American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Henry Welty Coulter, Jr., 1920-1996

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

HENRY WELTY COULTER, JR.

1920-1996

Henry (Hank) Welty Coulter, a prominent and distinguished older member of the American Alpine Club, died of a pulmonary ailment on February 12, 1996, in Lebanon, New Hampshire. He had spent most of his life in Washington, D.C., but moved to New England in autumn, 1993.

Climbers will remember Hank for his many difficult first ascents in the Tetons, usually in the company of his later-to-be brother-in-law, Jack Durrance. Most of these climbs were accomplished in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. This was the golden age of Teton climbing when the number of new routes available seemed unlimited and good mountaineers were rare. Two of these were Jack Durrance and Hank Coulter. Usually together, the two pioneered a series of itineraries, many of which have since become classics. If the Durrance-Coulter routes do not equal technically the standards of today they represent nonetheless the “state of the art” for the era during which they were made. Viewed in the light of what was then known and what equipment was used, there is no doubt that the climbs pioneered by Hank and Jack are just as notable for their time as are the more acrobatic achievements of the worthiest of their successors.

There is hardly any point in listing Hank Coulter’s best ascents. All were “top of the line.” Besides, their description may be found in any up-to-date version of the Climbing Guide to the Tetons for whose first edition Hank served as editor and part-time author.

The purpose of guidebooks is to convey information. Accordingly, they usually overlook anecdotes, amusing or otherwise, which may have occurred during a first ascent. The Durrance- Coulter partnership usually had more than its share of these tales, thanks largely to Jack’s clinical and sardonic sense of humor and Hank’s proclivity to view all human events with a grain of amusement. One of these incidents is not to be forgotten.

It was August 13, 1941, when an energetic and bushy-tailed Jack Durrance and a sleepy Hank Coulter set off in the morning twilight to climb the hitherto unsealed West Face of the Grand. Some time after sunrise, when rocks and air had become comfortably warm, Jack found himself leading a delicate pitch and in need of slack to continue his advance. But the rope refused to budge and Jack called down to Hank, who was on a ledge below and, presumably, belaying. No reply. He called again. Still no reply. With great care Jack descended the difficult pitch to see what might be wrong. And there, seated in a belay position, oblivious to all around him, was Hank, fast asleep and snoring noisily.

Precisely what expletives Jack may have used to rouse Hank from his torpor are not known, but they were sufficient to insure that there would be no repetition of the incident. Indeed, in later years Jack would invariably praise Hank’s mountaineering abilities and his extraordinary conscientiousness.

Bom in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Hank graduated from Dartmouth, then went on to obtain a doctorate in geology from Yale University. In 1952, as a professional geologist, he joined the United States Geological Survey and next year participated in a Pennsylvania Museum expedition to Afghanistan. In time he became one of America’s most expert seismologists and a specialist in all matters relating to geological safety. He studied the Alaska earthquake of 1964 and helped draw plans for the rehabilitation of Valdez. Not surprisingly. Hank served as an advisor to the Secretary of the Interior’s Commission on matters related to the Trans-Alaskan pipeline.

Hank usually represented the Geological Survey during its stormier relations with the then- Atomic Energy Commission. The Commission was seeking the most economically viable locations for the siting of nuclear energy plants. More often than not, these locations happened to be either on a fault line or close thereto. It became Hank’s unpleasant duty to veto a large number of otherwise desirable locations, something that did not endear him to the five Commissioners.

An indication of Hank’s reputation as a mountaineer may be found in the fact that he was elected to the American Alpine Club when he was barely 20 at a time when the age requirement demanded a full majority. Equally important is that Hank was a longstanding member of Washington’s exclusive Cosmos Club, where membership is conferred only on persons who have made a major contribution to American society and to the advancement of human knowledge.

All those who knew Hank well loved him and respected him. He was quiet, unassuming, conscientious and always in search of the truth. He was a bom teacher with the rare quality of being able to instill enthusiasm in all those around him. Those who associated with him more often than not quickly learned to surpass themselves. But most important of all for a mountaineer, Hank could retain his sense of humor even in the most dire circumstances; and after all, is it not a sense of humor that really makes climbing worth while?

Andrew John Kauffman, II

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