American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Henry W. Kendall, 1926-1999

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

HENRY W. KENDALL 1926-1999

Henry Kendall died during an underwater photography dive at Wakulla Springs, FL, on February 15. He suffered gastrointestinal bleeding as reported in some news stories, but other factors caused him to lose consciousness and subsequently die. The medical examiner ruled his death accidental.

Henry learned from his father a love of and respect for the outdoors growing up in the small town of Sharon, south of Boston. Sea-related activities took root early, and he began diving at 12. Bored by school work as a boy, Henry became a great scientist, a brilliant professor of physics and, as chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an internationally respected public policy advocate. He was an avid diver, pilot, photographer and mountaineer who made ascents on four continents.

He trained at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, resigning from the Navy in 1946 to attend Amherst College. He earned a B.A. in mathematics from Amherst in 1950, followed by a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from M.I.T. in 1955. In the years just after WWII, he ran a summer diving and salvage business on Cape Cod. In the early 1950s he made numerous trips to the Florida Keys, taking underwater stills and movies, later co-authoring a technical book on the subject.

Henry did not even “see real mountains,” as he put it, until he was 29, when he got a view of the Tetons on a cross-country drive to join a physics research project at Stanford University in the summer of 1956. Upon his arrival at Stanford, he “instantly” joined the Stanford Alpine Club. He hit it off with Club president John Harlin who, as Henry said, “took me under his wing and taught me how to climb.” By the winter of 1956-57, they were climbing together in Yosemite Valley almost every weekend, doing most of the established routes and attempting some new ones, including the unclimbed Nose of El Capitan. Hobey DeStaebler, Henry’s Stanford roommate and frequent climbing companion, said that the 21-year-old Harlin and 29-year-old Kendall had “a kind of sympathetic determination” so far as climbing was concerned. “It was the drive to excel.”

In the SAC, Henry also met Leigh Ortenburger, Irene Ortenburger, Herb Hultgren and Tom Frost. All would become future climbing companions. Frost credited Henry with being his mentor at Stanford. Frost’s first new route in Yosemite Valley, The Roof on Lower Cathedral Rock, was done with Henry, as was the first ascent of the North Face of Mt. Clark in the Yosemite high country (also with DeStaebler, and Herb Swedlund). Henry joined Harlin, Gary Hemming and DeStaebler in the 1957 Battle Range exploration, where the foursome made the first ascent of the North Ridge of Mt. Butters.

Leigh Ortenburger invited Henry to Peru in 1958 (the first of three Peruvian expeditions for Henry) on the basis of his Yosemite and Battle Range climbs. Henry’s ascents in the Cordillera Blanca included a new route on Huascaran Sur and the second ascents by new routes on Huandoy Sur and Palcaraju.

“It wasn’t in his nature to achieve something at some other person’s expense,” Richard Blankenbecler recalled. “He taught me that while climbing was no mere game, it ought to be fun. And while there’s competition, it need not be outright competition. You climb with a partner and there’s a fellowship there. That was at the essence of the activity.”

Diving and mountaineering contributed to his professional successes, teaching him to complete projects safely. At Stanford, he took long rambles in the Yosemite high country with fellow SAC member James “BJ” Bjorken. Bjorken did the mathematical work that proved essential to the understanding and interpretation of Henry’s discovery with Jerome Friedman and Richard Taylor of quarks, the most fundamental building blocks in nature.

Henry was in Europe doing physics research in the summer of 1962 and decided to contact Harlin and Hemming. Hemming was determined to make the first American ascent of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses and, upon hearing from Henry, invited him along. After their success, the relationship between the two men blossomed, and it was with deep sadness that Henry penned Hemming’s obituary for the 1970 AAJ. Within a few years, some of Henry’s closest mountain companions—Harlin, Dave Sowles, Dan Doody, Hugo Stadtmueller, Hemming—had died, and he stopped climbing soon after Hemming’s death.

Then, in 1983, Frost wrote, “Join me and Jeff Lowe in the Himalaya. We’re going to Kantega.” In the Khumbu in 1985, Lowe and Kendall climbed a new route on Lobuje East. It involved front-pointing up steep ice, Henry’s first go at the technique. Lowe decided that Henry wasn’t experienced enough in modern ice technique to go on a planned Kantega route, but Henry believed that he could have made the climb. At 59, he still wanted to go where no one had been before.

Climbing remained an important facet of Henry’s productive, larger life. It was partially motivated by the photographic opportunities mountains provided. In the 1962 Sierra Club Bulletin, he wrote: “In one way... a camera is an essential piece of equipment because, beyond tenuous memory, photography is the only means by which the climber can relive and re-enjoy the qualities of an ascent.”

Henry’s commitment to service applied to the SAC and later the AAC, as well as to individuals. He was faculty advisor to the SAC for several years, contributed to the Stanford Alpine Club Journal, and joined the AAC in 1959. Appointed a councilor in 1966, he served as an AAC vice-president from 1968-’70.

Awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1990, Henry said, “I like to go where no human being has been before. I have done that in physics, done it a number of times with colleagues. We sometimes find things, and sometimes do not, but it is extraordinarily interesting.

“I like to go in the mountains to places where no one has been before. The world is an astonishingly beautiful place. It’s beautiful at the deep level of physics, way down inside things. What we know of the universe that’s visible to us is also of astonishing beauty, and I like to see that and explore it.”

“A privilege and an inspiration” is how Frost characterized their shared experiences. “Henry always gave back more than he took.”

John Rawlings

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