American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Galen Avery Rowell, 1940-2002

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

Galen Avery Rowell 1940-2002

In the early hours of August 11 we lost one of our most energetic and influential mountaineers and photographers when Galen Avery Rowell died in a plane crash. His wife Barbara also was killed, as was the pilot and a third passenger. The chartered flight was turning into its final approach to bringing the Rowells back home to Bishop, California, when it crashed a couple of miles short of the runway.

Galen was born in Oakland on August 23, 1940 into a family with a couple generations of experience exploring the Sierra and the world. From their home in Berkeley they started taking him at a young age onto the peaks, and in 1956 he started technical climbing in Yosemite. Three times he won scholarships to Berkeley, but three springs running he couldn’t contain himself in school as the mountains called.

In the early 1960s he roped up with many of Yosemite’s luminaries, including Warren Harding, Layton Kor, and Chuck Pratt. He started carrying a camera to record the scenes and positions he’d encounter, but for this Pratt admonished him, saying that picture-taking distracted from the climbing experience, and that the results were almost always disappointing anyway. Galen took this as a challenge, and his ensuing career might be seen as a Herculean drive to weave together the contradictory demands of both participating in and observing the mountaineering experience. During this time he also married Carol Chevez, and they had two children. By 1971 he claimed over 100 new routes in the Sierra and Yosemite.

In the 1970s he sped his pace into a legendary frenzy, supporting himself as a photographer and writer, racing to the Sierra on weekends, and taking trips north. Many of his new routes in this period were with Chris Jones, including the first ascent of the west face of North Howser Tower. He also compiled his first book, The Vertical World of Yosemite. The pace took a toll on his marriage, and he and Carol divorced.

In 1973 he got a huge break into the national media when he filled in for a National Geographic staff photographer on a feature about Yosemite. He climbed with Dennis Hennek and Doug Robinson on the first hammerless ascent of Half Dome’s Northwest Face route, and Galen’s pictures and writing ended up gracing the magazine with its first-ever story on technical rock climbing, and a cover photo. Galen knew that many of his climbing partners were upset at this publicity explosion for their esoteric world, but he believed that telling the world about clean climbing would bring positive, not negative effects. The following winter he joined Bishop locals for a trip he remembered fondly, the first ski traverse of California’s White Mountains. The following summer he joined David Roberts and Ed Ward to make the first ascent of Mt. Dickey’s huge east face.

In 1975 his reputation as a climbing photographer landed him a spot on the American K2 expedition. Here Galen struggled to assert that he was a capable climber as well, and for him the expedition devolved into acrimonious factionalism. The book that he published from it, In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, burst onto the American scene with America’s first large-format color look at the astounding Karakoram, and a disturbingly honest view of expeditionary dirty laundry. Galen met Reinhold Messner on that trip, and that meeting helped convince Galen that his longtime formula for personal adventures embodied the future for expeditions as well: wilderness objectives, with small teams of highly capable companions.

In 1977 he returned to the Karakoram with John Roskelley, Kim Schmitz, Dennis Hennek, and Jim Morrissey to make the first ascent of Great Trango. The following year, he and Ned Gillette, Alan Bard, and Doug Weins made a circum-ski of Denali, after which Galen and Ned made a one-day ascent up the West Buttress route. In 1980, Galen, Kim, Ned, and Dan Asay pulled off one of the great excursions of the modern era: a 43-day spring ski tour across the majority of the Karakoram, linking the VAST glacial systems via high passes. Hot off of that trip, Galen, Ned, and Jo Sanders went to make the first American climb in Communist China, a ski descent of Mustagh Ata.

In the 1980s Galen’s whirlwind inflated into a tornado. Key to this was that in 1981 he met Barbara Cushman, Director of Public Relations at The North Face. Within a few months they married, and within a year she elevated Galen’s business from a home office into a high- powered company. With her as president, Mountain Light would grow into a seven-figure industry.

Galen’s artistic focus came to define his photography on his terms, starting with his book, Mountain Light. It used many of his favorite images to say that his photography was an interaction with wilderness, a balance of planning and spontaneity, and to understand the grandeur of his images one must appreciate the adventures he took to get them. His art was a quest for what he called “the dynamic landscape,” photos that evoke the energetic sense of terrain and participant united in action. He had arrived to say that strenuous wilderness explorations and the camera on his chest were mutually energizing, enhancing both his experiences and his ability to photograph them. In 1984 Galen was given the Ansel Adams award for wilderness photography.

Galen then took great advantage of the fact that China was opening more of Tibet. In 1981, he was on the first modern American trek to the north side of Mt. Everest, and then he led a circumnavigation and the second ascent of sacred Amnye Machin, in northeastern Tibet. In 1983, he was leader of a team that tried Mt. Everest’s west ridge, without oxygen. By the late 1980s he had visited Kailas and other areas, and he had become fed up with the Chinese line about Tibet. He contacted the exiled Tibetan leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and in 1989 they compiled My Tibet, a book with Galen’s pictures and the Dalai Lama’s commentaries.

Between all this, he jammed in climbs all over the world. In 1982 he teamed with John Roskelley, Vern Clevenger, and Bill O’Connor to make the first ascent of Cholatse. In 1984 he, Jack Tackle, Gray Thompson, and Rob Milne made the first ascent of Lukpilla Brakk. In 1985, he climbed Fitzroy with Mike Graber and Dave Wilson. In Pakistan in 1986, Galen persuaded President Zia al Haq to provide him and Barbara helicopter access all over the Karakoram, and as Galen documented the Pakistani side of the Siachen war with India, he collected aerial photographs of most every corner of the range.

During the 1990s, Galen teamed up as partner and publicist for Todd Skinner and Paul Piana as that pair made bolted, first-free ascents of big walls, notably Mt. Hooker and Proboscis. Galen later told me that the sport climbing tactics on those climbs had their place, but they took away the spirit of mountaineering. In the Sierra he continued to climb as many new and difficult routes as any modern climber, and for these he always used traditional style.

Galen was endowed with an ego that turned off more than one acquaintance. Those of us who knew him well, however, got to experience him as everything from a barely contained force of wild nature, to an amazingly penetrating analyst of the world around him. I suspect that every day of his life included at least a few moments of spontaneous and infectious enthusiasm for busting out and doing something wild. I first experienced that when we worked on a river assignment together; he summoned me to escape from duty and run some rapids without a boat. Galen also developed a strong sense of philanthropy, and he was on the board of over 20 non-profit organizations.

Galen’s last expedition, in the early summer of 2002, gave him some of his deepest satisfaction ever. He and Rick Ridgeway, Conrad Anker, and Jimmy Chin set out on foot, towing 200-pound loads with balloon-tired rickshaws, to find the western calving grounds of Tibet’s threatened antelope. They indeed found the chiru giving birth, and the widely broadcast story is now contributing to a conservation goal of worldwide significance. Mountain Light is now operated under the joint ownership of Galen’s son and daughter, and Barbara's brother. In March of this year, our Club bestowed Galen—already an Honorary Member—with an award for “Lifetime Achievement for Contributions to the Mountain Arts.” While Galen succeeded on many climbs, his greater legacy has been to look through and beyond the summits, and this is written deeply in his photographs and essays, his hyper-alert passages across an incredible amount of our planet’s wildlands, in the scores of people who got to know his impressive dynamism, and in the very way that America now looks at mountains.

Andy Selters, AAC

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