Raymond David Caughron 1943-2002
I first met RD Caughron some 30 years ago, and knew him as a climbing and skiing companion, raconteur, advocate for Yosemite, and leading spirit of the AAC among other roles. But perhaps his greatest role was as a friend and mentor to many, many people. He liked involving people; above all he wanted to get them into the mountains.
RD, as he was universally known, was born in San Luis Obispo, California, on May 6, 1943. He grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, graduating from Kansas State University in mechanical engineering. In 1970 RD began a new life, enrolling in the MBA program at the University of California,
Berkeley, and taking up climbing. There were trips to Yosemite, the High Sierra, Tetons, and soon thereafter to Canada, Alaska, and South America. Highlights were a new route on Mt. Waddington, an early ascent of Mt. Alberta, a traverse of Denali, and Korzhenevskoy, a 7,000-meter peak in the Pamirs.
Together we made many weekend trips to Yosemite, with the usual hassles over finding a place to camp. For some years our favorite was the “Ahwahnee Annex.” Being in the grounds of the hotel, it overcame the dilemma of the “out of bounds” camper: that of being given away by a parked car. Breakfasts were excellent, the washroom appreciated for shaving and general cleaning up, and we even had the occasional dinner. Coat and tie mandatory in those days.
RD worked for some years in product development at The North Face, and later for PG & E. In 1976 he married Susan Henke, from whom he later divorced; their daughter Heather was never far from his thoughts. RD was the heart and soul of the Sierra Nevada Section of the AAC, and served on the board of the national club.
RD got to know many climbers from around the world; his home in the Berkeley hills was a warm solace for many itinerant souls. One of these was the brilliant Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz, who he met around 1990. She enthralled him with her descriptions of Himalayan climbing, saying: “If you want you can come with us. But remember, it is dangerous.” So RD now began another climbing career on 8,000 meter peaks, together with Piotr Pustelnik and his companions. In succession he climbed Gasherbrum II, attempted Nanga Parbat, ascended Dhaulagiri, and attempted K2 and Kanchenjunga. Latterly he had health problems, but in his mind this was not going to get in his way.
On April 17, 2002, RD reported from Makalu via email: “Makalu - the pictures don t show the wind which seems to gust all night long. Nothing like an evening of tent flapping and listening to Frank Sinatra in my headphones…. We are safe, in good shape, warm and in good spirits.” A few days later, RD and a companion carried loads up toward Makalu La. While his companion turned around, RD continued on upward, having to make a forced bivouac. Two Swiss climbers descending from Makalu La found him the following morning. He apparently died of hypothermia.
Just a month before his departure for Makalu, RD proposed a ski trip into Yosemite’s backcountry. “Can you get the maps?” I asked. “Yes, no problem” RD replied. The weather turned worse, a couple of feet of snow fell overnight, and we now had to navigate by compass in falling snow. Pretty soon we left the map quadrangle we were on. “RD—do you have the next map?” Unfazed, he whipped out the Yosemite Park tourist brochure we’d picked up at the entrance station and pointed to its ridiculous map. Needless to say we were soon hopelessly lost. We ended up close under the south face of Half Dome, and had to climb down a series of rock steps, lowering our skis and packs down as best we could. Next day, now overdue, RD hit an unseen rock, took a spill and cut his forehead. We stopped the blood, bandaged him up, and off we went. At a lunch stop the battered RD handed out smoked oysters. “This is so great” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
And so it was. Thank you RD for all the great times that so many of us have shared with you. We’ll have to carry on without you now. In closing, I am reminded of a letter that Ernest Hemingway wrote to close friends on the death of a young son: “It is not so bad for Baoth, because he had a fine time, always, and he has only done something now that we all must do.”
Chris Jones, AAC