American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Nicholas Vanderbilt, 1958-1984

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1985



Nicholas Vanderbilt and his companion, Francis Gledhill, disappeared in August 1984 while attempting the Wishbone Arête of Mount Robson (12,972 feet), highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Repeated helicopter searches of the entire mountain failed to find them and to date no trace of either climber has been discovered. Although not much is known about the circumstances of their deaths, a few facts are clear. Early on the morning of August 21, in perfect weather, Nick and Francis left the climbers’ hut at 8,400 feet. Snowfall which had accumulated over the previous several days apparently impaired their progress, because they were seen below the junction of the Wishbone at midday on August 22, a spot they should have reached early the previous day. Close inspection of the snow cornices above the junction later convinced searchers that the climbers never reached the upper part of the ridge. It is likely then that the two were either caught in an avalanche while attempting to descend the large snow bowl to the left of the Wishbone, or fell from the ridge itself to be buried in one of the small gullies on either side of it; probably on August 22 or 23. On August 28, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began searching the mountain by helicopter. Nick’s mother, Jean Vanderbilt, and uncle, Daggert Harvey, flew to the mountain to assist in the search effort and were joined by four of Nick’s climbing friends. The search was abandoned on September 3.

Nick and Francis were an experienced mountaineering team, having climbed together since the mid 1970s when they met through the Harvard Mountaineering Club. They had served apprenticeships on technical rock and ice in New England and had made successful ascents in the Sierras, Canadian Rockies, and French Alps. While both enjoyed the adventure of difficult routes on high mountains, they were prudent, as mountaineers go; neither were bent on being a top alpinist. Six years before, they had retreated from the same route on Mount Robson because of bad weather.

Nick, who lived in Austin, Texas, was a professional writer. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy (Class of 1976) and Harvard (Class of 1980), where he wrote the lyrics for the 1979 Hasty Pudding Theatrical’s musical comedy, Nick spent 5 to 8 hours a day at the typewriter trying to break into the highly-competitive world of freelance writing. In the year before his death, he had published his first article in a national magazine (Vogue), received an advance from Sports Illustrated, and had half completed Above The Dawn, a mountaineering screenplay which explored the camaraderie and rivalries among a group of climbing friends. Dialogue in this screenplay confirms that Nick was deeply attracted to the romance and beauty of the high mountains but had reflected soberly on the inevitable risks of technical climbing.

At the center of Nick’s life was neither mountaineering nor writing but Christian faith. A converted Catholic, he revealed his commitment unobtrusively, for example, as a regular volunteer at a neighborhood soup kitchen. Numerous single instances of charity surfaced after his death when apparent strangers came forward at his memorial service to express their gratitude. Friends remember his self-effacing wit and his scrupulous care to treat each person as an end, never as a means.

He is survived by his mother, Jean Vanderbilt, and his father, Alfred Vanderbilt.

David Howe and Brinton Young

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