David Cheesmond, 1952-1987

Publication Year: 1988.


David Cheesmond was so well described by Michael Kennedy in Climbing of October 1987 that I quote extensively from that issue. “By the time we met on the Kahiltna Glacier below Mount McKinley on a May afternoon in 1981, David had already traveled all over the world, almost always accompanied by his wife Gillian. Born in South Africa, he had been a driving force in the climbing scene there, doing numerous new rock climbs, as well as an early ascent of Mount Kenya’s Diamond Couloir and a new route on Kilimanjaro’s Breach Wall. Not content with distinguishing himself solely in the climbing world, he had excelled academically, graduating at age 19 from Durban University with an honors degree in engineering. Difficult classics in the Alps and an extended honeymoon—which included an ascent of FitzRoy—rounded out his early climbing experience.

“Weary of the political climate in their homeland, David and Gillian decided to move and western Canada seemed a logical choice. David rapidly established himself as one of Canada’s leading lights, starting with the second ascent of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson (by a new line, no less). He also made ascents of several big Yosemite routes that fall, including the Shield on El Cap, but, in retrospect, 1981 seemed merely a warmup for climbs to come.

“Just a few hours from home in Calgary, the Canadian Rockies provided a fertile crucible for David’s energetic approach and he managed rapid ascents of notable routes. In the fall of 1982, he climbed a new route on the east face of Mount Assiniboine with Tony Dick; it was a jump ahead in Canadian technical standards and the first of David’s trilogy of modern desperates in the Rockies. The second was another plum, the 6000-foot north face of Mount Goodsir, which David and Kevin Doyle plucked in April 1983. After this, David journeyed once more to Alaska to make the first ascent of the east ridge of Mount Deborah. He and Carl Tobin rounded out that trip with yet another new route, the west face of Mount Hayes, and rather than flying out, floated down the Susitna River in a rubber raft to Denali Highway.

“The Himalaya beckoned, and that fall David joined the American team that made the first ascent of the east face of Everest. Although he didn’t make the summit, it didn’t slow him down. David continued at an astonishing pace in the Rockies, and the following spring, he led an all-star Canadian team on the north face of Rakaposhi in Pakistan. They first tried unsuccessfully to make the second ascent of the difficult Japanese route. In a typical display of tenacity, they returned to the mountain when the weather turned good after they had packed up Base Camp and started out with the porters. They finally succeeded.

“Adept at hard rock, David turned his attention to the limestone of Yamnuska and other nearby crags in the summer of 1985, producing a number of hard routes and first free ascents. But as always, the mountains drew him back and led to the last and most significant of David’s Canadian Rockies trilogy, the north pillar of North Twin. Climbed over a five-day period with Barry Blanchard, the route follows a stunning, direct line on the right side of the north face. Despite many attempts, this huge wall had been climbed only once before, by George Lowe and Chris Jones; its second ascent, by a very difficult new route was a major breakthrough in Canadian Rockies climbing.

“David was a dreamer, and one of the most energetic and enthusiastic climbers I’ve ever known. He bubbled over with ideas, and it often seemed as though he had a plan for every season of every year. Not content to climb just for himself, he shared his passion far and wide, through his writing, his photography and his work with The Polar Circus, which he helped start and largely financed. Never one to take himself or his reputation too seriously, David encouraged and inspired those around him, regardless of the standard they climbed at.

“But David’s energies weren’t directed solely at climbing. A respected professional, he succeeded in building a solid career in engineering; more recently, he had opened a climbing shop in Calgary and designed and manufactured equipment. He was also devoted to his family and placed tremendous importance on spending time with his wife Gillian and their four-year-old daughter Sarah. He had friends all over the world and managed to keep in touch with all of them.

“David was disappointed with his back-to-back trips to K2 and Everest in 1986. Both had been characterized by poor weather, and despite his best efforts, success was elusive. He had been thinking of the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan for several years and Catherine Freer, another veteran of the K2 and Everest expeditions, was also keen on the route. They started up with ten days of food and reached the start of the mile-long corniced ridge at 13,500 feet. Here, at the crux of the route, they disappeared. Two helicopter searches revealed no sign of life—just their packs, a small yellow tent hanging from an ice axe and, a short distance away, a bit of fixed rope stretched over the gap left by a huge broken-off cornice.”

How well Mike Kennedy has expressed all that. I shall add a few personal insights of my own.

Losing Dave and Catherine Freer on the Hummingbird Ridge of Mount Logan in June of 1987 has caused a sobering reevaluation of my own goals. I had planned to be on the route with him two years previously, and Catherine tried to convince me to go this year. How hard can we push the odds when someone as good as Dave disappears?

I can remember being in the lead on the north ridge of K2 with Dave on the crux section between Camps I and II. As he zoomed up the hardest mixed section, I thought to myself that there was no one I would trust or enjoy more in the situation. It was one of those days with a great companion when you feel as if you are really climbing, laying out thousands of feet of fixed rope, in contrast to the usual expedition tedium of waiting on a big mountain.

Dave’s enthusiasms and skills made him a driving force on any trip. On our Everest east face climb, he had volunteered to do a double carry to establish the high camp, Camp III, just prior to his scheduled first attempt on the summit. Reading from my journal at Camp II of the next morning, I see, “Cheese announces his cough has turned wet; his lungs don’t feel right and he’s going down. Can’t be! Can’t be Dave! He’d seemed the strongest of all and had probably contributed the most to the trip. Good judgment though. Better to come back again than to chance going to High Camp with HAPE. I admire his ability to make a difficult decision.”

Dave went back down, recovered, came back up and was headed for the top before the last summit team was stopped by a snowstorm. Dave’s contributions on Everest were more than just physical. His analytic engineering skills had helped with the design of the gravity winch, in my mind the key to our success. He never seemed to have a psychological let-down and really helped to carry the team. His infectious enthusiasm about the larger-than-life goals will be something I shall always treasure. I wish his daughter had had more time to share that.

George H. Lowe, III