Bob Bates, expeditionary mountaineer and honorary president of the American Alpine Club, died on September 13 at the age of 96 in Exeter, New Hampshire, in a most unlikely place, his bed. He was one of the most beloved mountaineers in America.
Bob climbed in Alaska, the Yukon and the Karakoram at a time when a cell phone and a helicopter could not bail you out. In 1937 Bob and Brad Washburn, a fellow Harvard mountaineer, flew into Mount Lucania (17,150 feet) in the Yukon, then the highest unclimbed peak in North America. They landed on a glacier at the base of the mountain and became stranded when the plane, bogged down in wet snow, was barely able to take off. The plane could not return due to the adverse conditions, so the only feasible way out was to hike over the top of 16,650-foot Mount Steele, down its 9,000-foot east ridge and then to Kluane Lake, 100 miles away. The two barely made it, and learned that rabbit tastes better than squirrel. Despite their impending long escape journey, they spent a few extra days to make the first ascent of Mount Lucania.
Bob joined two expeditions to K2 (28,251 feet), in 1938 and 1953, both times with Charlie Houston, another Harvard mountaineer. It took a tremendous effort in 1938, 15 years before the mountain’s first ascent, even to reach the mountain. The team ascended to 26,000 feet on what would later become the Abruzzi Ridge before weather and a lack of supplies persuaded them to turn around.
The 1953 expedition resulted in one of the most storied episodes in mountaineering history. The entire party was trapped in a storm at over 25,000 feet when Art Gilkey became critically ill. Despite the extreme risk of getting anyone off the mountain in a storm, Bob and the other climbers never questioned trying. When one man slipped, Pete Schoening’s boot belay held the weight of the six roped men. While Gilkey died in an avalanche later on, everyone else miraculously survived.
Bob was an invaluable member of an expedition because he was always positive and cheerful. He was a morale booster and never spoke a bad word about anyone. I got to know Bob well when we put together a joint Chinese-American expedition to climb Ulugh Muztagh, a mysterious peak in the Kun Lun range of northern Tibet. It took 10 years to get the permission, during which time Bob always turned our frustration into laughter. On the expedition, in 1985, Bob, with a vast knowledge of vaudeville, sang all the way into the mountain. The Chinese loved him. Then 74, Bob could only carry light loads, but his determination to contribute was an example that inspired success.
Bob was an English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he imparted knowledge and confidence into generations of students, many of whom said he had changed their lives by getting them involved in outdoor activities. Later, he served as director of the Peace Corps in Nepal, where he had the same effect on the volunteers working with him.
Bob married Gail Oberlin, a former staff member of the AAC, in 1954. She shared his sense of adventure and for years the two of them travelled together to remote mountain areas around the world, including the Andes, the Karakoram and the Himalaya.
During World War II, Bob was assigned by the U.S. Army to develop clothing and equipment for the mountain troops. He tested designs while making the third ascent of Mount McKinley, in 1942.
In 1994, he published his memoirs, The Love of Mountains is Best: Climbs and Travels from K2 to Kathmandu, and he co-wrote the books K2, The Savage Mountain and Five Miles High.I will never forget the celebratory banquet in the marble and glass Great Hall of the People in Urumchi, Xinjiang, with the highest Chinese officials in the province. There was spectacular Uighur dancing and singing when the music suddenly stopped and in the silence that followed we learned that it was the Americans’ turn to entertain. Trapped, Bob Bates and I went up to the stage. In our desperation we decided to do The Wreck of the Old ’97. Bob’s vigorous singing, and especially his imitation of a train whistle, brought down the house and we were saved.