Sylvanus John Ebert, 1907-1996

Publication Year: 1997.



John Ebert, founder of the Iowa Mountaineers, Inc., was one of the great legacies in American mountaineering. While living in the heartland of the Midwest, in the middle of silos and cornfields, 800 miles from the closest mountains, John and Ede Ebert founded one of the most reputable and active not-for-profit mountaineering clubs. In the club’s 56-year history, over 78,000 people from all 50 states joined John and Ede on the ascents of 1,290 peaks in 17 countries. The Iowa Mountaineers had over 250 first ascents and 38 mountains ascended and named for the first time to its credit. It was the largest university mountaineering club in the world with over 5,200 members and 4,800 people trained yearly in the skills of rock climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing, hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing and winter mountain survival for academic credit.

Born in Richfield, Wisconsin, John Ebert grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin, as a youth. He excelled in baseball, ice hockey and tennis with abilities that took him to semiprofessional levels. But his real love was climbing in the mountains. At age 16 he hitchhiked to Colorado and ran up Pikes Peak, Mount Evans and Longs Peak, to name a few of the dozen peaks he climbed. He spent every waking hour during the summers of his youth climbing peaks and exploring mountains in the western states.

John later moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where he received his degree at the University of Iowa and worked full time at the University as the Chief Radio Engineer at WSUI. He met Ede at the University, and they were married in 1939. His inspiration to found a Midwestern mountaineering club was bom while returning from a climbing trip to the Wind Rivers in 1939. John felt strongly that more people would go to the mountains if someone else did all the planning and provided safe, experienced mountain leadership. That fall John placed an ad in The Daily Iowan, a University student newspaper. Seventy people attended the first meeting to help found a mountaineering club. The Iowa Mountaineers became a University of Iowa student organization in 1940 and was incorporated in Iowa as a not-for-profit corporation in 1943.

In 1948 John taught the first mountaineering course ever offered at a major university in this hemisphere. Titled “Outings and Mountaineering,” it was offered for three hours of credit. Since then over 39,200 University of Iowa students have traveled with the Iowa Mountaineers to destinations very distant from the Midwest to receive academic credit.

Under his leadership and personal direction and because of his insatiable desire to explore and seek out new mountain ranges, John led the Iowa Mountaineers into many new mountain ranges in North America and elsewhere in the world. Mountaineering camps held in eight Quebradas in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca resulted in 85 peaks being climbed by the Iowa Mountaineers with many first ascents, including first and second ascents by women. Included is Nevado Huascaran (22,200 feet), where Iowa Mountaineers have the second, third and fifth ascents by women and over 235 of its members reached the summit of Peru’s highest peak.

John Ebert’s philosophy was to allow anyone who had the spirit of adventure and wanted to climb mountains to join him on any trip the club sponsored. Thus, very good climbers as well as just average climbers with little if any mountaineering background were able to summit some of the world’s finest mountains. It is rare in the sport of mountaineering to find a John Ebert, one so totally unselfish and less interested in what he personally wanted to climb than in helping others climb peaks they wanted to ascend. He was forever grateful to all the climbing leaders who helped allow the Iowa Mountaineers to have 56 years with a perfect safety record without serious accident or fatality.

John’s family members’ lives, including wife Ede and sons, John F., Jim and Joel, were all made finer by the beauty, thrills and camaraderie growing up as a family in the spectacular mountains of the world. As a family they came to know the enthusiastic participants and gifted leaders. Those participants were so fantastic that over 1,850 married couples met on club trips; one couple became the first to marry on top of Devil’s Tower, which necessitated hoisting the judge up the Durrance Route!

Thank you, John, for your inspiration and dreams. You have been able personally to touch many of us with your love for the mountains. You have made mountain climbing possible for each of us regardless of our varied climbing abilities, and you have made the mountains of the world an exciting place for us to see and explore. The mountain camps that you provided were incredible places to meet wonderful people, to sing and to enjoy challenging and worthwhile climbing. You have given those of us who have participated with you in the mountains throughout the world many wonderful, memorable and safe mountaineering experiences to remember and cherish for the rest of our lives. Thank you, Dad.

Jim Ebert