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Remembering Evelio A. Echevarria (1926-2020)

Evelio Echevarria in 2018. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

Evelio Echevarria in 2018. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

One of the greatest South American mountain scholars has passed. Evelio Echevarria died in October 2020 of colon cancer. He is survived by four adult children and his ex-wife Edwina.

Echevarria stands out in the mountaineering world for the massive amount of exploration and research of the Andes he did over the course of his life. He wrote more than 90 reports for the American Alpine Journal and sent a similar amount of information to the British Alpine Journal. Echevarria was a member of the American and British Alpine Clubs for 60 years.

“He was one of a small, select handful of mountain writers who were worth their weight in gold, in terms of their depth of interest and rigorous approach,” said Alpine Journal editor Ed Douglas. “His loss might go unremarked by many climbers but those operating in South America will have benefited from his effort and attention to detail. He was a valued and longstanding contributor to the Alpine Journal and a gentleman. I for one shall miss him.”

In his dozens and dozens of trips to the Andes, Echevarria would often ride mountain bus routes to the highest end of each bus line (usually some little mining village or outpost), then just take off by himself into the hills with only a sleeping bag, a tent, a stove, and a backpack. He ascended dozens of unclimbed peaks–walk-ups, hike-ups, scrambles–just by being tenacious. He claimed not to be a real climber, but he has likely completed more ascents of South American peaks than anyone except Johan Reinhard, an American climber and anthropologist based in West Virginia who has bagged more than 200 summits.

Echevarria had a big impact on my early adventures in the Andes. I corresponded with him before all of my half dozen-odd trips to South America, starting in the mid-1990s. Echevarria would often write to me about unclimbed peaks in remote areas.

In 2018, I decided it was time to meet this reticent legend, so I traveled to his home in Loveland, Colorado, and sat down and interviewed him about his life, his climbs and his research.

Echevarria (right) in his home office in Loveland, Colorado, October 2018, with his son Felipe. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

Echevarria (right) in his home office in Loveland, Colorado, October 2018, with his son Felipe. [Photo] Cameron M. Burns

Echevarria grew up in Santiago, Chile. Early on he met Walter Bachman, a German-Chilean painter who was also a mountain climber (he met Bachman because Bachman married one of Echevarria’s sisters). Bachman took the teenage Echevarria on hikes and scrambles around the Chilean capital. Echevarria also climbed extensively with his brother.

As a young man, Echevarria joined the Chilean Army and opted to be a part of a division of ski troops. The experience had a big impact on Echevarria, and he became obsessed with becoming a ski patroller–specifically at Sun Valley in Idaho because he knew of several Chileans who lived there and who had etched out successful lives in America.

In 1953 he left Chile and headed to the northern Rockies. Echevarria wasn’t as good at skiing “as I needed to be,” so he became a janitor, then a bus boy, then a waiter. He met his wife Edwina, a waitress, in Sun Valley.

Echevarria decided he needed to “face life,” as he put it, so he enrolled in tertiary education in San Diego. He studied the culture of his people with a goal of becoming a professor of Spanish-American literature. He and Edwina subsequently moved to Berkeley where he earned two degrees, then to Boulder in 1964, where he obtained a PhD. With his newly minted degree in hand, Echevarria was offered a teaching job at Colorado State University, so he and his wife and children moved to Fort Collins in 1969 where he taught for many years. He retired in 1997 and moved to Loveland where he enjoyed life to the end.

Echevarria began doing his research trips to various regions of the Andes in the mid-1950s. By the late 1950s, he was writing reports for both the American and British Alpine Journals, sometimes six or seven reports per year. His son Felipe estimates he made at least 60 trips to the Andes while he was a resident of Colorado.

All told, Echevarria figured he’d reached about 100 unclimbed summits in the Andes. In our 2018 interview, he scoffed when I gave him a look of surprise, and he quickly reminded me that Reinhard had done twice as many.

More fascinating and sadly a now-lost opportunity, Echevarria told me he could put together a list for me of unclimbed peaks in any range in the Andes, an offer I foolishly never took him up on.

After his divorce in 1985, Echevarria turned more of his attention to traveling and visiting the various sub-ranges of South America. His last report in the AAJ was published in 2008.

Echevarria ultimately pulled his vast experience–both on the ground and in the library–into one tremendous magnum opus: The Andes: The Complete History of Mountaineering in High South America. It’s an 840-page compendium of data on the mountains of South America, with information on who climbed what and when and how. The big sub-sectors of history are all in there: ascents by indigenous peoples, ascents by explorers, ascents by colonials, ascents by later generations, ascents by women, etc. And the geographic areas are also dealt with in a similar way (the Cordillera Blanca, Patagonia, Aconcagua, etc.).

Perhaps what pleased me most about this book were the vast swaths of stories about climbers whom American readers might not be much exposed to–far beyond Whymper and Humboldt and the handful of others many of us are familiar with. Echevarria puts all the explorations and ascents in South America of lesser-known European climbers into context of what was happening in Europe at the time–linking certain European events (notably the World Wars) to climbs of mountains, walls and towers in the Andes. He also describes dozens of ascents by South American mountaineers.

Echevarria was so humble and quiet that even his children weren’t aware of the depth and reach of his mountaineering activities and research. His son Felipe, who worked on The Andes with his father, told me he awestruck by the level of detail of his father’s knowledge. Echevarria was so humble he said that he didn’t want remembrances or obituaries written about him, something that his son Felipe, and this writer, have overridden–Echevarria was an impeccable human whose life needs to be noted.

In a way, The Andes stands as both the culmination of his life’s work and the pinnacle of Echevarria’s passions for the mountains, the routes, and ultimately the people who have gone to South America looking for adventure. His voice in the world’s mountaineering journals will be sorely missed.