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Arthur K. Gilkey, 1926-1953



Art Gilkey, elected to the Club in 1950, and a member of the Third American Karakoram Expedition, died August 10, 1953. In critical condition from thrombophlebitis suffered at an altitude of 25,500 feet on K2, he was lost in an avalanche which occurred during a valorous attempt made by the climbing party to evacuate him to safety.

Born in Colorado September 25, 1926, Art grew up in Ames, Iowa, where his father is a professor, and received his Bachelor of Science degree at Iowa State College in 1949, following a tour of duty with the Navy during World War II. Entering Columbia University, he was granted the M.S. degree for a thesis on structural geology done on the Juneau Ice Field during the summer of 1950. Prior to his death, Art had completed requirements for his doctorate, having compiled an excellent thesis entitled “Fracture Pattern of the Zuni Uplift.” His Ph.D. degree has been awarded posthumously.

Keenly interested in mountaineering, Art acquired valuable experience and technique as a guide for three seasons in the Petzoldt-Exum School of Mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park. In the summer of 1950 he joined the Juneau Ice Field Research Project and in 1952 was leader of its field party. A strong and capable climber, he rapidly proved himself a most valuable asset to expeditionary mountaineering.

Professionally, Art was a brilliant scholar and an excellent geologist. As a companion in the field, he measured up to the highest standards and demonstrated on all occasions his willingness to carry more than his share in any organized climbing or scientific effort.

His death was a severe blow to those who knew him. His strength of character, objectivity of purpose, and pleasant personality won him the affection and admiration of all those who worked or climbed in his company. His loss to the geology profession cannot be overestimated. His competence and field ability had marked him as a man with a great professional future.

To say that Art will be missed is entirely inadequate. In pursuit of his scientific and mountaineering objectives he lived up to the highest traditions of scientific research and expeditionary mountaineering.

Robert B. Forbes

Before the Third American Karakoram Expedition, I knew Arthur K. Gilkey as a lean athlete with springy step, quick, humorous eyes, and an enchanting smile full of health, good nature, and love of life. During the preparations for the expedition and the expedition itself, his companions were to know him better: for his thoughtfulness and self-effacing qualities, for his intellectual curiosity, for his courage, determination, and pleasure in new adventures. Art had great vitality and an attractive personality. His eyes would sparkle as he spoke of a new summit he had just seen or of some theory he was working on about the ice ships on the Baltoro Glacier. On K2 he was always doingthings for others, as when he descended 3000 feet from Camp V to Camp II to get mail, when it was my turn.

Art shared much of the reconnaissance on the Abruzzi Ridge of K2 last summer, especially between Camps II and III, and VII and VIII. His feat with Peter Schoening of cutting steps up the steep ice below Camp VIII, a route never made before, was an admirable piece of mountaineering. Had he lived and the weather permitted, he would almost surely have been a member of a summit team. His being suddenly stricken with thrombophlebitis at 25,500 feet on K2 seemed impossible. He had been in excellent physical condition throughout his stay in the Karakoram. Such an illness appears never to have occurred on any mountain or arctic expedition before, and it is very rare in such a young man. All one can say is that Art apparently had some physical defect which was aggravated by conditions on the mountain. Thrombophlebitis might have crippled him later and the results been just as tragic.

Art Gilkey was carried away by an avalanche while he was being evacuated from Camp VIII at 25,500 feet on K2 during a terrible monsoon storm. His illness had advanced to the point when his only chance of survival (a slim one) depended on our getting him to a lower altitude. His seven companions took desperate risks to try to get him down, and it was chance alone that they were not all beside him at the moment the avalanche carried him to his death.

The memorial cairn erected to Art by the expedition at the confluence of the Godwin-Austen and Savoia Glaciers looks over some of the world’s most magnificent country. It will long tell travelers to the world’s second highest mountain that a loved and admired geologist from Iowa died in the Karakoram. Hunza porters, Navy companions, professors, janitors, distinguished scientists, and mountaineers—all who knew him—join in mourning the death of one of the most lovable and promising young geologists of our times. His friends will be glad to know that Art Gilkey’s name has been proposed for a handsome glacier which Art explored as leader of the Juneau Ice Field Research Project. A collection of books in his name has been set up in the Geology Department at Columbia University, and it is hoped that a hut in his name will be built in Grand Teton National Park. Those of us who knew him will never forget him.

Robert H. Bates