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Denton Fox, 1929-1988



Denton Fox was one of a small group of climbers, mostly from the Western states, who, by happenstance, found themselves attending Yale University in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Building on the skeletal remains of an organization inactive since the beginning of World War II, they rejuvenated the Yale Mountaineering Club. The Western contingent included Denny, Dick Merritt, Bill Fix, Zack Stewart, Boug Bolyard, the writer, and graduate students Larry Niesen and Dave Harrah. At its peak, about forty climbers participated.

In remembering Fox, as he preferred to be known, the collegiate years loom large. Building on his earlier experience in the Colorado Rockies and Europe, his most active mountaineering period was during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He had many fine climbs in the Rockies and Wind Rivers and was also a regular at the meccas of Eastern rock climbing, such as Shawangunks, Sleeping Giant, Quincy Quarries, ice climbing in Huntington Ravine and winter mountaineering on Mount Marcy and Katahdin.

Throughout this period, he emerged as one of the two or three figures who sustained Yale mountaineering in both spirit and substance. Fox was no stereotype student-cum-mountaineer. He was of slight physique, formal in manner and dressed, right down to the thoughtfully puffed pipe, as the professor of English and Medieval Literature he was to become. His university training through the Ph.D. was entirely at Yale and he taught there for four years before moving on to Grinnell and then the University of Toronto, where he had an outstanding career, including a long stint as Chairman of a distinguished English Department.

Most of us from those early days remember Denny Fox for his droll humor and always sage counsel. But he also possessed that bit of madness that occasionally must surface if mountaineers are to succeed. I believe he treasured (as did his friends) those infrequent departures from his academic persona. Images leap to mind: Fox on Mount Washington’s summit flats in 105 mile- per-hour winds, literally a horizontal airfoil at the end of a 35-meter rope and anchored to his partner’s rock-encircling body; or Fox, the gleeful mastermind behind an insane February drive across Lake Champlain at three A.M. so that a single moment of daylight winter climbing in the Adirondacks wouldn’t be missed. Not the great stuff of his serious mountaineering, but the wonderful flip side of a true intellectual and gentleman.

Melvin Marcus