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Remembering Eric Bjornstad, Desert Rat of the Old School

Eric Bjornstad (1934-2014). [Photo] Steve “Crusher” Bartlett

Reginald Munger Sullivan “Eric” Bjornstad–first ascentionist of desert towers to alpine faces to big walls from Mexico to Alaska, book author and one of the iconic dirtbag climbers of the 1960s–died on Wednesday. He was 80. Bjornstad published his first book, the
Guide to Leavenworth Rock-climbing Areas, with Fred Beckey in 1965. After three years and 8,000 hours of work (by his own estimation), he finished the first of his five well-loved installments in the Desert Rock series, “the product of a long love affair with the desert,” he wrote in the introduction of Desert Rock III. Climbers still reference the books; their early editions are coveted by many and held by only a few.

Climbing gave Bjornstad, as he wrote in Alpinist X, “the ability to step into another world with complex problems and close friends.” To the desert Southwest climbing community, he gave much. Climbing historian Ashby Roberston, who has a signed copy of the original Desert Rock, says, “Bjornstad inspired me to go further into the desert and really see what was there. He was intriguing and brilliant.”

We asked author and desert climber Steve “Crusher” Bartlett, who knew him well, to write out his memories of Bjornstad.–Chris Van Leuven

Eric Bjornstad was a proud desert rat of the old school. We first met in the mid-’80s, when he was finishing up the monumental tome that was to become Desert Rock. Even then he appeared as a semi-tame bear, larger than life, clad, as always, in jeans and baggy sweaters. During his 45 years in Moab, he welcomed visitors and was always ready to share stories of the desert. In return he’d ask for beta on where you’d been, what you’d climbed and what your views on philosophy or classical music were.

His eyes would twinkle and stories would flow like the Franzia Burgundy he kept at hand. He collected notebooks and folders full of material that was intended for his ongoing series of climbing guidebooks. Of them all, the original, Desert Rock was his masterpiece, now a sought-after classic. Masquerading as a guidebook (yet famously full of misleading directions and ratings, even in describing his own climbs!), it was at heart a wonderfully detailed history of climbing on the pinnacles and spires of the Colorado Plateau.

An original copy of Desert Rock (1988). [Photo] courtesy American Alpine Club Library

A California native, Bjornstad gravitated to the Bay Area as soon as he grew old enough to leave home without being returned by the police. He immersed himself in the creative heart of the Beat Generation, spending time with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Alan Watts. He frequented elegant parties in Berkeley, where participants would sip French wines and take turns reading aloud their poems. At the same time, he had a restless urge to explore the outdoors.

Possessed of a fear of heights, he took up spelunking. But he also decided not to let his fears constrain his activities; over repeated visits to the Campanile Tower on the Berkeley campus, he would sit down and ease himself gradually closer to the (then-unguarded) edge, 90 feet up. He took up a lucrative tree-trimming job soon after.

In 1959 he moved to Seattle to be near mountains and mountaineers. There he began a long and productive climbing partnership with Fred Beckey. Both climbers were tough and individualistic; both were driven by a strong urge to establish new routes, particularly ones that attained fine summits. In the Northwest Bjornstad ran a series of tea and coffee shops, enjoying the social scene they provided and the opportunity for extended climbing vacations. [“(In Seattle) my passion drove me to extremes, I spent all my free money on climbing books and averaged four days a week in the mountains,” Bjornstad wrote in Alpinist X.–Ed.]

In 1969 Bjornstad relocated to Moab, where he remained for the rest of his life. After a brief foray into running a teashop called the Tamarisk, he began guiding, working on his desert guidebooks, and later driving jeep tours around Canyonlands. A nagging hip problem–possibly an injury from a climbing accident in the mid-’80s or from some more prosaic wear-and-tear problem (No telling, really. He had a deep distrust of doctors and refused to see them)–curtailed his climbing career and gradually slowed him down. He was bedridden for his last two years.

He has been on the first ascents of nearly two-dozen desert towers, from the first ascent of Echo Tower in 1966, to the infamous “last ascent” of the Powell-Wilson-Gallwas-Feuerer route on the Totem Pole in 1975, to the ascent of the Scorpion in Richardson Amphitheater with Harvey Carter in 1987.

The ascent of Moses, in 1972, was Eric’s finest desert moment. “That was the big one,” he happily and proudly acknowledged to me. He and Fred Beckey, the first known climbers to visit Taylor Canyon, discovered a majestic procession of rock formations, biblical in size. They climbed the two largest: first Sisyphus, possessed of a peculiar arch, next the mighty 650-foot Moses, one of the greatest of all desert towers.

I once asked Eric why he was attracted to climbing and to the desert in particular. He replied, “I was climbing to get away from people and the normal everyday routine. It was an escape thing, to go into this Never Never World where you would never see anybody else, and nobody else knew what you were doing or would be interested or care.” Words to live by and to climb by.

Bjornstad is survived by his five children: David, Neith, Eiger, Heather and Mara; seven grandchildren: Ryan, Auna Laisa, Aaron, Claira, Frances, Melina and Tikaeni; one great grandchild: Liam.

Bjornstad’s desert home, with the Totem Pole at left. [Photo] Luca Galuzzi