David Ambler Sowles, 1933-1963

Climb Year: N/A. Publication Year: 1964.



David Ambler Sowles was born on October 16, 1933, and was killed in a tragic climbing accident on August 4, 1963 during an electrical storm while descending the north ridge of the Weisshorn after a successful ascent of the Schalligrat. The details of his death will never be known. Those of us who had climbed with David and his companion John Emery, can only surmise that they were the victims of forces beyond the normal periphery of human control.

David first went to school in Chicago, graduated with honors from New Mexico Military Institute, earned his B.A. at Stanford University in 1955. From 1956 to 1959 he was a jet bomber pilot in the United States Air Force. He then returned to civilian life to obtain his M.A. in English at the University of Minnesota. In July, 1961 he married Ellen Middlebrooks of Barnesville, Georgia. From 1962 to 1963 he served as Master at Christ Church School, Christ Church, Virginia.

Dave’s interest in mountaineering started at Stanford University in 1952 and developed during a number of successful trips to mountains in the United States, Canada, South America and Europe. Dave was a natural mountaineer with excellent coordination, great strength and a sense of good judgment in the mountains. During his stay at Stanford University Dave climbed many of the most difficult routes — Yosemite Valley, Pinnacles National Monument — and his leadership pioneered a number of new routes and climbs. In all of these ventures the parties looked to Dave to lead the most difficult sections of the climb. Those of us who climbed with Dave often remarked about his extraordinary rock climbing ability and the fact that none of us knew of an instance where he actually fell, a rare distinction among rock climbers. In 1954 he visited the Coast Range of British Columbia where, among other notable achievements, he made the first áscent of Serra IV, until then the highest unclimbed summit of provincial Canada. The following year he was in Peru where he climbed in the Pucahirca Range of the Cordillera Blanca and also ascended 22,205- foot Mount Huascarn, his highest summit. Even during his military service Dave maintained his interest and enthusiasm for mountaineering, utilizing every available leave for mountaineering ventures. He remained active as a mountaineer until his death in 1963.

Not only was Dave an active mountaineer in the sense of physical ascents but he also was an ardent student of mountaineering literature. He maintained complete and well written journals covering most of his climbing activities. Had he lived he probably would have made significant contributions to mountaineering.

Such, in brief, is David’s story. But David Sowles was more than his biography. He had a keen, perceptive intellect, a sensitive appreciation of human frailties, a wistful sense of humor, and a quiet courage which never failed to inspire his companions. His was a gentle strength, a deep sense of confidence and responsibility, an understanding heart. He cherished his most modest possession even as he treasured his richest prize. Above all he loved the wonderful world where God made him.

Those of us who knew David were prepared to go anywhere with him — even unto the Weisshorn on August 4, 1963, in hindsight’s sure knowledge of what would have awaited us. Dave’s climbing companions knew that his presence on an outing improved vastly its chances for success and assured an atmosphere of cooperation and efficiency. He was a mountaineer’s mountaineer.

Today David’s life is rounded with a sleep. But even as these words are written it is hard to believe that he is gone. Our future trips to the mountains will always be tinged with a note of sadness knowing that our finest companion is gone. We shall stand for a moment of silent prayer and know that his spirit rests in the mountains he loved.

Andrew John Kauffman, II and Gary Driggs