American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Lawrence Coolidge, 1905-1950

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1950

LAWRENCE COOLIDGE

1905–1950

A life full of accomplishment and promise came to an untimely end with the death of Lawrence Coolidge on 3 January 1950, just two weeks before his 45th birthday.

At college, where he rowed and played football, he was one of the founding members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club in November 1924. That same summer had seen him with Joe Johnson and George Higginson in the Canadian Rockies and Selkirks, where they made some 20 ascents, both guided and guideless. Their ascents included a new route on Mount Edith Cavell (mostly by the east ridge), first ascents of Erebus, Oldhorn and an unnamed peak (“Keystone”) in the Rampart Group, as well as Mount Robson (probably the third or fourth ascent) and, toward the end of the season, the following guideless climbs: Hermit, Tupper, Swiss Peaks, Rogers and Avalanche in the Selkirks. In 1927 Coolidge made several good climbs in the Alps, including the Zmutt Ridge of the Matterhorn.

In 1930, at his suggestion, I joined him in the Caucasus. It was here that I came to know him well. While I was resting, somewhat under the weather from previous weeks of continuous travel, he made the west summit of Elbruz alone on August 8th, after our companion Jean Lozeron succumbed to the effects of altitude 2000 feet lower down. Typical of his generosity was his willingness, after only 24 hours’ rest at the Krugasor hut (9000 ft.) to accompany me up the East Peak (18,350 ft.), only 100 feet lower than the West Peak. Except for his courage and tenacity, we might not have made it, as I was about all in from 16,000 feet on. The 9500 feet took us about 14 hours, of which the last 2000 feet required over five hours! A few days later he and Lozeron made an attempt on the formidable south face of the South Peak of Ushba. After Lozeron had given outat over 14,000 feet, Laurie went ahead several hundred feet alone. He was determined to make it if possible. The chimney ahead looked possible and a sound risk—given one or two other good climbers with him. But wisely he held back. In his diary he wrote: “After a moment’s hesitation I decided that to go on alone would be foolish and involve too much risk, and so with great reluctance I turned to descend.” He hated to give up, and did so, I know, not through any fear of continuing, but rather through exercise of judgment. To take a chance at such a time is always a temptation. This incident proved his moral courage. His physical courage was already well known.

Returning to this country, he went back to Harvard, where he had been an assistant dean of the College the previous year, and graduated from the law school in 1931. The following year he married. In 1934 he was admitted to partnership in the law firm of Coolidge, Loring, Noble and Boyd. He soon became a director in various corporations and charities, and an Overseer of Harvard College. In 1939 he was General Chairman of the Annual Roll Call of the Boston Chapter, American Red Cross. In 1946 he served as Advance Gifts Chairman of the Greater Boston Community Fund campaign.

During the recent War he entered the Navy. After surviving the sinking of the carrier Hornet, and being eight hours in the water, he served on other carriers as air combat intelligence officer. He won seven battle stars and the commendation ribbon. In 1945 he retired with the rank of commander.

On returning home he resumed his law practice, and devoted himself to his family, his wife and their three sons. For the last two years of his life, he faced what turned out to be an incurable malady, but he carried on characteristically with serene courage and cheerfulness, and not one trace of self-pity. Though he almost certainly knew his days were numbered, he was determined to live as fully and usefully as possible to the very end—which he did. Less than three weeks before his death, he was out skating with his boys and neighbors.

To have known him was a privilege. An attractive personality, coupled with those qualities which are universally respected, had made him a host of friends. He had very real ability and did well in whatever he undertook. He was a conspicuous example of thetype of man which the sport of mountaineering would be the poorer without. In another country or at another time, he could well have become one of the great mountaineers of his day. That he did not have this opportunity is cause for some regret; but that he was one of us while he could be, and that for 20 years he was a member of the Club, we shall always recall with pleasure, pride and satisfaction.

H.S.H., Jr.

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