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Gareth H. Hemming, 1934-1969

GARETH H. HEMMING

1934-1969

Gary Hemming’s death has ended the career of a climber widely believed in Europe to have been among the best in the world. Less well known here – all his important climbs were in Europe – he had close to the same reputation in the community of American climbers. Although not a member of the AAC, his great record makes it appropriate to publish this obituary here.

He started climbing in the early 1950’s at Tahquitz Rock while living in Southern California. He soon met John Harlin, then at Stanford, and, while working in the San Francisco Bay Area, began climbing with him and others from the Stanford Alpine Club in Yosemite. He and I first met on a trip to Mount Rainier in 1957 that included John and Hobey DeStaebler, that was designed, in John’s words, to teach us ice climbing techniques “suddenly,” in preparation for a trip we made later that summer to the Battle Range in the Selkirks.

Gary was uneasy and unhappy in the United States and a trip to Europe was the start of a new life for him in an environment freer, for him, of the restraints he sensed so acutely. He climbed in England and then in the Alps, attended the University at Grenoble sporadically, and tried to complete the aspirante guide course in Chamonix in 1961, failing in this for his refusal to dispose of a magnificently unruly beard. He climbed from time to time with Americans and began to eye the very important climbs. He made an attempt on the Walker Spur in winter but was forced off by a particularly ugly storm. This was a climb he completed late in the summer of 1961, the first American ascent of the face. It was a route that fascinated him and several years later he spent some effort in planning a solo ascent to be completed in a single day. It was possibly beyond his powers and the attempts depressed him.

He introduced Yosemite climbing techniques to the Alps starting with a fine new route on the west face of the Petit Dru and, in 1963, with Harlin,

Tom Frost and Stuart Fulton, completed a route of great difficulty on the south face of the Fou that had turned back some of the best European climbers. He completed spectacular solo ice climbs on the Aiguille Verte – the Coutourier Couloir – and on the north face of the Triolet.

In the late summer of 1966 two Germans were trapped on a ledge on the standard route on the west face of the Dru. Gary stepped in to lead the rescue expedition and received enormous publicity for his skill in carrying out the rescue. It is not common for Americans to lead French rescue groups – it has happened perhaps just this once.

He climbed with strength and with style and, as his technique improved and his experience increased, he was able to carry out a succession of ascents that made him as well known as any American climber in Europe excepting only John Harlin. As the years passed however, the inner struggles that his friends observed surface from time to time in moody withdrawal or violent outbursts became increasingly intense and finally were too overwhelming to be controlled. When he died, in the Tetons, where some of his earliest climbing was done, it was by his own hand.

Henry W. Kendall