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Jon Gary Ullin, 1943-1977



That Gary Ullin has died in the Pamirs is incredible. Gary was strong, both physically tough and emotionally stable. He got up many a climb by his strong steady push; he was of a kind that lives on. The mind won’t accept that he is gone; we still have many climbs to do.

Gary grew up in Seattle and the Cascades. He studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington, graduated in 1966, and worked for a year as an engineer with Boeing. He got a commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating while flying around Mount Rainier. Then he was trained by United Airlines and flew commercially out of Chicago, which was not his favorite place to live. In 1970 he moved back to Seattle and active climbing again. Still flying for United, he loved telling friends in Seattle that he commuted to work in San Francisco. He also loved using his pilot’s pass to fly up to Juneau for an afternoon to check out the current glacier conditions, or to ride out to Boston for an AAC meeting, or to buzz down to California for a climb in the Sierras.

It was appropriate that he found as a girlfriend Gretchen Daiber, daughter of the old man of the Cascades, Ome Daiber. In recent years, Gary and Gretchen grew very close. Gary enjoyed the luxuries of a good life, including his plush house on Mercer Island and its sumptuous furnishings, and enjoyed supporting them with a glamorous job. But at the same time he was always the one to push a little harder on a climb, when the hour got late or the storm blew up. Gary wrote that “knowing that life is what you make it has opened all doors to me,” and he ran full speed ahead. He put himself totally into whatever project or adventure or experience he shared with you. For him, all days were summit days.

As a boy in the Cascades, Gary soon outgrew the organized mountaineering courses, and let the mountains be his teacher. As his experience grew, he began teaching others. In recent years he was a guide on Mount Rainier and for Lute Jerstad. The Cascades were his playground, but he took his strength and experience to the great ranges of the world. For his first expedition he flew (with his pilot’s pass) to Colombia and climbed Nevado de Huila. In 1970 he and three friends attempted the east ridge of Mount St. Elias; they didn’t reach the summit, but his experience was an invaluable aid to his second attempt two years later. In 1971 he climbed Pioneer Ridge to traverse both summits of McKinley, and returned wildly enthusiastic about Alaska.

In 1972 he returned to the east ridge of Mount St. Elias, aggressively determined. I think it was one of his happiest climbs, and many mental pictures of him remain: staggering across an icy river with a monstrous pack; slogging through rain across the flatness of the Malaspina glacier; charging up to the ridge in the sunset; teetering up the knife edge with a broad grin in the dawn sunshine; fearlessly climbing an avalanche slope to the summit ridge, then giving up the lead at the photogenic finish.

In an 8-day storm we concocted an “Expeditions Anonymous” to warn beginners of the “truth” about expedition mountaineering, then when we got home couldn’t remember what we had been talking about. He and I dreamed of an extended ski expedition around the icefields of the St. Elias range, but I was later dropped from Gary’s plan, in favor of Gretchen’s company. Gary made many outstanding black and white prints from color slides in his elaborate photo lab. Recently he began organization of an expedition to Annapurna; this summer he considered joining a trip to Peru, but jumped at the chance to go with the AAC expedition to the Pamirs.

Gary died on the North face of Peak 19 in the Pamirs on July 25, 1974, buried in an avalanche with three others. The others barely struggled out, but Gary was crushed under tons of snow. It would be more credible that three be killed and Gary alone survive. It is perhaps fitting that it should end for him near the top of a good climb on a cold north face, doing the kind of climbing he loved. We will miss his warm humor, his technical expertise, his strong drive, and his steady friendship.

Malcolm Moore