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Roger Marshall, 1941-1987


Roger Marshall died on May 21 while descending from an unsuccessful attempt on the Everest Superdirect. It was his second solo attempt on the route in less than a year. He is survived by two sons, Richard and Duncan.

Bom in the Lake District of Great Britain, Marshall began his climbing as a British crag rat, a hard-climbing, hard-partying, hard-fighting raconteur. As he got a bit older, he worked as a newspaper reporter and feature writer, vacationing in the Alps when he had the chance. He relocated to British Columbia in 1967 and took Canadian citizenship. He recently became a member of the American Alpine Club.

In Canada, he formed his own small company, confining his climbing activity mostly to the abundant local crags. In 1977, he climbed Mount McKinley. It was about then that he conceived the idea of a Canadian Everest expedition and applied for the South Col route. Realizing that he needed someone with a bit more organizational ability, he eventually found himself dropping from leader to deputy leader and finally to climber. Meanwhile, in 1981, he made an ascent of Aconcagua with members of the Canadian Everest team and the first winter ascent of Annapurna IV with British climbers A1 and Adrian Burgess. He began to have disagreements with the new leadership of the expedition. It had expanded far beyond his original concept of a good-time, hard-climbing, alpine-style trip into a million-dollar media event. When the expedition headed for Base Camp in 1982, things came rapidly to a head.

Marshall and A1 Burgess walked into Base Camp ahead of the rest of the team, arousing the ire of the expedition leaders. Marshall soon found himself dismissed “for conduct likely to embarrass the sponsors” for somewhat mysterious reasons. Speculations have ranged from indiscretions on Marshall’s part back in Canada, to a desire to punish him for trekking separately from the rest of the team (unlikely, since Burgess remained on the climb), to a desire among the leadership not to have a British-born climber—albeit one with Canadian citizenship—be the first to summit (chances for Marshall and his partner Burgess were considered excellent). Whatever the true reasons, they evidently weren’t ones that the expedition leadership wanted to pursue. Back in Canada, Marshall demanded—and got—a formal apology from the Canadian Everest Society.

Now branded as “the Bad Boy of Canadian climbing,” Marshall turned his attention to smaller expeditions, declaring that “army-style” teams removed the sport and enjoyment from climbing. The following year, his partner having dropped out, he soloed to 8000 meters on Lhotse; his solo career was born. His big breakthrough came in the fall of 1984. He summited solo and without oxygen on the normal route of Kangchenjunga. A year later, he was back, this time with the help of his companion, nutritionist Ruth DeCew, who helped him work out diet and conditioning programs to improve his performance. He went to Ama Dablam with Pete Athans, summiting alone, and then climbed high on Cho Oyu in winter with A1 Burgess.

His first attempt on Everest came in the late summer of 1986. He tried unsuccessfully to forge a route from the North Col. Then, after watching Swiss climbers Loretan and Troillet on their two-day ascent of the Superdirect, he also gave that route a try. After climbing the Japanese couloir, he went offline on the enormous face that leads to the Hornbein Couloir. Unable to find a spot to bivouac, he descended.

In the spring of 1987, he was back on the Superdirect. Under powerful personal drive, perhaps also spurred by a concern for his sponsors, he started up the route on May 19, in spite of extremely dangerous ice conditions in the lower reaches of the Japanese Couloir. He remained on the face for nearly 36 hours, spending the night at the base of the Hornbein Couloir before turning around. On the descent, he cached his pack, evidently intending to try again. But 300 meters from the bottom, descending cautiously on the green and blue ice, he slipped and fell to his death. His companions found him at the base of the Japanese Couloir, his ice tools still strapped to his wrists, his rope tangled around him. Speculation is that he fell while rigging a rappel.

Marshall stirred strong emotions in segments of the climbing community. The bad blood surrounding the Canadian Everest expedition still persists. His outspoken dislike of big expeditions and his even more strident opposition to the use of Sherpas did not endear him to some people. Nor did his ability, through writing, to promote his expeditions over those of even more skilled climbers. But his writing on climbing was eloquent and his climbing record more than respectable. His advocacy of climbing by “fair means,” alone or in small groups, without supplementary oxygen or support from high-altitude porters, has helped generate much discussion, a great deal of which has had a positive effect on mountaineering. His book, tentatively titled Solo, concerns his style of climbing and may explain a bit more of this complex mountaineer—when it is finally published.

James Chase