Gail Oberlin Bates spent her last morning at home reading the New York Times, engaged in the world to the end—which was at the grand age of 103. She “devoured,” as her longtime friend Malcolm Odell said, analyses of the Democratic Convention, and had already called town hall in her home of Exeter, New Hampshire, to ensure she received a ballot.
She had a stroke that evening and died Friday, August 21, after holding hands with her beloved niece Betsy Bates all day.
Married for 53 years to the pioneering mountaineer Bob Bates, who died at age 96 in 2007, Gail was an adventurous person and avid trekker, and was the first employee ever at the American Alpine Club. She journeyed to remote base camps in a time when they were far more remote than today. Says Laurel Cox, another friend of many decades, “We met Gail at Camp Denali in Alaska in 1966, when she was waiting for Bob’s climbing group to return from Mount Russell. She was a dear friend, and we will miss her.”
Gail was a friend to generations of climbers. Mark Richey, celebrated New England alpinist and 2020 Piolet d’Or recipient, recalls, “She was a wonderful, kind person, and sharp to the end. Not long ago she called to say she had just purchased a new car!”
In 2018, at age 100, Gail was an honored guest at the American Alpine Club annual meeting and benefit in Boston, attending with Jed and Perry Williamson.
Teresa Richey, a Peruvian, relates, “Gail and I met at an AAC dinner in the 1980s. She greeted me very warmly, saying she had heard I came from Peru. I have always appreciated that kind of welcoming attitude, and especially during these tumultuous times I appreciate it more.”
Born in Cleveland, Gail studied Italian and art history at Vassar College, graduating in 1939, then earned a Masters (unusual for a woman in the 1940s) in social work from Columbia University.
During World War II, she served in the American Red Cross from 1943 to 1945, according to a 2017 tribute to her on the Congressional Record on her 100th birthday.
According to that tribute: “She was stationed overseas to England with the Ninth Air Force, where she served with Red Cross Aero Clubs and worked long hours, supporting aircrews and soldiers from 6 AM to midnight … On D-Day, Gail first heard of the Allied landings in Normandy while eating breakfast in a London cafe. She would soon join the Allied armies in continental Europe, arriving in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France, in July, where she hosted a party for the children of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, providing a brief respite from war for the first liberated town in France. Following Allied victories in eastern France and Belgium, Gail accompanied General George Patton and his Third Army into Germany and was one of only two women who served in the Red Cross Aero Club in Berlin.”
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Upon her return to the United States, she gained her job as the secretary for the American Alpine Club, which was then based in New York City. She met Robert “Bob” Bates at an annual dinner, and they married in 1953 and traveled together worldwide. A revered English teacher from 1939 to 1976 at Phillips Exeter Academy, Bob was tapped by Sargent Shriver to serve as the first director of the Peace Corps in Nepal for a year starting in 1962, and the couple moved to Kathmandu. Gail was eager to go, and she took an active role in running the operation.
“She was the first lady, like a diplomat,” says Odell, who was part of the Peace Corps. “She was our rock.”
The Bateses made a multitude of friends and invited Tsering Yangdon, a young refugee from Tibet, to the United States, where she attended the University of New Hampshire. According to peacecorps.online.org: “One outcome of this experience was for Bates and his wife to bring a Tibetan refugee from Lhasa to study at the University of New Hampshire, a young woman who became a member of his extended family.” Upon returning home, Gail and Bob opened their doors and “continued to welcome countless students, climbers, Peace Corps volunteers and friends from around the world,” the Peace Corps article reads, “always imbuing them with a sense of excitement about the possibilities in life and the belief that they could accomplish whatever they set out to do.”
Gail had a close view of an early golden era in climbing. She and Bob, a survivor of the famous 1953 attempt to climb K2, in which all teammates risked their lives to try to rescue their ill teammate Art Gilkey, were lifelong friends and adventure-travel companions with Ann and Ad Carter, the legendary longtime editor of the American Alpine Journal; Ann contributed greatly to that endeavor. Bob and Bradford Washburn made the first ascent of Mount Lucania in the Yukon in 1937. Bates was one of the famed “Harvard Five” early mountaineers, with Washburn, Carter, Charles Houston and Terris Moore. He and Gail, with Ad and Ann Carter, traveled to Pakistan in 1974 and trekked into K2 base camp.
Through her life Gail attended gatherings such as the AAC’s 50th anniversary celebration of the American Everest Expedition, in San Francisco in 2013. Other mountaineering friends included Sir Edmund Hillary; Manzoor Hussein of Pakistan; Jolene and Willi Unsoeld; and Dee Molenaar, also of the 1953 K2 expedition.
Anis Ataullah, a mountaineering friend from Pakistan, emails, “I recall a trip I made with my cousin Masood Karamat to Boston sometime in the 1980’s—Gail and Bob were expecting us. We were running late and got there around 3 a.m. and were surprised to find them up waiting for us!”
Recalls Teresa Richey: “The Washburns [Brad, Barbara], the Bateses, and we, including my mother, were invited to Ann Carter’s home in Jefferson. We spent weekends with the Washburns and the Bateses. We have lots of memories where Brad and Bob would tell stories about their trips, and Gail would often correct these for accuracy.
“She made a great celebration for her 95th bday. It was at Wentworth by Sea and there were lots of people. She gave a talk and mentioned and celebrated a Nepalese family from the Peace Corps. Then she said, ‘Look among us, you are young and diverse, I like that, I already live with old people like myself so that is why they are not here.’ She was funny and very direct.”
Laurel Cox describes Gail as “sweet and gracious, alert to the world, always interested in her guests and world affairs, excellent conversationalist. Asked about every child and grandchild (often by name) when we would catch up.”
An article in Seacoast Online calls the Bateses “unstoppable adventure seekers … off to such far-flung places as Africa and the Mountains of the Moon, Morocco, Katmandu and Turkey; always taking the rudimentary forms of transportation to soak in the cultures and life of each place.” The article refers to Gail and Bob “instrumental” in bringing the Peace Corps to Nepal.
Gail was, says Odell, “a very strong Democrat” and many-times volunteer campaigner, and she and Bob were active in historic preservation and conservation. In 1989 they donated the first easement to the Southeast Land trust of New Hampshire (SELT). She came to the SELT annual meeting and picnic every year.
The dedication to Bob Bates’s book The Love of Mountains is Best, published in 1994, reads: “To Gail Oberlin Bates, a grand partner and companion both at home and traveling in regions from Mt. Ararat to Phoksumdo Tal.”