American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Roger Sherman Whitney, 1905-1965

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1966

ROGER SHERMAN WHITNEY

1905-1965

Roger Sherman Whitney, born at Wainscott, Long Island on June 19, 1905, lost his life along with Thomas Heim on July 21, 1965 while descending a steep snow slope at 19,300 feet on Ranrapalca in Peru.

A graduate of Yale College, 1928, and Harvard Medical School, 1932, Dr. Whitney performed his intern and resident service at hospitals in the East and then in 1937 selected the pure climate and beautiful surroundings of Colorado Springs for his home during twenty-eight years of rewarding medical practice. A fellow of the American College of Physicians, he served on the boards of the local Community Council, the Tuberculosis Association, the Legal Aid Society, and the Appeals Review Board. During World War II, Dr. Whitney served overseas from 1941 to 1945, first with the British Emergency Medical Service, and then in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. At his discharge he held the rank of major. The home built by Dr. and Mrs. Whitney and occupied by them and their two children looks out from the mesa above the Garden of Gods to the eastern slopes of Pikes Peak. It has for years been a center of hospitality to visiting members of the mountaineering fraternity.

While at school in Switzerland (1921-23) Roger fell under the spell of the high mountains. His early training there with his brother and an expert instructor gave him climbing skills on both rock and snow which he put to good use for forty years of enjoyment in the hills. His climbing career, all without guides, extended from its inception in Switzerland and the hills of New England to include peaks in Alaska, the Selkirks, the Canadian Rockies, Switzerland, the Tetons, Olympics and finally Peru. He was an active member of the Alpine Clubs of Canada and Switzerland and of the American Alpine Club since 1930. Though unusually skilled as a result of his Swiss experience in snow and ice craft, he may well be remembered in the Canadian Rockies, particularly for his leadership in 1932 of the first ascent of the spectacular rock peak below Lake O’Hara known as the Watch Tower. Dr. Whitney attended several summer camps of the Alpine Club of Canada from 1932 to 1964 and gave generously of his time and skill in training courses and as an amateur guide for less experienced climbers.

No note on Roger’s climbing career would be adequate if it omitted mention of his light-hearted effervescent companionship. A joke at an opportune moment of stress, a Swiss yodel to awaken lagging spirits, a firecracker at the summit on the August 1st national holiday—all are fond memories of days in the mountains in his company. So, also, is that beautiful day at Lake O’Hara when his skillful diagnosis of acute appendicitis may have saved the life of a tourist who was then evacuated to the railroad at Wapta by six sceptical stretcher-bearers. How we hated to abandon our day’s climbing to stumble nine miles down that torrent-crossed track with a 200-pound man on a green-timbered stretcher. Roger could be firm and even impatient, but he always demanded more of himself than others. He was peculiarly responsive to the beauty of the snow-topped peaks. He had a contagious enthusiasm and that little extra urge to reach a summit that often carried his party on to success. He was extremely happy while in the mountains and took every opportunity to return to them. He had a love for adventure and an impatience with sedentary living; his active climbing career outlasted that of most of his contemporaries. One can only regret that his drive led him on finally into one situation beyond his control.

Bradley B. Gilman

THE MOUNTAIN AND THE BOULDER

In memory of Roger Whitney and Thomas Heim

In distant Andean place the Southern Cross

Shines down on feathered forms of jagged ice,

And seldom throughout time is known a trace

Of human trail marking the broad expanse

Of glacial slope or sound of human voice,

Except perhaps a shepherd’s muted tone

Fluting his herd around some steep ravine.

There we had gone by choice to seek a song

Of high adventure ringing through our clay—

From varied place and background we were drawn

To pioneer upon untrodden crags,

Bound by a magic sense that something good

And valid can be mixed from sky, and snow,

And rock, and human friendship forged upon

The anvils of that higher, purer world.

For two of us this was a final place

To dream mid frozen splendor throughout time—

A last frontier on which to set their boots

And gaze out on the everchanging crests

Of Andean giants, in everlasting trance.

By fate allied together on a strand

Of rope, and by a hope for something grand

And new, Roger and Tom had felt the keen

Excitement of the climb, of crampon points

Biting the tilting ramp of frozen snow,

Threading through labyrinthine ice cascades,

And looking on the scenes where condors go.

When climbing from Ishinca Pampa Camp

Toward Mariscal Castilla Refuge Hut,

Where Ranrapalca faithfully appears

To fill the scene with overwhelming mass,

There is a stream beside which those of us

En route to show our final care for friends

Who fell and lay in elevated death

Sat down to rest and muse upon the tragedies

Of life and mysteries of destiny.

I shall forever see and hear that stream,

Set like a lush isle in a gray sea

Of rocky slabs—small hills of sand and moss,

Clustered forest landscape miniatures

Pine green and pine blue mixed with jeweled rocks,

Half wet and dry among the matted isles,

And underwater pebbles, dappled breath,

Bright, shimmering gayly with sustaining life,

But also with a sad, sad song of death.

Above in silhouette against the snow

Of Ranrapalca’s face, a boulder stands

Among its fellows, singular in size

And shape, poised on ancient high moraine,

And visible from all along the trail.

On this great rock our purpose holds to place

An iron cross, and in memoriam

To Tom and Roger, carve in granite words

The circumstances of their quick demise.

Through clouds and sunny days and starry nights

They settle now in frozen dateless sleep;

While most of us who bowed beside their grave

Will crumble in the sepulchers of earth,

They will remain in clean, unchanging state,

And the mountain Ranrapalca, now their tomb,

Will ever be their monument as well,

Holding their forms and story in its spell.

—John Filsinger

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