American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rob Slater, 1960-1995

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996

ROB SLATER 1960-1995

To the determined climber, there are main events that lead one toward the greatest peaks. Beyond the tragic news of Rob Slater’s death on K2 lies a story of how this great adventure climber came to be.

I met Rob in 1976 on a NOLS North Cascade Mountaineering Course. I quickly picked him out of the crowd as the “gung-ho one” — Mom and Dad didn’t push this guy off to summer camp. We shared the same spirit for the mountains: that this was an adventure and the ABCs of learning to climb were an added bonus. When he spoke of the mountains, he had that faraway look, that keen ability to utilize the “minds eye” that is characteristic of high- level adventures.

Rob Slater had a brilliant career in Yosemite, climbing standard-pushing routes with people such as Randy Leavitt. On his last two walls we climbed Lost in America and then The Shortest Straw along with John Sherman. Yosemite nailing did not seem to inspire Rob anymore. He had become fascinated by the desert spires of the Southwest and climbed them prolifically with various partners.

The most pivotal event that brought Rob back to the mountains was our 1988 winter ascent of the V-Notch Coulior in the Sierra Nevada. We were benighted on top of the climb and were placed in the painful situation of making it through the night without bivy gear. Every hour felt like an entire evening as we stomped and huddled on the edge of hypothermia. The light of the day felt like a new chance to continue on with our lives. The down- climb went quickly, and we were soon brewing in the warmth of the tent. Rob said, “That was the most miserable night of my life.” We both agreed that we would do it again.

Our next objective became the 1,000-meter Slipstream. On February 27, 1995, we set out for Canada; it would be Rob’s fourth attempt, and my third. It had not snowed for several days, so the avalanche danger was reduced. As we climbed, it became progressively colder. The ice was concrete hard: ice picks broke, forcing the second to jümar as our ice axe supply dwindled. Every placement took much effort. It was easier to virtually solo many of the pitches. We summitted in the dark and ran over to the descent gully in hope of getting down that evening, but found the entrance into it to be avalanche- prone. We searched in vain for a prior rappel anchor while the prospects of an exit dwindled in the black night. We built a snow wall enclosure and began our vigil.

Rob had always wanted to see the northern lights. Well, he finally got his show. The light form was not the typical green glow that is seen off in the distant horizon. This light form was a well-defined curtain hovering and waving directly above the glacier below. The sparkling curtain would fan across the sky and branch out into a series of columns. It pulsed over our heads for some 40 minutes. Rob was completely exhilarated — I knew this event was quickly moving up to number one in a long list of adventures.

In the pre-dawn hours, Rob said, “Oh, man, my feet are icy cold.” I began massaging his legs as he stomped his feet. Things were getting desperate as our precious warmth became difficult to maintain. As the northern sun began its nearly horizontal winter ascent into the sky, I began to dig into the ice cap for an anchor. Rob, however, was more interested in experiencing the adventure. He was off photographing Slipstream, which was now in the sun. He was elated.

During the descent, Rob continued to eye our accomplishment. I had never seen him happier. As we made our way down, an avalanche began. We ran among the ice blocks of a prior avalanche, and it soon became obvious that it was not going to hit us. After that, Rob resumed his adventurer’s gaze toward Slipstream, his face still animated with tremendous joy.

On the ski out, our faces hurt from the cold. (We later found out that the ranger station 6,000 feet below recorded -30° C.) Back in the camper, Rob propped his bare feet up on the table. I blurted out, “Rob, your feet! They look frostbitten.” Rob looked surprised and said that his feet had rewarmed with no pain. Several hours later, as the ugly blisters of frostbite began to form, Rob maintained that it was worth it. Between all of the attempts, the extreme bivy and a five-week-long healing period, he had no regrets.

Rob Slater had an indomitable thirst for adventure. His close partners were the people who shared in the spirit of adventure. He owned hundreds of adventure-related books, some quite rare. He would take to reading select harrowing passages over and over. Adventure was his full-time hobby.

As a bond trader, Rob was always immersed in issues of risk and return. As a climber, risk was the essential element that made a climb rewarding. He had yet to climb a 7000-meter peak, but he felt ready for K2. He worked for some two years to train for and organize the expedition. He was looking forward to “settling down” after climbing K2; but on the summit day, fateful decisions were made. Some individuals retreated in the deteriorating weather. Others were well on the way to summitting. The ever-ambitious Robbie continued on. Just after summitting at 7 p.m., Rob’s greatest day turned to disaster. A powerful windstorm hit, tents in the basecamp were flattened and seven people were taken.

I want the world to know that on top of Slipstream Rob said, “Slipstream went down. All I gotta do is climb K2 and I’m home free.” He just wanted two framed photos on top of his mantel: Slipstream and K2. After all the courageous effort, the final outcome wasn’t fair. Although he misses his friends and family dearly, our friend is satisfied. He climbed the mountain of mountains.

Bruce Hunter

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