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Dave Lanman, Former Leading Canadian Climber, Dies at 55

Lanman was a standard-setter throughout the Northeast, from the Gunks to the Adirondacks.

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Dave Lanman, 55, a onetime leading Canadian rock climber, passed away at home in New Paltz, New York,  in the last days of January 2018. Although most of his accomplishments were a decade or so in the past, Dave was a colorful, well-known and beloved friend of climbers from all over Canada and the United States. Cause of death was given as cardiac arrest in his sleep.

Dave grew up in the lower middle-class suburbs of east Toronto. His father had been a fell runner in England and when he perceived an opportunity for his boys to try rock climbing with the Alpine Club of Canada at Bon Echo, a 300-foot granite crag in Ontario, he took it. The club only took Dave’s older brother, Steve, however, because Dave was too young, so Dave enlisted a friend in the family’s building, Steve Labelle, to try rappelling off their balcony with a laundry rope. For the next outing, their dad convinced the Alpine Club to take both boys so the police wouldn’t come to the building any more.

Lanman leading Adrenaline in Yosemite. Photo: Richard Massiah.
Lanman leading Adrenaline in Yosemite. Photo: Richard Massiah.

After a couple of seasons at Rattlesnake Point, where Dave climbed with local hard climbers George Manson, Tom Gibson and Mike Tschipper, the youth was able to climb the local 5.11s, a hard grade for a teenager in the late 1970s. In 1979, at the age of 16, he climbed the Shield on El Capitan with the Toronto climber Dean Lister. On his home crags of the Niagara Escarpment, Dave made numerous first ascents of 5.11 and 5.12 routes that were mostly trad-protected. His most impressive climb was the hardest route at Mazinaw Rock, the four-pitch Spiderman, the first 5.12 on the cliff. These climbs influenced a whole generation of suburban climber kids, although not perhaps with safety as the first consideration. He was famous, for example, for shouting, “Lower me, express!” when he backed off a climb on an especially poor piece of protection or telling nervous belayers, “Relax, dude!” as he plowed through loose, sloughing rock.

In the early 1980s, Dave moved to the Gunks. Over the coming years he made an assortment of hard first ascents, including Seeing Things (5.12c) in the Gunks and Salad Days, the first 5.13 in the Adirondacks. Dave also won Canada’s first climbing comp and participated in the famous Snowbird climbing competition in Utah in 1988.

Dave exemplified the carefree, drop-out attitude of 1970s climbing. He was known to some as Picnic Butt for patching his climbing pants with gingham tablecloth material. At the hut in Bon Echo he would rack up with whatever hardware was lying around, whether or not it was his. He owed everyone a small amount of cash, and he made his way in the world known for his disarming smile, shock of blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. He never trained or educated or prepared himself for a life outside of climbing because he rejected accepted wisdom. Two weeks before he died, he emailed me a link to a video series offering investment advice from a convicted felon inside a state prison. The subject line read, “FOR YOUR RRSP, DAVE HAHA YOU KNOW ITS ALL BS.”

Dave’s rebel insouciance, however, hid a side of his personality that was shy and easily bruised, as happened when the bolts on his route Running Man in the Gunks were chopped.

As Dave lost interest in climbing over the last decade or so and personal tragedies such as his parents’ deaths, and, in 2014, his brother’s passing, mounted, the alcohol he had loved to drink at exuberant post-climbing parties became a too-handy painkiller. Many friends remained in touch with him over the years, though there was little they could do to help him.

Dave was not always an easy friend to have, nor even his own best friend, but he is missed by many of the friends he had inspired on days when all that mattered was his extraordinary talent and our seemingly insatiable hunger for rock.

—David Smart      

Also read Elizabeth Hawley: Front Seat to Himalayan History