American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Harold Walton, 1912-2002

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

Harold Walton 1912-2002

Harold Walton was born in Cornwall, England and received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Exeter College in Oxford before coming to the United States to do postdoctoral work at Princeton University.

After briefly working as a research chemist, Harold became a professor at Northwestern University, leaving there in 1947 for the University of Colorado, in Boulder. He taught at CU until his retirement and chaired the chemistry department from 1962 to 1966. Harold’s teaching extended well beyond CU. Fluent in Spanish, German, and French, he used his sabbaticals to teach in Peru, Venezuela, Sudan, and France. He stayed active as a professor emeritus and at the age of 83 received the University of Colorado Medal and was described as “one of the 20th century’s preeminent analytical chemists in the field of ion exchange and liquid chromatography.”

Harold had a favorite theory that an “esoteric connection exists between mountaineering and chemistry,” and these two activities were major themes in his life. He was a founding member of Rocky Mountain Rescue in Boulder. His name is well known to everyone who has climbed the Maiden in the Boulder foothills and has followed the Walton Traverse on its north face. He made the first ascent of another favorite climb near Boulder, the Cussin’ Crack on Castle Rock, named for the uncharacteristic outbursts of this soft-spoken man.

Harold taught at the University of Trujillo in Peru during several of his sabbaticals, and he used his fluency in Spanish in the mountains as well as the classroom. He participated in at least five expeditions to the Cordillera Blanca. The first was with Nick Clinch on the North American Andean Expedition in 1955. He led the Colorado Mountain Club expedition to Que- brada Hondo in 1963. On their numerous trips to Peru, the Iowa Mountaineers relied heavily upon Harold’s fluent Spanish, his skills in dealing with Peruvian officials, and his friendships with local porters. He was a leader on at least four of their expeditions between 1961 and 1978.

A number of us climbed Huascarán with Harold in August 1972, on the last of his several ascents of that mountain, just a few days before his 60th birthday. We were with the Iowa Mountaineers on that trip, and the changing opinions of Harold were fascinating to behold. At first a few young tigers complained about having this “slow old man” along, but higher on the mountain he grew stronger and faster as the rest of us slowed down. He continued to climb actively after this trip. Five years later he made the first ascent of a peak above the Conrad Icefield in Canada, naming it Mt. Kelvin after one of Britain’s greatest physicists.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspects of Harold’s life in the mountains of Peru were the friendships he developed with the high-altitude porters of the Cordillera Blanca. At base camp while the rest of us climbers were clustered around our fire, Harold was often seated at the porters’ fire, chatting away in Spanish. In the style of Sir Edmund Hillary, Harold looked after the welfare of the Huaraz porters for many years. To them he was “El Doctor,” godfather to their children and long-time benefactor. He brought many of them and their sons to the U.S., and he helped at least one son get into the University of Trujillo.

Not often given to philosophical pronouncements, Harold did occasionally reveal that side of his character, such as in a 1979 Trail and Timberline article: “First ascents are only an occasional luxury, and for most of us they are not the most important part of mountaineering. Sometimes the impulse to tread untrodden peaks seems little more than the child’s impulse to tread in wet cement. The real joy is to climb something beautiful and difficult, and if it has never been done before, so much the better…. In any case the days in the hills were not wasted. They were snatched from eternity, to be with us as long as we live.”

Kim Malville, AAC

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