JOAN WILSHIRE FIREY
1973. It was an American Alpine Club gathering in full swing in Los Angeles. Committee reports were droning on—a lassitude had seeped into the audience and heads were beginning to bob. I was about to make another “aside” when an attractive woman assumed the podium. Tall and strong, she stood up straight, threw back her shoulders and looked us in the eye. Her report about a new membership drive was brief and stirring. There was a sincerity in her voice, a conviction in her manner, and as we listened, I remember thinking how impressive she was. Here was someone who needed neither “movements” nor “blessings” to herald her accomplishments.… That was my introduction to Joan Firey. Her performance was as firey as her name. Later, as fortune allowed, I would see the other Joans too: mother, artist, physical therapist and best of all, climber. Together we have enjoyed some of the good times. Everyone is entitled to a few heroes in life. That afternoon in LA, Joan became one of mine, and I can’t remember ever telling her about that.
Joan was from everywhere really. Her love for people and the mountains made it so. She grew up in San Francisco, married Joe, learned to climb in the Sierra, became a mother of three, lived in California and relocated to Seattle. Active, always busy, she racked up as much time in the bush of British Columbia as most people I know. And she was equally at home in the mountains of both Peru and Nepal.
Sharing was important to Joan, and she gave freely of herself for many causes: for the American Alpine Club, for the Mountaineers, and for her family and friends. Her personality and intelligence—the creativity of her life—attracted many. No one remained a stranger in Joan’s presence for long, and more than a few climbers have bivouacked at the Firey “hostel” over the years.
1975. Mount Waddington for me and our paths eventfully crossed again, at an American Alpine Club meeting in Seattle. This time, as host, Joan was really on stage. She seemed everywhere: organizer, promoter, consoler, critic. Publicly, it was a five-ring performance and Joan was chief juggler. Privately, it was the engine side of Joan, and more than a few ended up in her caboose. Artists tend to perfection, and performing around Joan was a test without perfect-score possibilities. Blunt honesty from Joan raised a few temperatures, but more of us could use Joan’s knack for getting things done. Joan was 150% reliable.
1976, and a party of six for one month in Peru. Joan was fantastic … strong and self-confident, her enthusiasm always churning! What memories from that summer. It was a leaderless trip, something especially pleasant for Joan. We went climbing within ourselves as well as onto snow-clad summits. There were awesome sunsets that seemed to linger forever, timeless moments, wonderful stories and simply horrible jokes of the very best kind. Through it all, Joan could be nurse, mother, a curious little girl learning how to play Botticelli, and then abruptly, organizer and drill sergeant. After two weeks, and more laughs and fewer summits than we had hoped, we were forced to choose between more climbing and sightseeing. Joan preferred to climb but caffelatte swayed the group. Although our subsequent visit to Machu Picchu was superb, I shall always regret not climbing Tocllaraju with Joan. She knew how to spot a good climb.
My remembrances go on and on.… No spectator in life, Joan's place was in the ring. She threw herself wholeheartedly and selflessly into mountaineering, and obtained friends not just summits for her reward. She put everything she had into the expedition to Annapurna. Her staunch support for the undertaking persevered throughout numerous tragedies. She cherished the accomplishments she had shared with the other members, but Joan’s health was never to be the same. No longer was Joan to be the strongest on any expedition. There would be no public regreis—Joan believed in looking at herself and others from the positive side. Who else would choose to go for a desert hike with friends and get a job helping others after learning of her terminal ailment?
Saturday, February 16, 1980. Joan’s no longer with us. I remember only the good times. Last August on my way back from Canada, Joan seemed a good deal stronger and healthier than me. Her fire within still burned brightly. Now it must burn on within us. She enjoyed sharing and listening and encouraging. She addressed challenges with a positivism uniquely heralded. She saw growth in adversity. She loved young and old, and gave us the warmth of her smile. She believed in us and in herself. How do you paint Joan’s spirit, her style as the inspiration they truly were?
Joan Firey enriched our lives through her love for the quest and for her fellow mountaineers. She had a full and exciting life, and it brimmed over to touch many. Joan didn’t want us to be sad in her absence. She would insist we be happy in her memory.
R.D. and Sue Caughron