David Roberts, often referred to as the “dean of adventure writing,” is one the most prolific American climbing authors to date. His books, the most famous of which are Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative and The Mountain of My Fear, appear on short lists of must-read climbing literature almost by default. In the summer of 2015, Roberts was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer. For the past two years, struggling with exhaustion, chemotherapy and illness, Roberts has continued to write, including a flurry of articles and online posts that remind many of his early musings on death, partnership and climbing.
Given the breadth of his writing, it is sometimes overlooked that Roberts was among the best Alaskan alpinists of his generation. One of his last climbs there–the three-day alpine-style ascent of the Southeast Face of Dickey–was the first significant Alaskan ascent undertaken in a lightweight alpine style. It’s fair to say, had Roberts never written a word in his life, some of his climbs would still be classics, others testpieces. After repeating the Southeast Face of Dickey (Alaska Grade VI, 5.9 A3) nearly 30 years after Roberts, Galen Rowell and Ed Ward made the first ascent, Steve House declared, “We did little to improve upon their style.” Modern Alaskan alpinist Clint Helander reflects: “Roberts was a true connoisseur of the Alaska Range. Many of the lines he climbed 50 years ago remain unquestionable classics today.”
I recently interviewed Roberts in his home in Watertown, Massachusetts. When I’d last visited, Matt Hale, his partner on Huntington in 1965, was staying for a few days. The pair went climbing together, as Roberts often does with Matt and Ed Ward, another of his regular Alaska partners from the early 1970s. It struck me that these partnerships still mattered so deeply to each man. I also wondered whether anyone at the Central Rock Gym would know who these guys were, or what they had done, and, in spite of age and cancer–what they were still doing. I wanted to interview Roberts about his early Alaskan climbs and about his partners because his writing on these subjects is notoriously brooding and mercurial. It’s hard to decant, sometimes, his zeal for the actual pursuit of climbing; the word curmudgeon is often batted around when describing Roberts. But 50-some-odd-years in, he possesses an undeniable excitement for his adventures, those of modern climbers, and the simple, breathtaking act of ascent.
The Wickersham Wall on Denali was your first route in the Alaska Range. It was a new route, up the highest mountain in North America. You were 20 when you and six others, Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan, Peter Carman, John Graham, Don Jensen, and Chris Goetze, completed the ascent. What resonates with you about that route now?
We would have never tried it if Brad Washburn [the legendary Harvard alum, wilderness photographer, and pioneer of the Alaska Range] hadn’t ordered us to do it. It was inevitable. We were all between 20 and 23 years old. Brad said in his home in Cambridge: “You know, look at this rib, it divides the avalanches to the left and to the right. I guarantee you it’s safe.” Well, fuck, it’s not safe! Especially that bottom part. When we got on it we were too green to realize just how dangerous it was. There’s a little rock pyramid about 400 feet high. To get to the rock pyramid you have to go up this icefall on the right, and it’s right in the line of gigantic avalanches. There were falling rocks that drilled holes in our tent. There was one gigantic boulder that landed and bounced over John Graham’s head. We just thought, “This is cool! This is what big mountains are all about!” Inevitably though, Brad was right. Once you got above that it was relatively safe–just incredibly long. When I look back on it, I think, knowing what I know now, we might well have backed off it if we had better judgment. It was kind of foolish to go up on it. People say it’s never been repeated because it’s now recognized as being dangerous.
Weren’t you guys declared dead by Chet Huntley, the famous 1960s anchorman?
Yeah! The Huntley/Brinkley report: “Missing and feared dead.” I have a scrapbook somewhere of clippings that my mother cut out.
We were way up high on the route and we had a five-day storm. In those days we didn’t have a radio or anything; there was no communication, so [Don] Sheldon kept flying by and checking on us. He claimed he had flown around, ducking in and out of the clouds at 11,000 feet. We were at 17,000, happily waiting out the storm in a safe camp. He went poking through the clouds and said he saw our tracks disappear in avalanche debris–which I’m sure was true. The snow must have collapsed after we had gone by. And for a long weekend we were “missing and feared dead,” and we didn’t even know it until we hiked out to the highway.
As a New England climber, I always find it interesting to make that leap between climbing in the Presidential Range and climbing in Alaska because there are certain things, such as the weather, that are obviously very similar. But how did you cope with the objective hazards and crevasse falls, which you’re not necessarily prepared for when you climb in the mountains around here?
We said, “This is a great, fun vacation,” and even the setbacks were part of the good times. There was a lot of raucous cajolery back and forth. We actually had a fair number of what I would now regard as close calls that were potentially pretty dangerous: falling rocks and avalanches. On the summit day on the north peak, Pete Carman fell off the summit ridge. Again, we just treated it like a joke. Going through the Tluna Icefall on the way back to base camp was also really dangerous. Three or four times we went in up to our chests in crevasses, though during the whole trip we didn’t have a serious crevasse fall.
Crossing the McKinley River was probably the most dangerous thing. John Graham thought he was going to die when he got pulled under. We were so desperate to get out that instead of waiting until the water went down we just went for it.
The Wickersham wasn’t very technical. But it’s long and big and committing with the weather, and the avalanches down low, and the falling rock. But you know, despite those glitches and problems, the whole thing seemed like a lark. And that’s what made Don Jensen and me think, “Let’s go do something really hard now. Mount Deborah. We did McKinley, we could do Deborah. No problem.”
What did Don Jensen think of Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative?
Amazingly, he said he liked it. He said it was fair, he lent me his diary to use to write it. After Deborah we felt we’d never speak to each other again. I thought I’d never see Don again. By the time I started writing, which was 1968, it was four years since Deborah, and we both had enough time to feel that what seemed like a nightmare had turned into a great adventure. I don’t know what Don really thought about Deborah. He was a conflict-adverse kind of guy. I was always trying to pick a fight between us, and he was always trying to avoid the fight.
You experienced death in climbing really early on. But your partners who are still alive–Matt Hale, Ed Ward, Jon Krakauer, to name a few–are people you’ve not only climbed with for 40 or 50 years, but have retained really close friendships with. Do you think that’s a reaction to those early tragedies?
I’d never thought about that. Yes, maybe. When Gabe Lee died on the First Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado, while attempting a new route, he was my first steady partner. We’d only been climbing four months. He was pretty much the acolyte, and I was the one who made the decisions and chose the objectives. He was so excited by everything we did. It took me decades to sort out all the tragedies he was going through in his life, with the death of his father and breakup of his family. We had thought we were a great partnership, and then we had this complete fuckup and he was killed. It felt like a huge failure. Not just the loss of human life, but of the partnership. I harbored a lot of guilt because in the month or so after his father died, I thought he got really good on rock. I think when I look back on it, he got willing to try anything. I wouldn’t say reckless. You can’t get in [protection] on the Flatirons. All we had was soft-iron pitons, anyway, which were worthless. So Gabe would do 80-foot leads with no pro that scared the shit out of me, but I would let him do it. Whereas before the accident I had been the pusher and the driver. Even in the fatal accident, when we had this mess of a situation when we were both sitting on these handy ledges but the rope was jammed under a flake below us, we couldn’t figure out what to do and Gabe said: “I think I can climb down to it.” I should have said no, don’t, but subconsciously I said, “Thank God he’s willing to do that because I wouldn’t be.” I felt a lot of guilt about that. That I probably never voiced to anybody.
Similarly, when Ed Bernd was killed on Huntington, I had–even at the time–serious guilt about how we talked him into the expedition. He had almost no mountain experience, and he was just too flattered to say no. But it’s very clear now that he would not have gone on to be a lifelong climber the way the rest of us did. It wasn’t the most important thing in his life. And the thing he said just 8 or 10 hours before he was killed, when we were resting in the tent, and I said this is the best day of climbing in my life and he said, “Me too, but I’m not sure I’d do it again.” That really hit me later.
Don was the first person I formed a partnership with that seemed transcendental. How we had this feeling we were invincible. And yet there were so many tensions between us. It’s one of the most intense things I’ve been through, that relationship. Then the fact that after Huntington, after our great triumph, marred by Ed’s death, we never really climbed together again. It’s not that we decided not to, it’s not that we had a falling out or anything. We were too different. Once he got married, he and Joan went their way, and Sharon and I went our way. I’ve never really sorted that all out. There was something like love between us.
Every serious climber forms a bond like that early on–you think that you and your buddy are “invincible.” And then you quickly realize you’re not invincible and all kinds of mountains are going to smack you flat, and you lose that idealism. But I think that set a mold for me that said, “If I’m going to climb really serious stuff, I’m going to do it with a really serious friend.” So, Matt, Ed and Jon, especially. And in turn that meant saying no to expeditions. Big Himalayan expeditions where there were 15 climbers and you’d never met each other before.
In all my Alaskan expeditions, I did sometimes climb with people I barely knew. But I wanted to round up people I cared about, and whom I trusted, like Matt and Ed. The great thing is that it wasn’t just climbing. It’s become lifelong friendship. The most important friendships of my adult life.
During your fevered stint of Alaskan climbing, did you ever receive offers to climb elsewhere? With some of your contemporaries focusing their efforts in the Himalayas, what kept you going up north?
A big turning point was when Boyd Everett organized what was first going to be the K2 expedition and later became the Dhaulagiri expedition. He was a Wall Street stockbroker. He would show up at the Gunks wearing a suit and tie and he would change in the car. But he was an organizer and he had all these connections in the State Department. That’s how we got permission to go to K2 and Dhaulagiri. We wouldn’t have had a clue how to do that. But he was also really retrograde in terms of expedition style. He believed that you had to have 10,000 feet of fixed rope and he believed in the old fashioned plodding expedition style. Establish camps, fix ropes, relay loads. And he was big on the highest peaks. St Elias. Logan. McKinley. And he never tried anything very technical. But you know, we thought, for K2 or Dhaulagiri we’d put up with Boyd’s leadership, and we’d get the chance to do some real climbing. Ultimately I resigned from the expedition because I just couldn’t stand the whole process and I couldn’t imagine going with people I hardly knew. I’ve only once or twice in my life roped up with somebody I didn’t know for a very serious climb. And I never would want to do it again.
I was never the slightest bit disappointed that I never went on something like the American Everest Expedition in 1963–I wasn’t invited, I was too young. But even if I had been, I wouldn’t have accepted it. The other thing that happened is that when I was teaching at Hampshire College I ended up taking students on a lot of trips. And when Ed Ward and Sharon and I took seven students to the Arrigetch Peaks during my first year at Hampshire in 1971, it was a great trip. Everybody had a great time, and nobody got hurt. But two of the students were such dilettantes, I thought: I just prostituted myself by taking students to the Arrigetch, a place that I really, really care about, and they’re just treating it like an alternative to Club Med. It’s one thing if you’re going to Rose Ledge or Rattlesnake Gutter [local Massachusetts crags] or even the Gunks. But to take somebody to the Arrigetch, which was really special to me, stuck in my craw. There was, back in the ’70s, a very purist thread in American climbing about whether you should guide at all.
Of your climbs and attempts, Deborah and Huntington are the most famous–mostly because of the books you’ve written about them. But Dickey is the most impressive, and the most revered by Alaskan alpinists. It’s a very different route from the Wickersham Wall. You had gone alpine style on a few other climbs, but going to the biggest granite wall in North America, and to climb it alpine style in 1974 was a huge leap. How did you guys come to that conclusion?
It was in the wind. We had tried to climb the Angel, in the Revelations, alpine style. Bivouac tents instead of camps. By ’74 it just felt like if you’re going to do it right there was no excuse any more to bring 5,000 feet of fixed ropes. Plus, it looked like it was too steep for tent camps. Not much had been done in Alaska in alpine style. Ed Ward and I thought about doing Dickey in ’73. We had Washburn’s photo. We just stared at it and tried to calculate logistics. We came to the conclusion it would be really hard to do with a party of two, and we didn’t have an obvious third partner. So when we didn’t do it that year we sort of resolved to do it the next year. We said we needed a third climber. I was at an American Alpine Club meeting in LA, and got talking with Galen, who I knew only from such meetings. He had at least two previous Alaskan expeditions that were total failures, so he was glad to join up with us. And we figured with his Yosemite background he would give us a lot of strength in terms of pure rock climbing. He and Ed didn’t get along well, though Galen never realized it. But it never came out in overt conflict. On the climb we collaborated really well. Because of his Yosemite climbing, he was bad at managing rope drag. And when he’d get to the top of a pitch he’d be screaming as if we were holding the rope. He was a real screamer. He was used to clean walls where you could do that type of zigzagging without managing it well.
You wrote The Mountain of My Fear as a cathartic exercise after Ed Bernd’s death on Huntington. Would you have become a writer if you’d never touched a rock or a mountain?
No. I had the sublime good luck that the first book I wrote got published. And the only reason it got published was that it was about mountain climbing and it was about a dramatic expedition. If I’d written a novel, it would not have gotten published, and I probably would have given up. When I was at Harvard I was a math major. My first ambition was to be a great mathematician, though I quickly realized I wasn’t good enough.
My other ambition was to be a composer…. I loved classical music, and I was awed by Beethoven and Schubert and Mozart. And I took a course in music theory. I took a family friend who was a composer aside one day and had a heart-to-heart with him. I said, “I’m thinking of changing my major from math to music, because I really want to be a composer and I’m burned out in math. What do you think?” He said, “If you really, really love music, and you think you have something to say that can only be expressed in musical form, if there’s nothing else in life that moves you like that, then OK, go for it. But if what you have is a vague, creative urge, become a writer.” And I was so insulted. I thought, what do you mean, a vague creative urge? But he was absolutely right. It’s incredibly difficult to make a living doing anything creative. But by far the best bet was to become a writer. And that’s the best piece of advice I ever got.
Before I met you, I was somewhat wary of your attitude towards modern climbing. But quickly I realized you were an ardent climber; you still love to climb. After your cancer diagnosis you were still climbing at the local gym. How do you maintain an appreciation for the act itself while your writing is often very critical of it?
That’s interesting. Nobody’s ever asked me that. Well, it’s fun, it’s still exhilarating. I may be snide and a curmudgeon but I have tremendous admiration for the Alex Honnolds. For people who can do stuff I’ve never even dreamed of. One thing that keeps me excited about it is that you never get past fear. It never becomes truly routine. I mean, gym climbing is routine. But every time you go out you go back to some basic confrontation with your own fear and your nerve. And when you overcome it and get up something, there’s a kind of exhilaration you don’t get from many other pursuits in life. It’s not at all like golf. It’s not like touch football. It’s pretty primal. Especially that was true putting in a new route. We used to go off to the Wind Rivers [in Wyoming] and climb a mess of new routes. Not anything really hard. And we never even thought of writing them up. So many climbers would never dream of putting a new line in somewhere. Just the idea–you see a line and you think, That might go, but it might be hard. Let’s go up there and find out. It still has to do with discovery and exploration, which I’m trying to write about now. It’s the core of adventure. About three years ago I decided to give a talk at the [Harvard Mountaineering Club] to try and get them interested in Alaska. I brought a little tray with about 25 slides of Alaska and I showed them the Revelations and I’d say, “None of these peaks has been climbed, or this has been climbed once, or look at that line.” Complete silence. I felt like I was making no impact whatsoever. I felt like I was lecturing in Greek. Afterwards, I’d stopped showing slides and I asked if there were any questions and one girl said: “How do you climb a route without a guidebook?” It never occurred to her that even in the guidebook somebody must have done it first.
I think when I was in the HMC, all of us would have said climbing was the most important thing in life. The sense we had at Harvard [was] that we were completely screwing up our professional careers. And you’ve got to remember, climbing wasn’t the least bit sexy or career producing. There were no jobs in climbing. So we felt, we’re complete fuck-offs. What are we gong to do for a living? It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to climb! That it would end up being the bread and butter of my career in several ways was completely unforeseeable.