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Arnold Wexler, 1918-1997



Arnold Wexler died in his sleep Sunday evening, November 16, of brain cancer. He was 79.

Arnold lived in a rarefied atmosphere—that of the research engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and of the mountain climber. He is largely responsible for the Mountaineering Section as we know it. He co-invented the idea of dynamic belaying. He made nearly 50 first ascents of Canadian mountains, many of them requiring horrendous bushwhacking.

Arnold was born January 3, 1918, in Manhattan in New York City, but spent his early childhood in the Catskills until his family returned to New York City. He received a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the City College of New York in 1940. In 1941, he joined the then-National Bureau of Standards to work in structural materials research and testing, eventually focusing on instrumentation and standards for measurement, primarily for determining the moisture content of gases. During Word War II, he tested climbing ropes and equipment so the military could undertake mountain operations. As an aside, his work on oxygen regulators for military pilots helped some climbing friends (inspired by Jacques Cousteau) to make their own underwater breathing apparatus to explore submerged passages in West Virginia caves.

He was one of a group of rock climbers that pioneered climbing in the Washington, D.C. area in the 1940s. When this group became the Mountaineering Section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Arnold served as its Chairman for five or six years, quietly leading it through its formative stage. Through his testing of ropes and climbing equipment at the National Bureau of Standards during WW II, Arnold met a west coast climber, (then Major) Richard Leonard. Together they made the first mathematical analysis of the forces on a falling climber, his anchors, the rope, and the belayer. They created the idea of dynamic belaying— a progressive snubbing of the rope around the belayer’s body to mitigate the shock on the system. At Carderock, a local climbing area, Arnold encouraged the practice of dynamic belaying by using “Oscar,” a 150-pound dummy, who could be dropped to simulate a falling climber. The ability to do a dynamic belay undermined the prevailing ethic that the leader should never fall because of the usual fatal consequences. Now the system need not fail. This was the first step toward today’s new climbing ethic.

Even with dynamic belaying, Arnold was a cautious and competent climber. He believed in being able to climb down from a crux. Nevertheless, Arnold pioneered routes at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia such as Simple J Malarkey (5.7), Ye Gods and Little Fishes (5.8) in sneakers and driving pitons on sight—strong routes for 1953-54.

My strongest memories of Arnold are when we shared a little house at Seneca Rocks (now used by a guide service). It was furnished with local yard-sale furniture and a new wood stove. It was then that Arnold and I put up Prune (5.7). At a taxing moment on the first pitch, I clipped into a very old Army ring piton. As Arnold followed, he lifted it out with one finger. Half of it had rusted away.

Arnold climbed almost every summer, either in the Canadian Rockies, the Interior Ranges or the Northwest Territories (at the Cirque of the Unclimbables, which his party named). There were also trips to the American Rockies, to the Alps in France and Italy, and to the Peruvian Andes. Altogether, Arnold made well over 100 ascents, of which nearly 50 were first ascents. His most notable climb was in 1946 to the Selkirks with Sterling Hendricks, who had been exploring the Canadian mountains. The Hendricks party made its way through one of the most inaccessible regions of British Columbia to make the second ascent of Mount Sir Sanford, a major peak which had been first climbed 32 years previously. Many of his subsequent trips involved horrendous bushwhacks, ferrying loads on pre-Kelty pack boards or in shapeless Army rucksacks, never finding air-dropped loads—all to get into those peaks that no one had ever climbed before. There is an excitement in this that is hard to duplicate now. For all of these things he had done, it was a pleasure to nominate him to be an Honorary Member of the Mountaineering Section.

Arnold had an ever-present curiosity about different ways of life and different cultures. It was only natural that he began folk dancing. He, and many of us climbers in the 1950s, would go each week to Dave Rosenberg’s folk dances and afterward to his back-alley artist studio for beer. This curiosity about other peoples led him to trek several times in Nepal, to Kashmir and Ladakh at the western end of the Himalayas and to less rugged trips to other remote corners of the world.

Arnold was a gentle person, a patient teacher, and a trusted climbing partner.

John Christian