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Richard M. Emerson, 1925-1982

RICHARD M. EMERSON

1925-1982

Dick Emerson and I met almost forty years ago and shared the U.S. Mountain Trooper’s war. Thirteen years his senior, I am unprepared to write the inclusive dates after his name and to face his leaving before I did. I had rather counted on the reverse.

Dick’s high points in mountaineering I shared only vicariously. His high point on Masherbrum was the highest camp, where his stomach rebelled and forced him to stay there alone while others spent the day and an entire night reaching the summit and struggling back down to camp. On his approach to Everest’s West Ridge his stomach again lowered his expectations, but this time not out where he could spend a day overlooking the world at its highest, but rather within that world, bivouacking by secret plan, secure and snug within a crevasse, safely out of the tempest of one of the wildest Himalayan storms on record. He climbed back out of his fortress when the night and the winds relented, astonishing the friends who had not expected to see him alive again.

Lesser highs, in altitude if not in achievement, were in the post-war Tetons, where as a National Park Service climbing ranger he participated in rescues so scary you’d rather not hear about them, and in climbs that it was a delight to read about.

It was the skill of his writing and telling that let me share his postwar climbing world, in which he carried on far beyond where I left off—at the bergschrund under the north face of the Grand in 1956, which he and Phil Berry thereupon ascended. His other world I shared through an unbroken friendship; this let me be on hand for his wedding in Wyoming, watch his postwar winning of his Ph.D., witness his skill as a parent with Pat of their two delightful children, and enjoy the excellence of his photography. Out of everyone’s twelve thousand slides, one hundred made it into the Sierra Club book, Everest: The West Ridge ; seventeen were Dick’s, and they are revealing of what mountains and mountain people meant to him. His camera and he got along very well together, and I am anxious to try to find out what he had in mind in the mixing of photographs, research, and prose to explain what Professor Emerson, social anthropologist, wanted to interpret for us about the Inhabited Wilderness of the western end of the Himalayan chain. He and Pat went to Baltistan again and again. At the year’s beginning, the material to be interpreted was awaiting the organizer, there on the desk to which he was not to return.

A cardiac arrest as he slept, perhaps triggered by the stress of a malignancy I had always thought Dick was far too rugged to incur or put up with, took away the years that ought to have remained for him, just before Christmas and the wedding planned for his daughter, Leslie, and Randy Udall. On January 2, for his part in the eulogy, Randy selected some words of Dick’s that were some of his finest, of special meaning to me, and good medicine, I think, for anyone who cares about mountains. Back in 1960 I had asked Dick to write about the Masherbrum expedition for the Sierra Club Bulletin, and he did a craftsman’s job. I had one useful editorial suggestion to make. When Nick Clinch and Jawed Akbar headed for the top, and Willi Unsoeld and George Bell were far below and out of sight, there Dick was, alone. “What was all that solitude like?” I asked him. “Could you add a paragraph or a page and tell us about it?” He did, and the Bulletin's passage also occupies a page of the Everest book. Randy found it there and excerpted it:

It did not come all at once, that sense of consuming solitude. At first it was just a matter of resting passively, amidst spectacular scenery, but this steadily changed into a peculiarly mixed sensation of aroused relaxation: poised and attentive, infinitely at ease. After so much effort, to sit there, totally alone at 25,000 feet, surrounded by a still and motionless world of rock and ice and blue-black sky, was satisfying in a very special way. It was not the euphoria of altitude. It was the exhilaration of wilderness. … I raised my goggles for an unobstructed view of Beauty.

And I remembered a few poignant words borrowed from a tombstone in England to grace a plaque on Olaus and Mardy Murie’s mantel, seven thousand feet below one of Dick’s favorite summits, the Grand Teton:

THE WONDER OF THE WORLD

THE BEAUTY AND POWER

THE SHAPE OF THINGS

THEIR COLORS, LIGHTS AND SHADES

THESE I SAW

LOOK YE ALSO WHILE LIFE LASTS

Dick looked and saw very well, far more sensitively than his detached manner would ever let you think. He also heard the sound and caught the aroma and the flavor. He felt the mountain, underfoot and at his fingertips, respected it, and moved there with an assurance that I have never seen surpassed. “We never grow tired of each other, the mountain and I,” Li Po wrote long ago. I think that Dick, twelve centuries later had some Li Po in him and, given enough time, would have seen the mountain tire first. Many people knew how much he loved and was loved. I am grateful to be one of them.

David Brower