American Alpine Journal: In Memoriam

In addition to the records of first ascents, new routes and other significant climbs, the American Alpine Journal also contains a section in the back that may be more valuable in certain ways. The In Memoriam section is extremely brief, compared to the rest of the entries, but it captures climbing in a more global way.

The In Memoriam section is a tribute to the notable climbers that we lost the previous year. They are also mini biographies of climbing’s leaders. Role models and bad examples. Heroes and villains. Flawed like us and yet still impressive.

The main output of the obituaries isn’t to call out the climber’s greatest route or contribution to the mountaineering community — often summed up as singular events — rather to share the life that lead them to their accomplishments and what kind of life they lead as a result. Whether it was a bona fide gateway to another level of life seems to be rare, but the climbing lifestyle always seems to be perpetuated in some fashion.

Last fall, the American Alpine Club solicited applicants to be the next editor of the In Memoriam section of the American Alpine Journal. There were many applicants for the volunteer position, and David Wilkes of New York got the job. I actually met David over two years ago at an unrelated business meeting in Washington, DC (our roles in two separate organizations crossed briefly.) We didn’t know the other was a climber and we hardly thought the encounter was memorable beyond the business of the meeting. Another friend recently reconnected us because of our mutual interest in climbing.

Later I had the opportunity to ask David about overseeing production of the section as editor and managing the process with the writers. In the end, the AAJ included 14 obituaries, though he said there could have been more.

Not surprisingly, David described several complexities and complications that arose while putting the section together: “Each person that was profiled was a bit of a different story in terms of how the obit came about,” he explained. “For some, long-time friends or a relative were thrilled to write, in many cases providing far more stories and recollections than I could include and I needed to do some very difficult but substantial cutting.”

Some of the entries were obligatory. Had even one profile of the significant climbers been absent, the omission would have detracted from the section’s and the AAJ’s overall quality.

The tribute to Maurice Herzog that appeared in this year’s edition, was one of the mandatory profiles. However, finding the right person to write a true tribute, fitting the man’s life proved to be the most significant hurdle. I took that to mean that the seedier side of Herzog often overshadowed or unnecessarily threatened to cloud the man’s legacy.

On the potential for omissions, David said, “For some climbers’ obituaries it was more difficult to find an author – or when I did, to get them to complete the task.” Then he added, for some “we ended up with nothing.” For Herzog, being left with nothing would not be satisfactory.

“Maurice Isserman was the only person I found who could do the job right,” said David. “In the end, it made sense to include a line or two that pointed to the darker aspects of Herzog’s climbing legacy.”

Like Herzog’s obituary, much of the section was about balancing the content, particularly what needed to be said and what should be said to honor those notable climbers that we lost the previous year. American Alpine Club members can read the digital edition of the In Memoriam section in the 2013 AAJ section by clicking here. Nonmembers may also purchase it through the same link.

2013 Obituaries

  • Bjorn-Eivind Artun, 1966-2012
  • Bean Bowers, 1973-2011
  • Harvey Carter, 1932-2012
  • Herbert William Conn, 1920-2012
  • Bill Forrest, 1939-2012
  • Maurice Herzog, 1919-2012
  • Ben Horne, 1980-2012
  • Dale Johnson, 1931-2012
  • Ann Dodge Middleton, 1928-2012
  • Roger Payne, 1956-2012
  • Jack Roberts, 1952-2012
  • Gil Weiss, 1983-2012
  • Yan Dongdong, 1984-2012
  • Michael Ybarra, 1966-2012

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