American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Merl Lavoy, 1886-1953

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1954

MERL LAVOY

1886-1953

It was in the spring of 1910 that Herschel Parker and I first met Merl LaVoy. We were in Seattle completing the final arrangements for our 1910 Mt. McKinley trip when he volunteered to join us as expedition photographer. One look at him was sufficient to confirm his physical fitness, and in a few picturesquesentences he outlined a background of frontier experiences that justified us in adding him to our party.

His contribution to the efforts of the 1910 expedition were so outstanding that we gladly welcomed him to our 1912 party which, starting from Seward on the Kenai Peninsula with dog teams and snowshoes, ended at Fort Gibbon in the Yukon seven months later.

It is strange that after having spent the better part of two years with Merl in uninhabited country, I know so little of his childhood. The report of his death, written from Johannesburg, South Africa, states that he was a native of Wisconsin, but if so, he moved while still a young boy to Oregon. Both of his parents died while he was young and he went to Oregon to live with an uncle whose home was a log cabin in a heavily forested area. His schooling was erratic and of short duration. He often said that his education was acquired by reading newspapers that usually reached his uncle’s cabin many weeks late and over devious trails and by uncertain carriers.

Compared to the other members of our expeditions, Merl was almost as much a product of the forest as was Kipling’s Mowgli, but once out of his rustic environment he became adjusted to the ways of civilization with startling rapidity.

His ability as a photographer was likewise a developing influence and brought him in contact with new types of minds and business interests. When he came to us in 1910, he had a camera and used it with skill, so much so, in fact, that he soon began marketing his Alaskan photographs to newspapers and magazines. In 1911 he bought a Graflex which became his most highly- prized possession. While stalking a herd of caribou with this camera, he suffered the only physical injury of his years of travel in the Alaskan wilderness. As he focussed his shot, he stepped backward off a steep ledge and cut his knee to the bone. Within a few days following the accident we began our final attempt on the summit of Mt. McKinley, and despite the seriousness of his injury he carried out his arduous duties with complete selflessness.

The courage and energy which he exhibited in the wilderness carried him far in his chosen profession. As a representative of Pathé Frères he girdled the earth twice and it is stated that he exposed more feet of film in World War I than any other photographer.

As a friend and companion he combined the best qualities of his frontier upbringing—loyalty, strength, courage, and a consuming love of adventure.

Belmore Browne

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