American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Bradley Baldwin Gilman, 1904-1987

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988


Bradley Gilman, a long-time member of the Club’s hierarchy, served it as councilor, secretary, treasurer and president over a period of four decades. He was descended from two primeval New England families, the Gilmans of New Hampshire and the Baldwins of New Haven, Connecticut. Numbered among his many prominent ancestors were a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and two governors of Connecticut. He was a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Warren R. Gilman and Helen Baldwin Gilman. After his father’s death, when Brad was 16, the family moved back to his mother’s family home in New Haven. Brad attended the traditional family college, Yale, graduating in 1925. While there, he earned a reputation as an outstanding athlete, being elected captain of the soccer team and playing lacrosse in such a manner as later to be elected to the American Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Upon graduation from the Harvard Law School in 1928, he entered a Worcester law firm where he practiced until 1953. Subsequently he became vice-president for trusts and investments at a Worcester bank, from which he retired in 1969. Brad was a patient, tolerant and understanding listener and a thoughtful, practical counselor. He was especially effective at bringing about the resolution of problems without attendant confrontation or rancor.

Though he may have “played it safe” in his family and professional life, Brad Gilman possessed an unusually strong sense of adventure which manifested itself in his life-long passion for outdoor activities in general, and in mountaineering in particular. He was happiest in this other side of his life, whether cutting firewood at his camp in Barre, Massachusetts, or leading an Alpine Club of Canada party up Mount Hungabee. Not a daredevil, he was nonetheless a bold, skillful mountaineer, not so much in a narrowly technical sense, although he was a first-rate rock climber in his time. His particular strength lay as a route-finder, as a planner, as a leader whom people trusted.

First as a camper and then as a counselor at Camp Pemigewasset in Warren, New Hampshire, he became acquainted with the White Mountains of New Hampshire, to which he returned right to the end. Brad’s first mountaineering experiences occurred in the Alps, often in the company of his cousins, Roger and Hassler Whitney, who had learned to climb while attending prep school in Switzerland. These early trips were made possible, to a degree, by grants from great-uncle George Baldwin, who resided in lonely splendor in a hotel at Vevey on Lake Geneva. Brad complained about including a tuxedo in his climbing kit for the obligatory visit with the old gentleman, then in his 90s, but a hot bath, substantial meal and decent night’s sleep were not unwelcome after a stint in the mountains.

In an era when the style was to climb with guides, he and his companions flouted the convention by undertaking serious ascents without any. In 1927, with Bev Jefferson, he made the first guideless ascent of Mount Louis, near Banff. He was especially proud of his ascents in 1928 of the Grépon and of the Arête des Quatre Anes on the Dent Blanche, not the sort of things young American climbers were supposed to be doing guideless! On several occasions, Brad and his friends astonished the other inhabitants of Alpine huts by using picture postcards of the peaks as a means of working out a route, instead of utilizing a proper guidebook. In one of his letters of that period, he writes with disdain of the arrival at the hut of the well-known English climber, Fitch, with his entourage of guides, porters and manservants.

When he was at the Harvard Law School, Brad became a member of the then-fledgling Harvard Mountaineering Club, where he met Henry Hall. This contact blossomed into another life-long friendship and it was Henry who encouraged and sponsored Brad’s attendance at the 1926 Alpine Club of Canada encampment at Moat Lake in the Ramparts. There, along with Bev Jefferson and Bob Cleveland, he accomplished the first ascent of Blackhorn Mountain, despite strenuous opposition to the venture from the ACC hierarchy. Brad delighted in describing how the old fogies were outwitted and their dire predictions were proven unfounded.

In 1928, Robert Underhill, the best American climber of the day, succeeded in climbing the first route on the great cliff of Cannon Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire. Of the route, now known as the “Old Cannon,” he wrote, “This appears, from all examination to date, to be the only possible route up the cliff.” The next spring, before the ink was dry on Underhill’s pronouncement, Brad Gilman and Hass Whitney climbed the spectacular ridge left of the prominent gash in the face. Originally called the “New Cannon,” the route has since been memorialized as the “Whitney-Gilman.” Indeed they enjoyed it so much that they climbed down and repeated it, so that each of them could lead every pitch! In one stroke, they had advanced the level of American climbing by a whole grade. Even today, six decades later, the Whitney-Gilman serves as the reference point for New England rock climbs.

Following his marriage in 1929, Brad’s time for climbing inevitably became curtailed and his objectives became tamer. But the mountains remained a necessary ingredient for a complete life. He became active at the camps of the Alpine Club of Canada, attending eleven of them between 1931 and 1952. He earned a well-deserved reputation as a leader “who gives his party a good time.” Leading large groups of mostly inexperienced people requires a kind of patience and encouraging manner that he possessed in abundance. Guiding such people through the hazards and difficulties imposed by the terrain used his consummate route-finding abilities. He often commented that the fascination of mountaineering lay principally in finding a way that would work and be enjoyable as well. He emphasized the intellectual and artistic aspects of the sport. In 1938, in company with Henry Hall and Rex Gibson, he pioneered a direct approach from the Sunwapta valley to the base of Mount Alberta, a route that can be continued either to the north end of the Columbia Icefield or to the headwaters of the Athabasca River below Mount Columbia. Although conditions prevented their making a successful attempt on Alberta, they had made forever obsolete the long, earlier approach via the Athabasca River to the very heart of the range. In recognition of his services to mountaineering in Canada, the Alpine Club of Canada awarded him in 1940 the Silver Rope, its highest honor for leadership.

During the war years, Brad participated in the training of Canadian troops in mountain techniques and he served as president of the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club, the first non-Bostonian to do so. For the next 20 years he was actively involved with the affairs of the American Alpine Club, serving in several capacities including president. Many Council meetings were convened at the Gilman’s camp in the woods of Barre, Massachusetts. Everyone who attended these gatherings recalled with fondness what congenial and enjoyable occasions they were.

Brad made his last “real” climb, Mount Odaray in the Lake O’Hara region of the Canadian Rockies in 1964, fittingly with one of his earliest rope-mates, Roger Whitney, and with his daughter Harriet, who continues actively to pursue her father’s avocation.

He was a reserved man who rarely revealed anything of his innermost feelings. On one matter, however, he was quietly but firmly outspoken: he had an abiding distaste for organized religion. It was in Nature that Brad seemed to find that solace and that exhaltation which most others seek in a dogma: in the forests teeming with life, on a beach strewn with seashells, in a desperate moment survived with a friend, on the frigid, lonely summit of a great peak. On his final visit last summer to our home in northern New Hampshire, he sometimes sat quietly in our yard, gazing up at the peaks of the Presidential Range rising just across the way. In his look we saw a sense of contentment and a suggestion of profound peace.

Robert Kruszyna

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