Andrew Embick, M.D. 1950-2003
Andrew Embick pioneered big walls, steep ice, and cold waters in Alaska and Canada from the mid-1970s through the nineties. He mentored and inspired a generation of Alaskan boaters and climbers. He was a father of two, brother of three, and friend to hundreds. He was a Rhodes scholar, Harvard educated doctor, author of two books, and an inventor of wild outdoor gear.
We Alaskans benefited immensely from his vision, creativity, hospitality, generosity, information, and humor. He was our Hemmingway, full of himself, hearty and arrogant, exuberant in his likes and dislikes, and he crafted classics in rock, ice, and river.
Embick’s epic Grade VI walls included first ascents of the East Buttress of Middle Triple (listed in 50 Classic Climbs of North America), the Northwest Buttress of Kitchatna Spire (with Jim Bridwell), the Citadel, and Mt. Jeffers, all in that nastiest of mountain ranges the “Kitchatna Spires” west of Denali. Embick climbed these Kitchatna Spire test pieces during the late 1970s when big walls and bad weather were still a novel combination. His first ascents on Serenity, Trinity, and Sunrise Spires are destined to become trade routes. His shorter works on Valdez ice during the early 1980s were equally classic: Wowie Zowie, Love’s Way, Crystal Visions, Flying Cloud, and the first solo of Bridal Veil, each long, brittle, and steep. Altogether he made more than 50 first ascents in Valdez, culminating in Blue Ice and Black Gold, his ice climbing guidebook. Andrew also made more than 30 first kayak descents, culminating in his Fast and Cold, a white- water guidebook to Alaska.
In 1984 he combined his passions by leading a kayak/climbing expedition sponsored by National Geographic to the Hunza region of Pakistan. That trip with Galen Rowell, Jack Tackle, Rob Lesser, Bob McDougall and others included a Grade VI first ascent of Lukpilla Brakk in the Biafo valley and a Grade VI first descent on the Braldu River. In 2002 Andy returned to Hunza for a medical sabbatical where he treated more than 1,500 Pakistani mountain people.
Embick was a complicated, conflicted man who drank fine scotch, cooked cordon bleu, and hunted big game. He joined the Sierra Club, the Alaskan, Harvard, and American Alpine Clubs as a life member of each. He was even the vice president of the AAC in 1985 and on its board of directors in 1986. Living in Valdez for more than two decades, he and his wife Kathy Todd practiced medicine and raised two daughters. During all this time, Embick opened his home to visiting climbers, boaters, and outdoor adventurers. And it wasn’t just floor space he offered: it was the sauna, shop with tools, kitchen, and library.
Embick kept a mountaineering library likely unmatched by any north of Banff. The library included his meticulous journals, complete with topos of Kitchatna climbs, and was complemented by his encyclopedic scholarship of all things steep.
During the eighties and nineties his household formed the nexus of the Valdez Ice Climbing Festival. The Festival and Andy were also key ingredients in foreign exchanges with climbers from Japan and Russia in the mid-80s.
Andrew was quick to share not only his home, but his knowledge and talents. Whether medical advice or route beta, he would return a phone call or inquiry with an immediate answer. We often wondered where he found the time, as he was obviously managing many of his own projects simultaneously.
Embick popularized ice climbing (he was featured in People, Sports Illustrated, and Smithsonian as well as the climbing rags and journals) and cold water kayaking, both in print and through mentoring with young outdoorsmen and women. I count myself in that fortunate group, along with Mike Buck, Chris Roach, Steve Garvey, Evan Smith, and Kate Bull.
Andrew also established a biathalon range and network of Nordic ski trails in Valdez, a town with little flat space between mountain walls. Altercations with snowmachiners who were tearing up the trails alienated Embick from the community, a community he’d served for 20 years as physician, often gratis.
My wife and I dined at Anchorage’s finest restaurant with Andy, recently back from his Pakistan sabbatical and 30 pounds lighter. He said he was repaying us for the $7 worth of headlamp bulbs we’d sent him so he could work in the light-less village of Shimshal.
Over a gourmet meal of pheasant, scallops, and rare beef, he told stories about Hunza patients lining up for treatment, how appreciative they were, how happy he’d been. He spoke of returning there to write a book about the fabled people of Hunza.
Less than a month after that dinner, we were shocked and dismayed when we learned Andy, like Hemmingway, took his own life.
Andrew’s extraordinary brilliance left an indelible mark on the granite spires, blue ice, and pool-drops of Alaska. More importantly his generosity and exuberance left an indelible mark on the hearts of those who knew him.