JAMES RAMSEY ULLMAN 1908–1971
On June 20, 1971, American mountaineering lost its most distinguished man of letters when James Ramsey Ullman died of cancer at the age of 63.
For more than 30 years, Jim’s books introduced Americans of all ages to the world of the high mountains: High Conquest, Kingdom of Adventure, Everest, The Age of Mountaineering, Tiger of the Snows, Banner in the Sky, Americans on Everest, Straight Up, And Not to Yield, and The White Tower. His writing was as much a part of the mountaineering experience as the Grand Teton and Mount Rainier. Through Jim’s words and feelings, his characters and descriptions, we found our own views of the mountains, mountaineering, and our climbing companions articulated for the first time. He spoke to each of us about the mountains and about ourselves.
Jim’s writing spans the period of growth of American mountaineering from a small elite to the thundering army which now threatens to overrun the wilderness. Yet he was less interested in movements than in men. In his books, he celebrated the golden age of mountaineering, but he described it in terms of the men who created it. Everest may have been conquered by the British, but it was Jim who chose to tell the schoolboys of the world of a Sherpa named Tenzing. He was a romantic man, and he understood the romance and excitement of the mountains. He was a good story-teller, and he left us with fine tales. He was a man with a sense of adventure and his writing is filled with the excitement of finding a challenge and meeting it with courage and skill.
Jim’s professional life was an enormously varied and productive one: newspaper reporter, theatrical producer (one of his plays, Men in White, won a Pulitzer Prize), World War II service with The American Field Service, author of over 20 books (many of which have been book club selections) and numerous short stories and magazine articles, member and historian of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition, and an authority on the South Pacific, the Caribbean Islands and the Amazon River, all of which he explored in small boats.
Despite his numerous accomplishments, he was a shy and modest man who listened well and perceptively to those around him. He could be scathingly critical, yet found something warm and cheering to say to each of us. He smiled easily, even in time of personal sadness.
When he learned he had an incurable illness, he found the courage to live with it and told his friends about it so that they might share the final part of his life with him. Perhaps this way Jim’s way of testing our courage and proving his own. His wife Marian helped Jim fill his final months with those he loved, and he continued to write until he was physically incapable of doing so. When he died, tributes poured in from friends throughout the world.
We have all lost a gifted friend, our Club has lost a valued member, and mountaineering has lost an articulate and thoughtful spokesman. But Jim’s spirit lives on in the books he wrote, in the characters he created, and in the events he documented and brought to life. He understood the mountains and translated that understanding into personal terms. As he said, “It is not the summit that matters, but the fight for the summit; not the victory, but the game itself.” We can be grateful that he chose to play at our game.
SAMUEL C. SILVERSTEIN, M.D.