American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Thomas A. Mutch, 1931-1980

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  • Publication Year: 1981



Tim Mutch died on October 6, 1980, at the age of 49, while descending from the summit of Nun (23,412 feet) in northern India following a bivouac above 21,000 feet with two former students on an expedition which he initiated and led. He was last seen on the morning of the sixth on a precarious ledge at the bivouac site above the steep northwest face of the mountain after a fall the previous day and the loss of a crampon needed to continue the descent. When one of his two companions, Tom Binet, returned that evening with a spare crampon, Tim was gone. Only his ice-axe remained.

Tim Mutch grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and earned his AB in history from Princeton University where he was active in the mountaineering club. Following military service as an artillery officer in Korea, he secured his MS from Rutgers and his PhD from Princeton, both in geology. His field of study was in part dictated by his interest in mountaineering, for geology let him combine his avocation and vocation in a single occupation. After completing his degrees Tim joined the faculty of Brown University where he served with distinction as teacher, scholar, administrator, and author, in various capacities including Chairman of the Geology Department, Assistant Dean of the Undergraduate School, and Associate Dean of the Graduate School.

Tim began his climbing in the Tetons with his uncle, and while at Princeton he spent many weekends in the Shawangunks. In the summer of 1952, following graduation from college, he devoted three months to climbing during which he explored unmapped parts of the Coast Range of British Columbia, and made first ascents of Mount Arjuna in that range and Eiffel Peak in the Canadian Rockies. In 1955 after completing military service he went to Pakistan on an expedition to Istor-o-nal in the Hindu Kush. His hopes of returning to the Himalaya on an American expedition to K2 a few years later ended when Pakistan closed off access to the mountains. He continued climbing in North America with two attempts on a new route on Robson, ascents in Glacier Park, B.C., and elsewhere. A member of the AAC since 1953, he served twice on its board, 1958-60 and 1978-80.

Two related developments during Tim’s time at Brown exerted a major influence on his own life, a lasting influence on the lives of others, and, in one respect, on all of us. The first development was his work on planetary exploration which began in the early 1960s with the study of meteorites, led to his mapping of the moon, and evolved into eight years of work on the Viking project. He headed the Viking Lander Imaging Team and was largely responsible for the development of the remarkable $15 million camera which brought back the first pictures of Mars shown and described by him on national television on July 20, 1976. Descendants of that camera are now giving us new views of Saturn. The work on planetary exploration and subsequent effort led Tim to write three books, Geology of the Moon, Geology of Mars, and Martian Landscape, and on July 1, 1979, to his appointment as Associate Administrator of Space Science of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with overall responsibility for NASA’s scientific programs.

The second significant development on Tim at Brown was a course in exploration which he initiated and taught for several years. The course began as a study of the writings of the great explorers. Not satisfied with the writings of others, he first brought explorers, including several AAC members, to the classroom to relate their experiences in person. Then, deciding that to experience exploration you must do it, he organized a new course, said by one professor to be the most famous course ever offered at Brown, an expedition to the Himalaya—to climb Devistan (21,902 feet) in Garhwal. Thirty-three members of the class, undergraduates, alumni and faculty, trained in the Olympic Mountains of Washington and then traveled to India where 24 made the summit. Tim’s last expedition evolved from the 1978 trip, for seven of the eight members had been with him to Devistan. I was the only exception, though I had been Tim’s partner since college on earlier expeditions.

In a true sense Tim’s life united two worlds of exploration, the traditional world of mountaineering and the modern world of planetary exploration. For those worlds his training as a geologist and his personal qualities of initiative, resourcefulness, determination, humor, and courage enabled him to make his mark with high distinction. No one knew that better than his wife Madeline, who shared his life for so many years since their marriage in 1956, nor his daughters, Patricia, Wendy and Margaret. He will be missed by all who knew him.

Joseph E. Murphy, Jr.

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