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Harry Pierce Nichols, 1850-1940



In the death on November 15th, 1940, of our beloved past president, Harry P. Nichols, at the age of ninety years, the club mourns an outstanding personality. A member of the small but courageous group which formed the society in 1902, he continued for nearly forty years in close contact with it, a fountain-head of inspiration, enthusiasm and wisdom, so it is with a heavy heart that one attempts to sketch the high lights of this long association.

Those early years were fraught with uncertainty; there was no precedent for guidance, no knowing whether America possessed enough mountaineers to support such a club. So we find the original sponsors remaining in office, laying a foundation stone now here, now there. For the first nine years the personnel of the board scarcely changed at all and on it always stood the name of Harry P. Nichols.

A story of that period is perhaps worth recalling. It was related by our subject himself at one of the first dinners and casts an amusing sidelight on the membership problem of the time. The council was canvassing the field of possible honorary members and had passed over a certain distinguished name through ignorance of his past climbing.

Dr. Nichols spoke up somewhat to this effect: “I was once at Zermatt and noticed a stocky individual storming about and coupling the word ‘Britisher’ with an epithet never used by way of praise. On being introduced to him I remarked that I thought he was a Britisher himself. ‘Britisher’! said said, ‘Why I am a Knickerbocker of the Knickerbockers. Those blasted Britishers say that we Americans lack sand and don’t dare to climb mountains. I am going out tomorrow and climb the Matterhorn,’ which he did.” A few days later he met Dr. Nichols again and said: “I have done the Matterhorn and now they say that it doesn’t count! So I am going to do the Schreckhorn.” Dr. Nichols replied: “Well, my friend, I shall not be here when you come back, but I shall be delighted to know how it turns out. Will you let me know at Geneva?” “A few days later,” remarked Dr. Nichols, “I received the following characteristic telegram: ‘I MADE IT,’ signed T. Roosevelt.”

And thus the roster of the club was graced by another famous name.

In a personal tribute at the time of his eightieth birthday, a religious periodical printed this: “All that Harry Nichols really cares about are Mountains and Men. And I am not at all sure that one may not erect an adequate philosophy for time and eternity upon those two words.” The article goes on to say: “There are few older men who have so an wholesome influence on the young as Dr. Nichols. There are some old men who dote on youth because they themselves are in their second childhood; there are others who assume, all too consciously, the rôle of fatherly guidance. But Nichols’ young friends seem to meet him man to man. They can hardly do otherwise with one whose body and mind are as active as their own and who is vitally interested in all they say and do.”

Hence, saturated with the lore of the mountains and blessed with a legion of friends (five hundred of them contributed, each a page, to a small book presented to him on the occasion of his eightieth birthday), it is not surprising that the leadership of the club was offered to him for the period 1923-1926.

The club had come to a turning point. Climbing had declined owing to the war and it seemed that the older members did not have much contact with the coming generation. Clearly someone was needed to bridge the gap and make younger aspirants feel at home. Unanimously, opinion agreed that Dr. Nichols was the man to do it. He demurred at first on the ground that his active years of alpinism were too far behind, but in the end was persuaded.

He wrote: “My only possible qualification is that I have an enthusiastic belief in the value of the Club, and entertain the highest hopes for its future. That future depends on securing for its membership a goodly number of younger climbers, qualified alike by enthusiasm for mountaineering and a brave beginning of climbing achievement.”

This became the keynote of his term, and at its close the club had attained a growth of 25 per cent. During this time plans for the Mt. Logan expedition were under discussion and Dr. Nichols was indefatigable in organizing local support for the enterprise. He served on the council two other terms, making fifteen years in all and not retiring permanently until 1929.

Up to the end his zeal never flagged. He regularly brought eight or ten promising recruits to the annual dinner as his guests. Of these I do not believe he missed more than half a dozen in the whole series. He was always called upon for remarks and, with genial Professor Fay as a felicitous foil, never failed to evoke an appreciative response from the company. On one occasion, I remember, occurred a scintillating exchange of wit on the question as to which, if either, was the Nestor of American mountaineering.

His Alpine climbing began in 1878 with the Strahlegg Pass, followed in 1887 by several other Swiss peaks, including the Breit- horn. In 1893 he turned his steps toward the Selkirks and with S. E. S. Allen and Charles Thompson, made the second ascent of Mt. Fox. This appears to be the first major climb by Americans in the Canadian Alps. Nichols’ paper describing it, published in Appalachia the following winter, is the first report of an ascent in these mountains to appear in an American periodical, the precursor of the voluminous literature of today. It is credited with considerable influence in directing the attention of American climbers to the opportunities which these magnificent peaks afford.

Allen, who at that time was intently engrossed with climbing and surveying the Lake Louise mountains, honored him by designating a peak on the map with his name. In 1896 Nichols returned to the Alps, ascending among others Mönch, Jungfrau and Mont Blanc.

A busy ministerial life precluded more frequent indulgence in alpinism proper, but in the intervals, mountains of more modest stature were cultivated assiduously. In fact he spent most of his leisure, and in later years, most of his life, among the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In the ’80s, when they were largely a pristine wilderness, he travelled and climbed extensively, joining the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1881. His home, “Concordia Hut” at Intervale, in the shadow of Mt. Washington, was a mecca for mountaineers. He is said to have climbed Mt. Washington 250 times.

After his active climbing was over, he made many visits to mountain regions, tramping the woodland trails and botanizing amongst the forests and flora. In 1919 he sojourned at Glacier House in the Selkirks and in 1926 visited Jasper Park. In 1922 he was in the Colorado Rockies. Often he attended the summer camps conducted by the Alpine Club of Canada, of which he was an active member. On several occasions he represented the American Alpine Club there. Later he wrote: “I certainly advocate friendliness and affiliation between different climbing clubs, not only in this country but in other countries. I hope all our members will climb every summer. Remember that the legs are the last to give out. I trust I shall be climbing at one hundred. Age has its privileges. One is to see our children and grandchildren come into membership. I climbed a mountain with my grandchildren this morning.”

Dr. Nichols was born at Salem, Mass., September 30th, 1850, the son of Charles Saunders and Amelia A. (Ainsworth) Nichols. After attending Salem High School, he was graduated with the class of 1871 at Harvard and studied for the ministry at Andover Seminary and Philadelphia Divinity School.

Ordained a deacon in Philadelphia in June, 1876, he later served as Rector of St. John’s Free Church, Philadelphia, and of St. Paul’s Church, Brunswick, Me. He held successive ministries at Trinity Church, New Haven, St. Mark’s Church, Minneapolis, and from August, 1899, until he retired in 1922, he served as Rector of Holy Trinity Church, New York.

Considered a progressive figure in the Church, he was a delegate to many of its general conventions.

In 1905 he delivered and published the Bohlen lectures on “The Temporary and Permanent in New Testament Revelation.” He was a member of the Century Association and various church organizations. On his seventieth birthday he received a loving cup and testimonials from nine bishops and fifty-six clergymen, among them his Harvard classmate and close friend, the Rt. Rev. William Lawrence, bishop-emeritus of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

In closing, this tribute from a friend of the cloth seems appropriate : “He was the most completely energetic man I ever met, a climber with his body, a seeker with his mind, one high affec- tioned in spirit. I have never known him to speak ill of any human being. People’s interests claim him, and to him human personality is sacred.”