American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Steven Craig Risse, 1952-1993

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994



Seattle-area climber, Steven Craig Risse, with Mark Bebie and Thomas Waarsdorp, died in late March in an attempt to climb Slipstream, an ice route near the Columbia Icefields. The exact cause of their death is unknown.

Steve was married to Donna McBain, a well-known climber and board member of Women Climbers Northwest. In many ways, theirs was a climber’s dream; it seemed they were always on the go, or getting ready in their basement full of gear. Steve was Chief of Psychiatry at American Lake Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tacoma, where he was a loved and respected clinician and a skilled administrator. He also held a post as Associate Professor of Pyschiatry at the University of Washington, where he conducted vital research on Alzheimer’s disease. Steve rarely shared his accomplishments in one field with practitioners of another, so climbing partners had no idea that Steve saved lives as a clinical psychiatrist, and co-workers had little concept of the extent of his climbing. The exception to this characteristic modesty was Steve’s pride in their home. Visitors were often treated to a grand tour of Steve

and Donna’s latest improvements to the house: cabinets built, new stereo, Herculean landscaping tasks.

Steve perpetuated the best American amateur tradition. He was deeply committed to his profession, and at the same time he helped define the cutting edge of alpine climbing in the Northwest. Equally at home on rock and ice, Steve constantly improved his skills, flashing 5.12s at the age of 40. This was all carried out without diets and fancy exercise equipment. Noted for their reluctance to get out of bed in the morning, Steve and Donna also loved alpine climbing and disdained unplanned bivouacs. As a result, they developed lightning speed during countless mountain trips. Somehow they found time to remodel a beautiful house, sail, ski and visit their families, demonstrating that climbing can be integrated with professional careers. Steve was rarely satisfied with his accomplishments, yet despite internal and external pressures, he was calm and unruffled, never imposing his concerns on others.

Steve started climbing in 1975 while a medical student at the University of Wisconsin. With longtime partner Ron Lenz and the Wisconsin Hoofers, Steve initiated a tradition of climbing every Sunday, regardless of the weather. As a result, Steve and Ron climbed at Devil’s Lake at -13°F. Steve was rarely content with repeating classics. He established an impressive series of new routes and first free ascents in the Northwest, including the southwest face of Spickard, the north couloir on Redoubt, the south Tahoma Headwall on Rainier, the east face of Cutthroat, the Boving Arête on Dragontail, the southwest face of Waddington, the south Norwegian buttress of Index, the southeast corner of Liberty Bell, the west face of North Early Winter Spire, the north ridge of Chimney Rock, the east face of Lexington Tower and the Independence route on Liberty Bell.

Outside the Pacific Northwest, Risse participated in a bitterly cold winter attempt on Ama Dablam in 1982, the successful 1986 Australian-American expedition on the northwest ridge of Gasherbrum IV, an ascent of Dharamsura in India with Donna in 1988 and a Russian-American expedition to Kirghizia where he and Donna made the first ascent of Little Asan via the western dihedral in 1990.

Climbing in an unconventional threesome, Risse, Bebie and Tuthill made a fast one-day ascent of Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies in March, 1989. This past winter, Risse and Waarsdorp had just completed Takakkaw Falls and were winding up a successful ice-climbing tour when they set out to climb Slipstream on March 20.

We shall miss Steve as a good friend and an inspirational role model. We can only try to uphold his tradition.

Peter Keleman and Rachel Cox

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