s film, “Americans on Everest,” appeared on National Geographic television in 1965. In 2013 Jim Aikman created a retrospective edition.
Rock and Ice issue No. 211 contained a feature on the historic expedition and aftermath.
Rebecca Ryan, 20, September 16
During a ski-racing accident her junior year of high school, Rebecca Ryan broke her femur and injured her patella. She came back and raced again the next year, before her doctor convinced her to halt her ski career. Her freshman year at the University of Vermont she fell during a bouldering competition and sustained a double compound fracture. Again, she recovered and continued to climb.
Jake Edward-Stoll, a college friend, says of Rebecca as a climber, “She was very passionate and took every change to practice skills and technique.”
A lifelong mountain athlete, Ryan learned to ski in Missoula, Montana, at age 6 and began racing in middle school. Attending Green Mountain Valley Ski Academy in Vermont, she competed across the United States, in South America and Europe. She was also a midfielder for her high-school soccer team. In middle school, Ryan had competed at the state level in cross-country.
In college Ryan took up climbing and kayaking. As a junior at UVM this past fall, Ryan was studying to be an athletic trainer in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, was a member of the climbing team, was an active member of the UVM Chapter of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship organization, was an Adaptive Ski Instructor/President of the Adaptive Sports Club, and often volunteered to serve the homeless people of Burlington.
This past summer Ryan lived with her sister, Rachel, 21, in Alaska, where they both worked at St. Elias Alpine Guides. Together they went ice climbing, backpacking, mountaineering and kayaking.
“She would give me this big, snuggly hug every time I came back from work saying, ‘I thought I’d never see you again!’” Rachel says.
Rachel says that Ryan could make anyone feel comfortable. “She just did things that were kind of quirky and fun, and they were just a reminder to be yourself and be ridiculous and be happy,” Rachel recalls. “I also loved that she was a Christian. It gave her so much power and light in this world.”
Ryan died while climbing with friends at the Lower West Bolton climbing area in Bolton, Vermont. She fell from 90 feet while cleaning a route she had just toproped. A report by a local search and rescue coordinator cites apparent miscommunication between Ryan and her belayer about whether she had intended to rappel or be lowered. A preliminary investigation indicates that she called, “Off belay,” then minutes later, after her belayer had taken her off, asked to be lowered and weighted the rope.
Rachel says that Rebecca loved climbing because it was an opportunity to be with the people she loved. “Becca and I kept each other in check. ‘Don’t show off,’” Rachel says. “It’s not about being better than the person next to you, being cooler than the person climbing the same wall. It’s about supporting your friends, sharing these incredible, adrenaline-filled experiences with others.
The family has established the Rebecca Ryan Memorial Fund to help student athletes travel to events and train.
See a full obituary here.
Alexander Kenan, 24, August 22
When Alexander Kenan was applying to medical school, he was a regular at Starbucks. He just didn’t need the coffee. Karl VonZabern, a college friend and climbing partner, says Kenan wouldn’t even go in, but would stay in the car.
“He just needed the Wi-Fi. I would go in and grab a coffee, but Alexander was very utilitarian.”
As of last summer, Kenan was still in the process of applying to med school, with plans to enter after an 18-month-long climbing road trip across the United States and Canada. In 2015, Kenan had graduated from the University of North Carolina with a double major in Chemistry and
Biology, and he had since worked in a biotechnology lab, Array Biopharma, out of Boulder, Colorado, where he synthesized proteins for use in highly specialized cancer drugs for extreme cases. He was also an EMT and a Wilderness First Responder, and had completed NOLS courses in outdoor leadership and mountaineering.
Corey Buhay, another UNC friend and climbing partner, says, “He wanted to be an ER doctor because when things got too stressful or scary for the average person, Alexander really started to shine.
“When climbs got hairy enough that other people would want to back down, Alexander was just getting started.”
Alexander’s mother died four years ago, and, according to others, he became a rock for his father, sister and friends. After the tragedy, Kenan hiked most of the Appalachian Trail, and a year later hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, as he described in his blog. During the PCT, Kenan climbed every peak above 12,000 feet in the Cascade Range—making him the only known person to connect them by foot.
Kenan had begun climbing his freshman year at UNC and progressed to leading up to 5.12 trad. VonZabern says that a few of Alexander’s proudest climbs might have been Freeblast (5.11) on El Cap, Texas Hold ’Em (5.11c) in Red Rock, and Alaska Highway (5.11d) in Squamish. Kenan also helped start UNC’s outdoors club, the Tramping Club.
VonZabern spent three weeks with Kenan, mostly in Yosemite and Smith Rock, last summer during Kenan’s road trip. “He was an extremely thoughtful person,” VonZabern says. “He used every minute very well
and was really able to suspend personal pressure or suspend gratification.”
At the time of his death, Alexander was six months into his trip and climbing in the Grand Tetons. He intended to climb the Tetons Grand Traverse in one push, and was found 400 feet below Peak 11,840 between Teewinot Mountain and Mount Owen.
According to a report by the Grand Teton National Park, “The decedent rigged his rappel device correctly. He had a prussik on his harness but he did not use it as a backup on the last rappel. He rappelled approximately 75 feet until he reached the shorter unknotted end. He rappelled off the shorter end, burning his left hand in the process.
“I think he knew, as I always knew, that if he could have avoided tragedy, he would have become one of the mountaineering world’s greats,” Buhay says. “He really was that talented.”
Alexander is survived by his sister, Anna, and his father, Daniel.
Dave Bell, 47, August 12
David Bell was an icon in the Salt Lake climbing community and one of the most fun people you could ever spend time with. He was funny as hell, adventurous, loving and caring, and always went out of his way for you. He was my partner in crime, my confidant, and one of my closest friends.
I first met David (also called Dave) in 1986 shortly after I began climbing. The local climbing scene in Salt Lake was tight then, and he and Lance Bateman, his regular partner, were some of the only other “kid” climbers around. We were all 16. Those first few years of climbing were the golden time, an age of exploration. We were all just finishing high school and could finally head out into the world to climb in the places and try the routes we had only been able to read about in the magazines.
David was a solid and bold climber from the beginning. He would cast out on anything, always willing to take the lead if you were scared. Local lore about David and Lance’s teenage ascent in 1989 of the Tuolumne route Bachar-Yerian, one of the country’s boldest testpieces, always focuses on Lance’s 60-foot fall and subsequent lead of the second pitch, but David’s ascent was equally impressive. In typical style, he onsighted the first and most dangerous pitch. Lance’s infamous fall took place on pitch two, where
he sailed past David’s hanging belay and in the process gave him a deep rope burn on the neck. Lance went back up and led the pitch, which David followed; then David onsighted the less secure third pitch. Theirs was likely one of the first 10 or so ascents of the route, and Lance says it was David’s optimism and boldness that got them up it. The next year the teenage partners went back to Yosemite and did the Nose in 15 hours, with
one set of Friends and a 60-meter rope.
David establishing dozens of routes around Utah and the West, and was part of the development of most of the bouldering areas in the vicinity. Some of the best-known routes are the hueco-filled Namaste (5.11d) and Huecos Rancheros (5.12c), Kolob Canyon, done with Conrad Anker. David and I spent years together developing the bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon, City of Rocks and the areas around St. George. His Papa Bell’s Arete (V4) is arguably the finest “shot-hole” arête in LCC.
David was not only an amazing climber but a member of the industry, a visionary and entrepreneur. Mike Call, another of David’s closest friends, remembers David living in a red hand-painted van outside IME, the local climbing shop. He would microwave yams in the morning when IME opened up, then wrap them in tin foil for his breakfast, lunch and dinner. In 1989 he bought the co-op Body Shop climbing gym in Salt Lake and turned it into one of the first commercial gyms in the United States. David made his own
holds based on his mom’s clay and silicone molding techniques. Eventually he and Rob Gilbert turned that endeavor into his next company, Pusher.
After Rockreation came to town, he knew he had to take things up a notch and opened The Front climbing gym, an A-grade version of his old Body Shop. David’s vision for the gym was not only as a place to get stronger and better at climbing, but also a laboratory and a meeting place for climbers, kind of the American version of the English pub. In promoting this atmosphere, he helped solidify the local climbing community and create a space where the creative and social elements of climbing could flourish.
Pusher quickly became one of the “core” companies exploring the possibilities of sculptural, artistic and friendly holds, as well as new training tools for climbing. Most hold companies today would say they were inspired by Pusher’s innovations. David was fearless in his approach to business and made a lot of the right moves on instinct, the way he did onsighting a route.
As David got older he left the climbing business and got into organic farming and real estate. When I asked why, he said simply, “Everyone eats, and everyone needs to live somewhere.” Still, I could tell that he had sacrificed his passion a bit to try and make a better living for his family. David was a dedicated family man and loved his children dearly, so he was willing to put climbing more and more on the back burner as they arrived.
David’s love of climbing persisted through his illness. Only six months before he died, he talked two friends, Dustin Buchthal and Todd Gardiner, into heading south to attempt Standing Rock, out in the middle of the Utah desert. They spent the night in Moab and left on Saturday morning for the five-hour drive around the White Rim Trail. At 1 p.m., they hiked the hour in, and David immediately geared up to lead the first pitch—an
overhanging crack leading to a dirty, loose belay. The days were short, things got late fast, and ultimately they bailed. A few weeks later, David presented Todd and Dustin with engraved flasks that said, “Just because we never stood a chance was no reason not to go.”
David and I went to Smith Rocks last year, less than a month before he was diagnosed with cancer. We had not been on a climbing trip together without our families in several years, so we were both looking forward to it. We climbed like hell for four days and pushed going home until the very last minute. In the end, we drove back at night in a blizzard. I relish thoughts of that trip, because at the time we didn’t know about David’s sickness, and if only for a moment were again carefree kids.
David is survived by his wife, Jill, and four children: River, Max, Anna and Caroline.
Ian Pohowsky, 42, August 6
If you and Ian Pohowsky were to walk down a street together, while you might simply reach the end of the block, Ian would arrive with a vivid account of a chance encounter or misplaced adventure.
His brother, Chris Pohowsky, says, “I wish I had more opportunities to walk down the street with Ian to understand how that worked.” Ian was a great observer, who saw and could convey the details others missed.
A BLM smokejumper based in Boise, Idaho, whose career path included wildland firefighter, airline pilot and rock-climbing guide, Ian was a revered leader, mentor and friend in many circles. He was a skilled trad, sport and ice climber, drawn to various genres by the requirements of meticulous problem solving and careful examination, and the prospect of operating on his terms.
“He enjoyed putting himself in environments where people are more likely to be walking some fine line where higher levels of authenticity emerge,” Chris says.
Born to ex-pat parents living in England, Ian possessed a boundless curiosity further shaped by an international upbringing in locations that included the Netherlands, Gabon, Oman and the U.K., with summers spent exploring the mountains of Virginia near his family’s home. When Ian decided to forgo art school in London and relocate to the U.S. in the mid-90s, his brother introduced him to rock climbing at the New River Gorge. It was the start of a passionate love affair that led him to make his home in places like the New, Las Vegas and Missoula, and long stretches of road tripping to spots like Mexico and Joshua Tree.
On SuperTopo, Chad Umbel of Las Vegas wrote about Ian’s climbing, “He sent countless 5.13s at the New and around the country. He could handle scary trad climbs with R and X ratings as easily as he could sail steep sport routes.” Among his FAs are the trad routes International Incident (5.11d R) and Kenny Never Wore Lycra (5.12a) at Bridge Buttress, the New.
Ian’s intense drive to succeed in climbing was balanced by his quick wit and easygoing nature. “He took sending projects seriously, but a day at the crag with Ian was anything but a high-pressure affair,” recalls his longtime friend Adam Harrington of Las Vegas. “His accomplishments were almost an afterthought.” For Ian, relationships with people were the priority.
In his post, Umbel recalled fun and chaotic seasons of climbing and communal living in Las Vegas starting in 2003, calling them “the best years of my life.” He described antics such as the time Ian was pumped on a route and tried to throw a hex in lasso-style, hitting himself repeatedly in the head, or the magical charisma Ian showed when he stepped in to prevent a fight between irritated factions at a cliff: “Right there before our eyes he educated the whole crew on how the crag needs to be shared and people need to be respected. They just stood there and listened as if it were a prophet preaching the holy word.”
Ian felt more deeply than most. I recall many occasions watching the sunset and moonrise after climbing, with Ian delivering eloquent commentary on the moment that rivaled the experience itself. Sadly, this heightened sense of awareness was not limited to beauty. He struggled with depression. While Ian was mindful of the opposing sides of himself, the depths of his darkness were foreign and inconceivable for him, as one who embraced light. By his own accord, Ian chose to leave this world.
Upon Ian’s death, Todd Jinkins of the Boise Smokejumpers wrote: “Ian was a friend and mentor to many firefighters over the years and was a valued contributor to the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program ….
“I struggled with the decision of whether to discuss the nature of Ian’s passing,” Jinkins wrote, “but after speaking to his mom, and with her concurrence, [feel] it is important to talk about it.” Identifying suicide as a growing problem in wildland firefighting groups, Jinkins asked for open conversation.
Umbel gave the same message, writing, “If someone you know is contemplating suicide please reach out. … Listen, be there for them, do whatever it takes … to make them see or at least feel like they’re not alone in this world.”
Ian leaves behind his mother, Carolyn; his father, Bob; his brother, Chris; and countless friends around the world.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Highland Center Youth Programs, P.O. Box 556, Monterey, VA 24465 and the Highland County Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 267, Monterey, VA 24465.
Sue Bennett, 61, July 22
Sue Bennett, known to most as SueB, was not a world-famous climber, but a local hero, known and loved by everyone. She moved to Bellingham, Washington, in 1978 and became rooted in the community through her profession as a pediatric dental hygienist, her involvement in the soccer community and the YMCA. After a guided climb up Mt. Baker she had summit fever. She learned to climb with the Bellingham Mountaineers, a group that became a source of continued learning and offered a rich pool of climbers to adventure with.
SueB had an extraordinary impact on her community. As a member of the Bellingham Mountaineers for over 15 years she taught and led climbs for hundreds of basic and intermediate climbers, striking a balance between giving to others and furthering her own alpine goals. She led by example and taught others throughout her own learning process. SueB had a special way of delivering direct and straightforward criticism in a non-offensive, caring and safe manner. She made sure part of learning was having fun, and came armed with a squirt gun to teach belay skills with loaded threats of what would happen if a belayer let go of the brake hand.
During the rainy season SueB could be found down at the climbing wall of the Whatcom Family YMCA belaying during Family Time, telling corny one-line jokes to get smiles from children and parents. She was an excellent route setter, specializing in beginner lines to get the newcomers hooked on climbing. She helped for long enough to watch children grow into adults.
Whenever the forecast was favorable, SueB spent her time in the mountains, dedicating much of her time to exploring hard-to-get-to nooks of the Cascades climbing peaks seldom visited by others. These made for great adventures even if an objective had turned out to be a pile of choss. SueB loved to scout out adventures that would challenge both her and her teammates. She preferred to climb with others but if she did not find partners she went on solo scrambling adventures.
SueB helped many people reach goals they never thought were achievable. Her impact feels only more profound now that she is gone. SueB died at the age of 61 in a rappelling accident in the North Cascades. She is survived by her husband, Craig, and her two sisters, Lisa and Jeanne. She is greatly missed by many, and she still had so many peaks on her go-to list.
Todd Lane, 55, July 18
“I’m a comedian,” Todd Lane replied straight-faced to a hospice nurse asking his occupation. Lane’s 19-month battle with glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-growing brain tumor, was coming to an end but his sense of humor, always good-natured, was still intact.
A loved and respected member of the Las Vegas climbing community, Todd, who retired from the U.S. Air Force as a chief master sergeant and went on to run television production at Nellis Air Force Base, developed crags like Cut Your Teeth in Calico Basin and ventured deep into the Red Rock’s canyons for other first ascents, mentored new climbers, and volunteered for non-profit causes. But his most meaningful contributions are laughter and an illustration of a life well-lived.
Todd moved between free-spirited adventurer; focused professional; master jazz guitarist and dedicated painter sculptor and mixed-media artist; and committed husband, father and friend. Karen, his wife of 34 years, says Todd developed his life’s guiding philosophy in his 20s.
“We learned to take pleasure and see the beauty in every day,” she said. “Climbing gave Todd a lot of that.”
Todd’s life-long love affair with the outdoors started as a kid growing up in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. He found climbing as a teenager and dreamed of becoming a forest ranger. At 20, he joined the United States Air Force and, while stationed in Europe, graduated first in his class from University of Maryland’s overseas program, earning a bachelor’s in fine art and art history.
He picked up the piano in Italy, played in a band, and later earned a master’s certificate in guitar from the Berklee School of Music. “Every shred of his being was about creativity,” said Karen.
Back stateside, Todd rediscovered climbing in 2003 at his son’s birthday party at a local climbing gym. A state champion wrestler in high school, Todd was intense while training and climbing but was only competitive with himself. “He let me find my own limits in climbing,” recalls his brother Christopher Lane.
Days climbing with Todd often included lengthy discussions about love and life, or he might put the day’s goal aside to help climbers stuck on a nearby route.
“His love and passion for climbing were almost superseded by his love for the climbing community,” recalls Josh Horniak, his longtime climbing partner. “He was generous with his time.” At one point he helped a local guide service navigate the government’s complex permitting process. “For him,” Horniak says, “it was just what you do because you are a part of a community.”
Lane leaves behind his wife, Karen; his son Calder, 23; and the hint to his computer’s password: What is your favorite time of year? Answer: playtime.
Carsten von Birckhahn, 49, July 15
The last thing you would ever see Carsten von Birckhahn do is book a room at a nice hotel. Birckhahn, brand manager of Edelrid, would rather have camped or slept in his car.
Blair Williams, a friend and Edelrid co-worker, says, “It’s kind of a unique combination—he’s just this total dirtbag, but at the same time he was a very high-level executive. He was just a hilarious guy—very magnetic.”
Birckhahn, who died in a paragliding accident while vacationing with his family in Val di Mello, northern Italy, had been with the company for nearly a decade and was solely responsible for launching Edelrid North America and introducing the brand to the United States and Canada. Birckhahn also played a key role in developing the company as a leader in sustainable
“On the professional side, he was just an incredible, unique leader. Who he was in high-level meetings with other executives was exactly who you saw when you were in the mountains with him,” Williams says. “Of all the CEOs in the outdoor industry I would say he was the most understated but influential.”
Birckhahn was also a technical expert when it came to manufacturing hard and soft goods.
“He worked at the ground level with the engineers and the developers on developing products,” Williams says. “He led the company to convert all of their rope and sling manufacturing to the strict Bluesign standard, which remains a first in the industry.” On his own time, he was a leather worker.
Birckhahn was also an extremely experienced climber and alpinist, with dozens of first ascents in Patagonia, Williams says. For over a decade he spent a month in Patagonia every year. A few of his first ascents included the Birckhahn-Haley route on Aguja Desmochada, Kurz vor Knapp
on the east face of La Mascara in Torres del Paine, and Arti-Belleza on Aguja Rafael Jurez, established with his wife, Anke.
Born in Brazil, Birckhahn eventually moved to Germany and then Switzerland, where he lived with his wife and their three children. Birckhahn also owned property he called “Centro Alpino” in El Chalten, Argentina, and would often host climbers like Alex Honnold, Hayden Kennedy, Kate Rutherford and Tommy Caldwell.
Caldwell first got to know him there when visiting to climb, and the two really bonded when Caldwell decided he wanted to start a family. “He took me under his wing, in a way,” Caldwell says. “He wanted to support that scene and see me make that work. He became my biggest mentor in that.”
Caldwell describes Birckhahn and his family as a situation of “so much love around.”
“He kind of convinced me that I could be a full-time climber with one kid, but then when I went and visited his family with three kids I was like, ‘Oh, man, I want to have another,’” Caldwell says. “He was really the reason that my daughter Ingrid exists as well.”
He describes himself as particularly hard hit by the loss, saying, “He added more to this world than most.”
Carsten is survived by his mother, his wife, and three children: Michel, Fynn and Dana.
Matt Hearn, 26, July 13
Matthew Hearn was born in Baltimore, Maryland, with a big heart and an even bigger go-getter attitude. His dreams of pursuing a grand outdoor life seemed limited back East, so he packed up four suitcases and a snowboard bag in 2011 and left for college in the West. When he arrived at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, he found the world he loved.
While at college he prized the days where he snowboarded in the Cottonwoods in the morning, worked on his marketing degree midday, and captained the lacrosse team at the end of the day. It was a perfect college life for him. In 2014 he graduated Cum Laude with a BA in marketing from Westminster College and began work as a marketing manager at Sinclair Broadcasting’s KUTV station.
He rediscovered the joys and challenges of climbing—which he had first tried at 7 years old—when he joined a climbing gym in Salt Lake City. He was soon traveling with friends to explore the cliff faces in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, the Uinta Mountains and Moab. When it turned out that he was not using the camera his parents had given him for a graduation gift, they suggested he send it back East and they would exchange it for the makings of his first rack, cams and all.
Matt’s passion for the outdoors translated into every aspect of his life. He had large circles of friends, both back East and in the West, and continually stayed in contact with them. After one of his friends had an accident in Salt Lake City, he raised tens of thousands of dollars with a Go Fund Me campaign to help with the medical bills. When another friend made a life-changing error and served time in jail, Matt made sure to visit him at the jail whenever he was home in Baltimore.
A devoted friend, son, brother and boyfriend, Matt made other people’s interests his own and learned everything he could about a topic to connect with those he cared about. His smile was infectious and his laugh contagious. Matt was the person you always wanted to be with.
Matt died in a rappelling accident at Storm Mountain in Big Cottonwood Canyon. He is survived by his parents, Annette and Bill Hearn; his sister, Sarah Frances Hearn MacDonald; his partner, Caitlin Lemmon; and many other friends and family members.
In Baltimore and Salt Lake City friends created signs in memory of Hearn, reading: “Keep on climbing, Hearndoggy!”
See a full obituary here.
—Caitlin Lemon and Bill Hearn
Bob van Belle, 59, July 10
How does one write an obituary for a best friend who was larger than life, with a bombastic public persona that is only a tiny part of the person I’ve known over almost 50 years? The internet climbing world knows BVB as “The American Legend,” an alcohol fueled self-coined construct. With a savage wit, a poet’s heart, an astounding grasp of language, a trunkload of
climbing experiences, and an ability to both blaze from the hip and carefully craft poignantly written gems, Bob was custom made for Social Media, but there is so much more to tell.
In the fall of 1968 a gawky new kid arrived in Miss Schlappi’s fifth-grade class at Cadman Elementary in San Diego. He had glasses, a wacky grin and a manic manner, and wore a plastic eyeball on a string around his neck. We became fast friends and constant companions. Over the years we ascended steep highway embankments using stolen construction ropes and railroad
spikes, or enjoyed midnight dulfersitz rappel sessions in nearby commercial construction sites, but after a Sierra Club Rock Climbing outing in 1973 Bob and I began climbing in earnest.
With a cheap 9 mil rope, a handful of first-generation nuts, and some Eiger ovals, we drew an expanding spiral of climbing adventures and developed a clan of friends. A few years younger and a few grades lesser, we were Stonemaster wannabes; we called ourselves the Scumbags. It was a magical time when we could roll into Hidden Valley Campground at Josh on a Friday night and have a choice of campsites, or spend two months living out of my multi colored VW van in the Yosemite Lodge parking lot.
Bob graduated from Evergreen State College in 1984 with a degree in poetry and literature and a love of punk music. Bob was a shoe-in for a “least likely to have a career” award, yet somehow got a government job with Naval Archives in San Diego. The same character trait that enabled him to lie on the living room floor listening to a song 10 times in a row served him in
good stead on Mt. Woodson, wiring difficult cracks so he could sandbag others.
To everyone’s surprise, Bob’s work experience was leveraged into a position with the National Park Service watching water pressure gauges in Yosemite. Settling into a dirt-floored hovel in El Portal, he honed his crack skills and expanded his circle of friends further. In El Cap Meadows preparing for a fast free ascent of the West Face of El Cap, he shunned Steve Grossman’s sage big-wall advice, snapping his signature natty suspenders and declaring, “When you’re up on the big stone you don’t have time to be eating.” However, his partner John Wason observed, “Bob was way psyched to be back in El Portal for dinner so he could spray and enjoy the creature
Bob moved to Boston for NPS training, developing an appreciation for three-piece suits and weekends at the Gunks. Next he served as the Administrative Officer at Capitol Reef NP, Utah. With his wife, Jocelyn, and visiting friends he developed new bouldering areas, made mountaineering style ascents along the Waterpocket Fold, and established many one-pitch
routes, including Mystery Splitter, which was uprated over time from the 5.12c Bob first gave to a current consensus of 5.13a.
He was the NPS liaison for the 2000 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, afterwards transferrng to Flagstaff where he bouldered in the array of local areas and played elder statesman to a younger crew. At the same time his life began to unravel. Sadly, BVB’s last decade was a difficult time of recurring hospitalizations for chronic systemic infections as well as a time of general alcoholic decline. Moving back in with his parents, he died in his sleep, slipping away in the same bedroom he’d lived in when we first met. He’s survived by his ex-wife, Jocelyn; children, Kyle and Hannah; parents and brothers; as well as legions of friends all over the world. I will miss him until the end of my days.
Interstellar crossroads of the lowbagger gods, the backcountry road junction to end all backcountry road junctions, where time stands still…. Make sure to bring spare tires; two is better, three is best. Have your affairs in order: a full tank of gas and a carton of cigarettes, matches, chalk bag and shoes, and companions, if you choose, who like youare the vanishing connoisseurs of the reckless and uncurated 21st century epic. You could die out there. You could live forever.
Shelby Withington, 20, May 29
The outdoors were always at the forefront of Shelby Withington’s family’s culture. As a teen Shelby began seriously pursuing a life in the mountains through long overnight trips, resort skiing and touring, trail running and eventually rock climbing. A Seattle native, he loved nothing more than to share his backyard with others. On his father’s advice, he took a year after high school to travel and find what he wanted from life before beginning university.
Shelby got a job at a local marine-transportation service to support his travels, spent time in Europe, went to Asia and began traveling the length of Vietnam by motorcycle. It was during this time that Shelby realized the place he really wanted to be was home–in the North Cascades. He was a fast and motivated learner, and during that spring of 2016 quickly gained the skills to start bagging classic peaks in the Cascades. In the fall Shelby began his freshman year at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
His father, Holden, reflects that Western was “where Shelby really found his people.” Shelby immediately formed deep relationships and found new climbing partners. By the end of his first quarter, he was splitting time between working at the school’s climbing gym, practicing and competing with the WWU climbing team, and preparing for a degree in outdoor recreation. By the end of winter quarter Shelby was leading his first 5.10s in Indian Creek and had developed his strong love/hate relationship with chimneys after getting stuck in one at the top of Lightning Bolt Cracks. “That was so disgusting, but I loved it,” he would say.
Anyone who knew Shelby can tell you he was the most genuinely stoked person ever. The most inspiring thing, though, was that his stoke wasn’t limited to powder days and splitter cracks; it seemed to be manifested in everything he did.
Shelby possessed a magical capacity to build rich and meaningful relationships. He was everyone’s best friend and always tried to make others feel important. His honesty and ability to remain vulnerable allowed the people around him to be the same, ultimately laughing more and loving harder. Ilana Newman, a close friend and climbing partner, wrote, “[He] had more faith in me than I had in myself, and [his] confidence was contagious.”
Shelby is remembered for his exuberant humor. Another close friend and teammate, Halley Steiner, recalls, “The moment I met Shelby I knew he was something else. Within minutes … we were crying from laughter about a joke he made regarding his all-bean diet. From then on a light turned on in my life.” He was the main contributor in memorable laughs, long car rides, and impromptu dance parties.
Shelby was also passionate about social justice issues. He advocated for equality in accessibility and visibility for the LGBT community and people of color in the outdoor recreation sector. As a gay man, he often did not see his own demographic reflected among fellow academics and recreationalists, and having dealt with his own struggles, was determined to help make change in the outdoor community. He worked with The Service Board, an organization promoting social justice and personal development through outdoor rec, guided backpacking trips with middle schoolers in Alaska, and was set to lead another trip in the summer of 2017. During his year at Western he mentored disadvantaged youth in public schools near Bellingham.
On May 29 of Memorial Day weekend, the day after a casual car-to-car ascent and ski of El Dorado, Shelby died in a rappelling accident on Goat Wall, in Mazama, Washington. Sam Klassen, friend and climbing partner, wrote, “I remember hugging you and congratulating you on your solo summit of El Dorado the night before you were taken from us and looking into your cheerful eyes knowing that whatever path you would walk in life, it would be filled with joy and passion … I will never forget the way you greeted me every time, like we had been brothers from birth.”
Shelby had immeasurable potential. He touched more lives and changed more of his world in 20 years than most do in a lifetime.
He is survived by his father, Holden, and brother, Barret.
Matt Ciancio, 42, May 24
Matthew Ciancio, who quietly climbed in the mountains of California, with objectives big and small, for 20 years, died in a parachuting accident in Lodi, California.
I was his roommate in Mammoth Lakes in the late 1990s when we both started out climbing. We had contrasting styles; I was always pushing my comfort level, climbing at my limit, while Matt kept within his comfort zone, in the fun zone. My path quickly led to bike racing, a safer way to go all-out. Matt proceeded onward in total control of his surroundings and slowly nudged the bar upward. He was so patient about his progress I used to rib him for doing the same routes over and over, but he knew exactly what he was doing, was a hard worker, and absolutely loved it.
It is difficult to quantify the breadth of Matt’s accomplishments. First of all, he was too unassuming to talk much about what he was up to. He was in it for the pure enjoyment of climbing and didn’t think what he was doing was anything notable. Yet many of his climbs are major, serious outings. The Eastern Sierra in particular lull you into thinking they are approachable, but in reality their sheer size only makes them seem nearby. Major traverses (the Minarets, Palisades and Evolution, all Grade VI), big link-ups (the Nose and Half Dome in a day, or Crucifix and Astroman and the Rostrum), as well as a mastery of remote peaks such Mt. Russel and the Incredible Hulk (where Matt was known as “the Mayor”) all contributed to his legend. His climbing career culminated in an ascent of Freerider in Yosemite.
In recent years Matt had transitioned into BASE jumping and applied the same attention to detail and passion to his new sport as he did with free climbing. He focused on the beauty of going up as well as coming down.
Matt had a simple approach to life. He worked as a radiologist in Bishop for three days over the weekends and then launched himself toward his own objectives on the other four days. He was single-minded, but his drive never seemed to get in the way of his loyalty to others, his commitment to plans, and his generally warm personality. It was always fun climbing with Matt. He was perhaps the best climbing partner ever.
May you rest in peace, brother; you will always be an inspiration.
Please see Andy Puhvel’s tribute to Matt on Supertopo.
For a full obituary, please click here.
Tom Beck, 70, May 21
When Thomas Beck died, Todd Gordon, longtime Joshua Tree local, posted: “A very sad day. I spent many fine days out climbing with Tom.
“He lived large, shared much, and made our lives more awesome.”
Gordon tells Rock and Ice, “Tom was a very influential climber for decades.”
A longtime climbing guide, first ascentionist and mentor, Beck was originally from San Francisco, where he played concert piano in the early 1970s for the Junior Symphony. He took up rock climbing after a 1975 visit to Yosemite, and in 1977 Beck and his then partner, Ellen Hill, moved to Joshua Tree, where he worked as a master carpenter making custom cabinets and they had a son, Alexander Beck. Tom also worked as a climbing guide in Joshua Tree for 20 years before eventually moving to Las Vegas.
Joy Jones, a close friend for years, met Beck when a climbing partner bailed on her, calling him at the behest of a mutual friend.
She recalls in an e-mail: “The first day we went to Keyhole”—a rarely visited canyon—“and did a route called Get Up, Stand Up. Such a stellar route, three-pitch: crack, corner, friction, roof. I go out there all the time now, and there is never anyone else there.”
They climbed in various remote areas, including the Flight Path, which he developed.
“We constantly had fun,” she continues, praising “that magnetic, kind, humble personality I wanted to be around. I loved spending time with Tom, always an adventure. Such an enthusiastic climber, positive mentor, and treasured friend.”
Beck also climbed often with Kirk Fulks, who recalls meeting him at Sesame Street, one of the many crags Beck developed in the Mount Charleston area. For the most part they climbed limestone moderates that Tom endeavored to bolt safely and so as to inspire confidence.
“That was Tom’s way,” Fulks notes, “to make the climb doable.
“He told me stories of routes all over the Western United States, many places he had guided, and many FAs [that can be found] in today’s climbing guides. Tom showed me many wild places out here in the desert. He loved being outdoors. Tom was always looking for new places to develop new routes, doing road and trail maintenance wherever we went.”
Fulks said he loved and respected the “old-school master.”
“Tom was a kind and gentle man who loved life, people and climbing. He taught me to be a better climber. More important, he taught me to be a better person.”
Another partner, Marc Rosenthal, recalls learning multipitch climbing and new routing from Beck. “He taught me the fine aesthetics of looking at a line and determining where the anchors were needed, how to drill and place bolts on lead, and of course haul the ‘pig.’
“Soft-spoken with a wry sense of humor, he was one of the best friends I ever had.”
Beck died, according to Jones, from multiple organ failure.
Tommy Bell, 26, May 18
Thomas Bell was a beacon of warmth and caring, enveloping others around him with laughter and smiles. He was loved for his positive attitude, brutal honesty, playful spirit and “goofball” mentality.
From Silver Spring, Maryland, “Tommy” had started out skateboarding, mountain biking and snowboarding, then branched out after participating in a NOLS program that offered climbing and backcountry travel. During the six years he worked at Earth Treks Rockville, also in Maryland, he taught a variety of classes including: introduction to climbing (indoors and outdoors), lead climbing, movement techniques and self rescue, all in addition to Rec Club for children. He was a role model to kids, but also
Tommy was also an avid and talented photographer. While his favorite subject was his dog, Roxy, he also photographed a number of family and friends’ wedding celebrations, just to help celebrate and document their special days.
Tommy had a way of ending even the worst days with a drawn-out laugh. One of his favorite stories was about his “most epic trip ever” to climb Looking Glass in North Carolina. He’d recount how the rock was
amazing, how hard he climbed, and how good the beer was. His positive selective memory would somehow always look past the fact that he got shut down by freezing temperatures and rain four out of the seven days and never reached the summit. But that’s how Tommy lived his life; for the excitement of the voyage, never mind the ending.
Tommy taught all that knew him a few valuable lessons. First, make the best of the experience and be excited for the adventures life gives you, no matter how small. Second, invite new people into your life and share moments with them that you will always remember. Last, laugh at it all. Life’s too short to sweat the small stuff, so crack a joke (and maybe a beer) and say “Yeehaw” as you shred through life. As Tommy would say, “Don’t you worry about that now.”
He passed away May 18 after sustaining injuries in a bicycle accident.
Andrew Meeker, 44, May 6
Andrew Meeker grew up in the Elk Mountain Range of Colorado, and from a young age felt a call to wild places and adventure. While still in high school, he completed a traverse of the Elks—linking Capitol, Snowmass, South Maroon, North Maroon, Pyramid and Castle peaks, covering approximately 75 miles, an undertaking bigger then the Grand Traverse in the Tetons or the Evolution Traverse in the Sierras—in what would become his style, solo and only telling a close friend or two.
“Meeks” was the ultimate rope gun. Whenever you were too scared to take a pitch, you could count on him to step up. He was never out to prove anything. He just seemed to carry a notion that everything was going to be all right.
On Meeks’ first trip to Lincoln Creek on Independence Pass many years ago with another local friend, Matt Holstein, he immediately saw the striking line of Dean’s Day Off (runout 5.12). He didn’t bother to look at the book, it looked good, and off the couch he battled his way through it somehow. By the time he topped out, his belayer’s nerves were shot.
The belayer yelled up, “Hey, buddy, how was that?”
Andrew replied in his typical nasal drawl, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
He was known for understatement about himself and his deeds, yet expressed much sincere enthusiasm for what those around him achieved. He was not just kind but generous: At his memorial, Holstein shared an example from when he, Andrew and their friends Pete “Pedro” McBride and Fletcher Yaw climbed Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Southern Hemisphere:
We had chosen a more technical route, but the standard route is basically just a high-altitude hike, which allows people of a wide variety of abilities to climb it. We shared the summit that day with a Brazilian guy who had come up the standard route solo and was way over his head. He was under-dressed and only had candy bars with him. He had run out of water hours before and was begging for some of ours. As everyone here knows, the summit is only halfway on any day in the mountains and water is life.
My own feelings went something like, ‘Really, dude? You’re going show up unprepared, get in over your head, not bring enough water and then beg it from others, putting them in danger?’ Looking at Fletch and Pedro, I saw that they shared my sentiment and frustration. But it was Meeks who opened up his water bottle to the guy. That’s the kind of guy Meeks was.
Another time, when Andrew and a friend were on El Capitan, on their second night on the wall, his partner while sitting up pulled the wrong strap on their portaledge, dumping the whole thing. Hanging from a sling around his waist a couple thousand feet off the ground, Andrew simply said, “Ahhh, man.” No cursing or screaming; not much of a fuss at all.
Andrew was a man of many talents; he built his own home, milling his own logs, up Capitol Creek after the road turns to dirt. He was a talented self-taught guitar player and hunted with a bow with admirable results. He did all with care, as craft.
Andrew had friendships with a broad spectrum of people: mountaineers, builders, skiers, cowboys, New York bankers, irrigators, hunters and more. He possessed a non-judgmental character combined with genuine interest in others that allowed him to connect with so many different types. He was so admired that it remains hard to fathom how much he was suffering. Andrew experienced clinical depression since age 15, and in the end took his life.
At his service, his friend Ryan Smalls said: “Andrew was blessed with an open heart, an adventurous spirit and an innate goodness that permeated through his life and all of us. He was equally tough and sensitive with a deep interest in other people. His profound generosity, genuine character and quiet charisma inspired us and always will.
“Meeks was a force of nature.”
Andrew’s climbing career spanned ascents of high peaks in South America (Condoriri, Pequeńo, Alpamayo, Ancohuma, Ilimani and Aconcagua as well as objectives in Patagonia), Alaska (Denali), and alpine routes in Europe; on rock he was prolific in the desert and spent many weeks in Yosemite. Solid whether jamming cracks or on technical aid, Andrew climbed the Rostrum (5.11c) on the Rostrum, the Nose, the Salathé, the Zodiac and more.
As a person he was the kind of guy you just felt at ease around, so much so that the best side of you came out when you were with him. I’m going to miss that feeling.
Andrew is survived by his parents, Dick and Sunny; his aunt, Mary Meeker; his sister, Michelle Meeker; his brother-in-law, Jeff Marsoun; and his niece, Jade Marsoun.
Ueli Steck, 40, April 30
On April 30, Ueli Steck died doing what he loved best—climbing a big, technical face, solo. Steck will be remembered for a deep generosity, both with his time and friendship, and for his supreme dedication to his craft: alpine climbing.
The footage of Steck racing up the North Face of the Eiger for the speed record, which introduced the Swiss climber to a broader American audience, does little justice to his quiet confidence and technical virtuosity. Though he was known as the ultimate alpinist, Steck nearly onsighted El Cap’s Golden Gate (VI 5.13b, 41 pitches), only falling on a 5.11c pitch because of wet conditions. His attempt was the closest anyone has yet come to onsighting an El Cap route.
Ueli was born in 1976, in Emmental, Switzerland, with three older brothers. Two of them and Steck would be professional athletes. Nicole Steck, his wife of nine years, was his climbing partner and a gifted mountaineer in her own right.
Steck was rightfully lionized for his training regimen; however, in a profile of Steck, Dan Patitucci, a close friend and partner, was quoted as saying Steck “wasn’t gifted in any way, I don’t think. His head was unnaturally strong, there’s no doubt about that. But he made his body what it was.” Steck never rested on his laurels as a world-class athlete, but kept pushing.
“He showed us what was possible”—all too often this claim is made to honor someone’s achievements. Rarely does it apply. Only a select few are the athletic avant grade. Steck, however, had the ability not only to dream big, but, as his autobiography dutifully recounts, knew how to create the scaffolding to make big dreams doable.
Steck’s latest dream was to bring light and fast alpinism to a new level in the Himalayas, with a single push, the Everest-Lhotse linkup. On April 30, around 9 a.m., Ueli was training on nearby Nuptse. He fell. We do not know the precise cause of his fall, but he fell from around 7,600 meters. His body was discovered by climbers on a Gurkha Everest Expedition.
One of my favorite quotes about the mountains comes from Steck: “Mountaineering is a transient experience. I need to continuously repeat it to live it.” It goes to the essence of mountain life. Steck got into the mountains as much as he could, never wasting a second.
Rock and Ice issue No. 245 contained a cover feature on Steck.
John Strand, 57, March 29
John Strand was a virtuoso slab climber who liked to run it out. Strand was instrumental in development in the Mount Washington Valley and Franconia regions of New Hampshire and the greater Boston area
His longtime friend Tom Callaghan called Strand, a longtime Boston resident, “about the best I’ve ever seen … [at] granite slabs, a genre of climbing that’s way out of style these days.”
John was a passionate and determined man who climbed to test himself. Still, he thought climbers could be too serious. His wife, Rose, with whom he eventually moved to the San Luis Valley of Colorado, says, “John never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” John loved the satirical news site the Onion, barbequing and making pizza. Every year for his birthday he made pizza for a gang of friends.
For years, Strand climbed at the Quincy Quarries near Boston on a near-daily basis, according to Callaghan. Alone in the quarry, soloing, he’d climb more in 45 minutes than most parties could in a day. Strand helped develop the quarries, as well as many routes on the cliffs of Cathedral, Whitehorse and Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire. Among his routes are Man-o-War (5.9+ with a 5.7 R pitch) with Tom Callaghan and Paul Boissonault; Vigilante (5.10 R or X); the FFA of the entire original line of Aiwass (III, 5.12-) with Callahan; Problem Child (II, 5.10+ R) with Callahan and Steve Angelini; and Bits and Pieces (5.11 R, drilled on lead) with Callahan.
In 1985, Strand made the first ascent of California Girls (5.11+ R), at Cathedral Ledge. The guidebook reads that he led the route “without falls—mainly due to extreme fear.” Sometimes Strand did fall. One day, at the Albany Slabs, he took a hundred-footer, and was barely kept off the ground by what Callaghan calls “active belay techniques.” Unfazed, Strand convinced the crew to head to Cannon Cliff, where he finished up a new route.
Strand suffered from serious health problems, including a genetic heart condition and rheumatoid arthritis, and was severely hampered by age 45. Even when John’s body was failing him, Rose says, “He always wanted to get back up on the rock.”
He is survived by his wife, Rose Strand.
Mary Anderson, 107, March 27
In 1938 Mary Anderson cofounded REI with her husband, Lloyd, because she wanted better ice axes imported to the United States. After a lifetime as a mountaineer, and perhaps in a testament to the healthy lifestyle, Anderson passed away March 27 at the great age of 107.
Born in 1909 in the Yakima Valley of Washington, Mary (nee Gaiser) Anderson developed a love for mountain climbing when she joined the Mountaineers club in 1929. Anderson and her husband took the Mountaineers’ first climbing courses, and went on to help pioneer modern ice axe techniques in America. An active climber throughout the Pacific Northwest. Anderson climbed over 500 peaks, and authored various first ascents in the Cascades.
Dennis Madsen, REI’s former president and CEO, told The Seattle Times, “I can just picture her walking quickly throughout the building with a real sense of purpose. She was on a mission, had something to do, someone to talk to.” In the article, Madsen credits Anderson as possessing an euduring sense of humor; though she might be pursuing a task or job, he said, “[I]t always ended with a smile on her face. It was a blending of being intense while still being able to defuse a situation with a little laugh.”
Mary and Lloyd (who died in 2000) authored books of climbing tips, and their “Climbers Notebook” eventually turned into the first addition of Freedom of the Hills. Mary’s death was observed by The New York Times and NPR as well as The Seattle Times. She is survived by her daughter, Sue Anderson, and two granddaughters.
Royal Robbins, 82, March 14
In 2009, Royal Robbins published the first of an autobiographical series intended to be comprise seven volumes. He only lived long enough to deliver three, but those were considered gold: authentic and honest about his hardscrabble and painful beginnings. And he left a colossal, abounding legacy, as a climber and deep thinker.
Twelve years ago, when we at Rock and Ice compiled a “People” issue, we listed him at Number 1 of the country’s most influential climbers, writing, “Climbing as we know it would not exist without Royal Robbins. The way we move, behave and even think is, 30 years after the end of his Yosemite reign, shaped by Robbins.”
Robbins was the driving force behind Yosemite’s Golden Age, a period of dynamic productivity but also creativity, a time of exploration on undone big walls with virtually no chance of rescue. When he, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt chucked their ropes down from 1,000 feet up the Salathe Wall of El Capitan, Yosemite, in 1961, they were completely committed. No big wall had been done without fixed ropes. Only one other route, the Nose, had even been climbed on the 3,000-foot wall.
Robbins was always innovative, but primarily thoughtful, believing in the cerebral and even spiritual values of climbing as much as the physical. He pushed using clean protection—nuts—over pins to save the rock. He hated bolts: on the Salathe, the team used only 13.
He made five first ascents on Half Dome, was the first to solo El Cap, put up visionary routes on the north face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming, Mount Proboscis in the Northwest Territories, and the Dru in Chamonix. In 1968 he and his wife and frequent climbing partner, Liz, started the active-apparel company that bears his name. But to climbers he is best known as an author and sharer. He wrote the first and all-time classic how-to-climb book, Basic Rockcraft, followed by his own Advanced Rockcraft, teaching and inspiring generations upon generations.
Ken Wilson, onetime editor of the British Mountain magazine, called Robbins “a supreme dignity tinged with courage to say and do controversial things, a sort of moral leadership … [W]ithout the core of Yosemite activists in the early 1960s… America would have been a far less ethical place, climbing-wise.”
Royal Robbins both wrote and said on film, in “Valley Uprising” (2014), “Getting to the top is nothing. How you do it is everything.”
See our full obituary here.
Feature image photo credits: (Top row, left to right) Hayden Kennedy, Stephen Barbagallo, Rose Strand, Courtesy of Edelrid, Mike Call; (middle row) Marc Rosenthal, Kyle Sparks, Jacob Raab/American Alpine Club, Bryan Sehmel, Off White; (bottom row) Courtesy of the Lane Family, Pete Guerra, Ace Kvale, Jack Augustine, Mark Kroese. “Climbers We Lost in 2017” was compiled by Alison Osius.
Also read Climbers We Lost in 2016