Kevin O’Connell was killed on Huascarán in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru in July. An intense and prolific climbing career was brought to an end. Widely known in Canada as a mountaineer, lecturer, writer and administrator, Kevin, President-elect of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), was 40. Peru last summer, following an Haute Route Alpine ski traverse in May, was a shakedown for a winter Himalayan trip to Tilicho Peak. This typified his systematic working of the peaks and seasons that had gone on since student days. In the years since meeting him in 1970, I saw, and participated to a limited degree, in a relentless broadening of his activity: a progression from local climbing in Quebec and the northeast to the Canadian Rockies, the Alps, Mexico, the Yukon, Alaska, the Andes and the Himalaya with which he became obsessed.
While never aspiring to the leading edge of mountaineering development, his main impact was in exploring new areas, principally Baffin Island and St. Elias Mountains, and in the sheer Fred Beckeyian volume of routes done. This urge to get to remote places and climb everything feasible in sight, dominated his outlook and his life, and there are many of us who were willingly tangled in his organizational webs. Few have such a single-minded drive to optimize their time in the mountains. Intensity of this kind, and the recognition it brings is often best admired from afar. Close up it makes for exacting schedules, exciting tempestuous living, and those endless trips away; an amalgam that his wife Christine MacNamara seemed to handle so well. Few, too, combine action and administration concurrently. Kevin always did; he ran whatever bureaucracy he was in: McGill Outing Club, Montreal Section ACC, Eastern Vice-President ACC, President-elect ACC. His enthusiasm for these tasks seemed endless, and he ran things well, with an inimitable if sometimes infuriating style. An endearing quality was his interest in and availability to others. He was always willing to ferry someone to the airport, advise on the best deal in town or take another newcomer climbing.
There are many viewpoints on what to do with mountain experiences; Kevin’s was clear: communicate them to the world. In his early years, climbing instruction in Quebec and in the Rockies with army cadets gave way to climbing lectures and a journalistic output of articles. I counted 23 in the Canadian Alpine Journal alone since 1978, including an incredible 11 articles in the 1984 edition. To a considerable extent then, his autobiography is likely there on your shelf. His engineering background led to a keen and critical interest in the mechanics of protection. Characteristically, he carried out extensive equipment testing, and served on the ACC and UIAA safety committees. In his climbing though, the evolution was towards the big mountains, away from the cocoon of gadgets.
In Zermatt, weeks before his death, Kevin and I spent an hour in the churchyard there, discussing risk taking, among the climbers’ tombs. Fresh from our ski-mountaineering exploits we concurred, with what I suppose is a conventional climber’s view, that the enterprise transcended the dangers. Today, some months after Kevin, Carl Lund and Dave Findlay were swept away, I feel less sure. The increased risks we run in the great mountain ranges and their consequences for those left behind have to be faced again in a grimmer light. But I can’t end this in middle-aged sorrow for my friend. Rather let’s remember the raw enthusiastic dynamism and uncomplicated vision of this exceptional man; and that damned knack he had of keeping just that little bit ahead on the approaches!