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Tribute to John Evans: Mountaineer, Climber, Mentor, and Friend

A climber's climber who shared a rope with the biggest names---Robbins, Unsoeld, Roskelley, Bridwell, Pratt---and did classic first ascents the world over, including the unrepeated Hummingbird Ridge on Mt. Logan and Mt. Vinson, Antarctica. Evans died on January 9 at age 82.

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John Evans. Photo: Courtesy of the Evans Family.

I last saw John in 2016, just before the AAC meeting in Washington, DC, that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his and his team’s 1966 first ascent of Mount Vinson in Antarctica. We spoke on the phone since then, after he had a bad accident in winter, falling on his driveway and breaking his femur. A long recovery and lots of rehabilitation followed. Spending time in a care facility was hard going for the man who did the only ever (still unrepeated) ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan in Canada. The team included Allen Steck, Dick Long, Frank Choale, Jim Wilson and Paul Bacon. Many talented alpinists have tried since but none have succeeded.

The international Everest Expedition in 1971, however, created my first connection with John. Not in person: I was reading Life magazine as a teenaged skier and climber who soaked up anything about climbing mountains, especially something as exotic as Everest.

Years later, after moving West and spending most of my time climbing instead of studying at the University of Wyoming, I had a chance to work for the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS). John was the Program Director, the senior executive running the show in those days, and he hired me. It probably helped that my older brother Ron was already employed by COBS.

So now the legend was my boss (many times removed) and through the next few years John was a great mentor and leader and influenced my life in more ways than I even know. I remember going home to visit my parents one holiday and they remarked how John had phoned them to tell them what great sons they had, that he was impressed with our work and all the stuff that just makes a parent’s day. I never had a chance to ask him why he reached out, and now I cannot. But it is the kind of behavior that was typical of John. He was a humble man who had many great personal accomplishments yet always spoke favorably of others, their accomplishments and success, never touting himself.

[Also Read Climbers We Lost in 2019]

He climbed in the Pamirs in 1974, on Nanda Devi in 1976, in the Alaska Range in 1978 (doing a first ascent on Mt. Huntington with Denny Hogan). John climbed everywhere else you wish you could go as an alpinist with the best climbers of each generation. The team on Nanda Devi included Willi Unsoeld, his daughter Nanda Devi Unsoeld and John Roskelly.

After hearing of John Evans death Roskelly told me:  “When I heard John Evans would be on the Nanda Devi team, I knew we had a better than even chance of success. John’s physical strength was well established, but more importantly he brought to the team common sense, big mountain experience, and a boost in our confidence. John was the ultimate team player.”

Denny Hogan had this to say about climbing the West Face of Huntington with John: “As many of us were very fond of John for many reasons, I was taken by his positive attitude/outlook and in somewhat dire circumstances.  An example of this on that trip was after spending a stormy night out in open below the French Ridge with just a down parka; no stove/ bivi sack; sitting for hours on our climbing rope, freezing our butts off!  At dawn, John suggests we “get on with it” and head for the summit.  I reluctantly agreed but soon after a two pitches and just below the French Ridge, the snow starts to increase once again, I turned to John and convinced him we needed to descend as I could not take a second night out.  Without another word we headed down.   John never spoke a word of disappointment but I am sure he could have summited that day on his own as we were only a few hundred feet below the summit.  I was just too cold, and had had enough.  He was truly the strongest climber but ever the team player!

[Also Read The Secret of Nanda Devi]

John climbed with a passion and strength both physical and mental that are hard to fathom, because he loved it and enjoyed the people he was with.  Early in his climbing career in 1965 John spent a lot of time climbing in Yosemite. With Jim Bridwell he climbed Leaning Tower. Chuck Pratt, Royal and Liz Robbins all were partners on various routes. But John’s most notable accomplishment was the 4th ascent of the Nose on El Cap with Dick McCracken and Gary Colliver. In those days you had to be interviewed and get permission from the chief ranger to climb on El Cap. Royal Robbins vouched for the team and all was a go.

My favorite memory of climbing with John happened purely by chance. I was working as a seasonal climbing ranger at Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park and had spent the night in the ranger cabin (since destroyed by an avalanche) at Chasm Lake. Soon after sunrise I closed the door to head out when who did I see just a few feet in front of me but John.

We walked and spoke for a bit and decided it would be fun to do a tandem solo of Keiners on the east face. Sunny, warm, little wind: It could not have been better. While I do not remember the details, my lasting impression is one of great friendship, shared passion and a love of life.

Mark Udall, former U.S. Senator from  Colorado, worked with John at COBS and was a notable alpinist himself. Udall told me: “John Evans’ climbing exploits, especially his remarkable ascent of the unrepeated Hummingbird Ridge on Mt. Logan, are legendary. But for the countless people who knew John, it was and is his warm humanity that we cherish and celebrate. Patient yet decisive, physically an awe inducing presence—who wasn’t astonished by his forearms the size of most people’s calves?—yet so gentle, a Boy Scout at heart, and so accepting of the “stick it to the man” attitude many of us had. There are so many stories and so much John Evans wisdom to share. He was and will always be the loving, approachable big brother whom we all admired and emulated.”

John Evan was an incredible soul. He is survived by his wife of over 50 years, Loie, a daughter and two granddaughters as well as a whole world of people like me who were honored and blessed by his presence.

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