David Roberts: “Mountaineer and Dean of Adventure Writing”

From a obit in the Boston Globe by Michael J. Bailey headlined “David Roberts, mountaineer and dean of adventure writing, dies at 78”:

Atop the summit of Alaska’s Mount Huntington, after co-leading a 1965 four-man ascent on a course steeper than the standard approaches of Denali or Everest, “we were too tired to exult,” David Roberts recalled in “The Mountain of My Fear,” his first book.

“All the world we could see lay motionless in the muted splendor of sunrise,” he wrote of the vista that greeted them upon completing 32 days of climbing, capped by 16 straight hours of near vertical assault. “Nothing stirred, only we lived; even the wind had forgotten us.”

Such passages helped inspire the modern-day era of adventure writing, of which Mr. Roberts was considered the dean….

The author or cowriter of 32 books…Mr. Roberts ranged as widely with his subjects as he did in his expeditions.

He had lived by his pen for some four decades since he stopped teaching at Hampshire College, where he founded the outdoors program. Along with chronicling his own daring adventures and the legendary expeditions of others, Mr. Roberts wrote books about the Ancient Puebloans in the desert Southwest and a biography of writer Jean Stafford.

And he mentored a generation of adventure authors such as Jon Krakauer, his former Hampshire student, who was pounding nails for a living when Mr. Roberts told him to set down the hammer and pick up the pen.

Mr. Roberts’s trademark was “unflinching honesty. He tells it like it is,” Krakauer, a mountaineer and best-selling author of “Into Thin Air,” wrote in a foreword for two of Mr. Roberts’s books. “He also tells it beautifully, in a distinctive, flawless voice that leaves the rest of us who write about the sport feeling an uncomfortable mix of admiration and bald envy.”…

A few weeks before arriving in Cambridge as a Harvard College freshman, Mr. Roberts was climbing near his childhood home in Boulder, Colo., with a high school friend, Gabe Lee, when he heard the wrenching sound of clothes and skin against rock. He turned to see Lee slide, tumble, and bounce 350 feet to his death.

In March 1965, Mr. Roberts was teaching ice climbing to a Harvard Mountaineering Club group in Huntington Ravine, on Mount Washington, when he was called off the lesson to assist two fallen climbers. He spent a futile hour giving mouth-to-mouth to the one who still had a faint pulse. Mr. Roberts knew both — Dan Doody and Craig Merrihue, accomplished climbers. The night before, at Harvard’s high cabin on the mountain, the three had swapped tales.

And on Alaska’s Mount Huntington, 20 hours after that muted celebration at the summit, Mr. Roberts and Ed Bernd descended a steep pitch together.

“Ed and I stood on a ledge in the penumbral midnight and he got on rappel,” Mr. Roberts told Alpinist magazine in 2007. “Suddenly the anchor failed — to this day I do not know why. Without a word, Ed flew backward into space. He fell 4,500 feet.”

Mr. Roberts later told Wisconsin Public Radio that those experiences probably left him with post-traumatic stress disorder….

Matt Hale, who was among the four on the Mount Huntington expedition, called Mr. Roberts “a real mentor. He was always full of enthusiasm.”

Climbing Huntington’s face, a few hours before the summit, Hale slipped and tumbled onto Mr. Roberts, breaking the snow ledge he was on.

“Under the strain, our one bad anchor piton popped out. We fell, roped together and helpless, some 70 feet down a steep slope of ice above a 4,500-foot drop,” Mr. Roberts wrote in “Moments of Doubt,” a 1980 Outside magazine essay. “Then a miracle intervened; the rope snagged on a nubbin of rock, the size of one’s knuckle, and held us both.”

Born in Denver, David Stuart Roberts spent his early years in Climax, Colo., then the nation’s highest settlement, at 11,360 feet, and today a ghost town.

His family moved to Boulder for his father’s work. Massachusetts-born Walter Orr Roberts, an astronomer and atmospheric physicist, was in charge of the Harvard College Observatory in Boulder….

Mr. Roberts graduated from Boulder High School. At Harvard, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1965, he studied mathematics and considered becoming a composer of music.

He graduated from the University of Denver in 1970 with a doctorate in English, focusing on creative writing.

While there he met Sharon Morris, who was in a master’s writing program. They married in 1967, and she later retired after working as a clinical social worker at McLean Hospital and as a psychoanalyst.

“For me, meeting David was the most fortunate event of my life,” she wrote, adding that “he presented a whole new world of adventure, literature, and classical music.”…

Mr. Roberts was a 20-year-old Harvard sophomore when he and a small group of classmates dodged cascading boulders and avalanches to scale 14,000-foot Wickersham Wall, one of the largest sheer mountain faces in the world, on their way to the summit of Denali, North America’s tallest peak. No one had tried the perilous route before, no one has duplicated it since.

A few days before they reemerged in a nearby Alaskan town, in their makeshift VW van, they had been declared “missing and feared dead” by Chet Huntley on national news.

In books and essays, Mr. Roberts often explored how the single-minded nature of climbers could descend into abject selfishness.

“In mountaineering, the narcissism all too often goes hand in hand with a disturbing coldness, an absence of compassion,” he wrote in 2006′s “On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined.”

Along with his work for Outside magazine, Mr. Roberts wrote essays for National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly.

“He wrote beautiful, flawless prose,” said his editor, Starling Lawrence, who is editor at large at W.W. Norton & Co. “I didn’t have anything to do with these books. He didn’t need my help.”…

Krakauer once told Outside magazine that his friend and mentor “likes to call the shots and run the show. To spend a day in his company is both intellectually stimulating and utterly exhausting. To share a tent with him for three weeks on an expedition can permanently fry your brain and leave you gibbering for mercy.”….

During his illness, “his expansive brilliance and curiosity persevered. Our life together in those years was sublime in a way that is hard to describe,” Sharon wrote, adding that “we allowed our relationship to deepen while accepting our mortality and the ultimate end of our being together.”

As Mr. Roberts contemplated death, his thoughts didn’t stray to past expeditions.

“I have only hope and wish,” he wrote in the final words of “Limits of the Known,” his 2018 book.

“What I wish for then, in that last conscious moment before the darkness closes in forever, is not the shining memory of some summit underfoot that I was the first to reach, not the gleam of yet another undiscovered land on the horizon, but the touch of Sharon’s fingers as she clasps my hand in hers, unwilling to let go.”

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