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William James Buckingham, 1936-1990



Bill Buckingham was a striking exception to the folklore that American mountaineers come from the flatlands, that those who are bom and raised in the mountains seldom develop an interest in climbing them. Bom on July 7, 1936, and living all of his early life in Jackson, Wyoming, where his father served as supervisor of the Teton National Forest, he began his acquaintance with the mountains on hikes with his family in the valleys of the Teton Range. Although the rest of the family did not climb, Bill was not content with simple hiking. For him the nearby peaks were more than just part of the background, to be viewed but not explored. During his high-school years Buckingham was developing both interest and skill in serious climbing. By one account, at the age of 13 or so he climbed most of the high peaks of the range, mostly solo. In 1952, when only 16, he joined Dunn Idle for the 13th ascent of the classic north ridge of the Grand Teton. It was the beginning of his notable career in Teton climbing.

Buckingham’s profession was that of mathematician, in keeping with his natural inclination for meticulous organization and analysis, the ferreting out and understanding of details. After two years at the University of Colorado, where climbing was close at hand, Bill transferred to Stanford where he graduated magna cum laude, with Phi Beta Kappa honors. Continuing in graduate school, he received an MA in mathematics from Princeton. He applied these intellectual skills in a sequence of teaching positions, first at Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, then at Mount Holyoke College and finally at Suffolk University in Boston, where he served for several years as Chairman of the Department of Mathematics before his retirement.

A second comsuming interest of his was music. Beginning with piano lessons in grade school, he acquired considerable keyboard skills, owning and playing four harpsichords over his lifetime. His musical participation took additional forms as well, with extensive concert attendance, learning the recorder, and perhaps most impressively the acquisition of an immense collection of sheet music, classical records, and more recently, compact discs. His collection of over 7500 CDs could be said to be truly world-class. And musicological knowledge accompanied these acquisitions; everything was organized by style and chronology. This same enthusiastic need to collect and organize is evidenced in his chronologically ordered and cataloged collection of some 8000 35 mm slides.

From 1953 through 1959 most of Buckingham’s mountaineering energies were directed toward his home mountains, the Tetons. Over the years he climbed at least nine distinct routes on the Grand Teton, and made over 30 first ascents, new routes, and variations in the range. Several of these are major routes which are today well respected and often repeated. Among other routes, the Buckingham eye discovered the Apocalypse Arête of Prospector’s Mountain, the south ridge of Nez Perce, the southeast ridge of the Middle Teton, the direct Underhill Ridge of the Grand Teton, the Serendipity Arête of Mount Owen, and the north face of Mount Moran. In the summer of 1955 he served as professional guide working for Paul Petzoldt during his last year as operator of the guiding concession at Grand Teton National Park.

Buckingham was the chronicler of the outstanding four-man Mount McKinley expedition of 1959, which broke important new ground in climbing the western rib of the south face. Partway along the McKinley climb, Buckingham, who was never known for timidity, made the definitive move with Barry Corbet of retrieving some 800 feet of fixed rope below their camp to permit the continuation of their climb. This bold stroke eliminated the possibility of retreat and forced the party on to the summit and success. It was the decisive moment of commitment on the foremost American ascent of the year.

Buckingham also penetrated new areas in Wyoming and in Canada where he and companions made a number of first ascents. These included peaks around Graves Lake in the Wind River Range, Pinnacle Peak in the Gros Ventre Range, Mount Merlin in the Selkirks, the east peak of Mount Stutfield, and in the Bugaboos, the first modem ascent (since the original two ascents in 1941) of the formidable South Tower of Howser Spire.

In addition to these significant accomplishments, Buckingham is today best known for his astonishing sequence of pioneering explorations and climbs in the Logan Range of the North West Territories of Canada. Prior to his first expedition in 1960, there had been only two brief trips into the Logan Range in 1952 and 1955. This range, little-known in the 1960s, was the perfect field for Bill to apply his mountaineering, analytical and organizational skills. Here was an important, unmapped, mostly unexplored mountain range, an endless tangle of peaks, glaciers, valleys and rivers which defied the imposition of order.

Since no maps of the range existed, Buckingham accepted this challenge. With some effort he acquired a large set of aerial photographs of the range from the RCAF and devoted many hours, even days, studying these, devising routes through the complex terrain to maximize the climbing possibilities. This painstaking work resulted in the production of his two pioneering maps of the range which were later published in this journal; these maps have been immensely useful to subsequent parties. Bill also happily accepted the challenge of the difficult climbing, usually on good granite and steep glacial ice. In the course of his five expeditions from 1960 to 1969 with Lew Surdam and others, he made one major climb after another, including the first ascent of the highest peak in the range, Mount Nirvana, which is also the highest peak in the North West Territories. In all Buckingham made over 50 first ascents in the Logan Range, an incredible record never again to be matched.

Bill Buckingham was a master of the arcane skills which are required of the true explorer. Blessed with an analytical mind, he was a phenomenally good map reader, a consummate backpacker with exceptional ability to get from one place cross-country to another without losing an inch more elevation than necessary. His skills as a route-finder were those of a virtuoso. Those who climbed with him say that he had a near-miraculous ability to see in the dark, a talent at times critically important. Others recall his awesome sure-footedness on steep, treacherous terrain without the safety of ropes. A term loaded with meaning in the 1950s and 1960s was “Buckingham 3rd class,” which included most of the decimal categories of the day.

In temperament Bill also was exceptional. Always well-mannered, he had the agreeable capacity of remaining calm in the face of difficulty, either on a mountain ledge or in earnest conversation. While normally affable, he did not withhold opinions and these were commonly delivered with incisive logic and an ingrained sense of humor. On the McKinley climb when the party was confronted by both good weather and an intimidating bare ice slope, it was suggested that perhaps they should wait until the weather turned and deposited some snow on the slope, easing its difficulties. Bill’s response, which settled the group’s decision to push on, was that they could not return to civilization with the excuse that they turned back because of good weather!

The Logan expeditions were of course directed toward first ascents, but of perhaps greater importance to Buckingham’s exploratory sense the value of getting to the top to see what was on the other side, to see how things fit together so that the future travel in the next valley would yield further success. The need to grasp a coherent understanding of topography was deep in Buckingham’s mind. Because of this driven geographical curiosity, future expeditions to the range are in his debt. Among other climbers, Bill Buckingham was perhaps less well known personally than were his climbs. If a climber is judged by the quality of his routes, then Buckingham—explorer of the Logan and Teton Ranges— deserves a place in the first rank. He maintained an informed and critical enthusiasm and interest in mountain-craft through all his years. The joys of climbing were never forgotten. Those who had the privilege and benefit of his friendship and his profound knowledge of the mountains will ever regret his early passing. Bill died on August 20, 1990. The final sentence of his McKinley article reads: “Our fine adventure had come to an end.” So it was with his life, a very fine adventure indeed.

Leigh N. Ortenburger