American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Richard K. Irvin, 1930-2006

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2007

Richard K Irvin 1930-2006

Richard Irvin died on March 10, 2006 at his home in Boise, Idaho after a long battle with cancer. It was the end of an eventful life. Dick's participation in a climb frequently guaranteed success and always guaranteed a good time for his companions. I remember a late afternoon in 1951 standing on a ledge under the Second Tower of the East Ridge of the Grand Teton with Dick, John Mowat, and Leigh Ortenburger, who had taken a day off from guiding. We asked Leigh, our Teton guru, where the route went. “The route goes up there,” he said, pointing to a difficult-looking chimney. “Dick, you lead.” Irvin scampered up the chimney and soon we were at the top. Later we found out that the proven route traversed the Tower. Leigh had seized the opportunity to use Dick’s talents to make a first ascent.

Born in 1930 in Berkeley, California, Dick’s lifelong dedication to mountains and mountaineering began when he was five and his parents took him on a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada. Later he continued his camping with the Boy Scouts where he became an Eagle Scout. He climbed and hiked on his own throughout the Sierra, making an ascent of Mt. Ritter when he was 15. He started rock climbing with Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section in 1948 and climbed extensively in Pinnacles National Monument and Yosemite.

In 1951, Dick spent the summer vagabonding and climbing in the Tetons and the Canadian Rockies, making several first ascents and new routes. The trip triggered a lifetime of mountaineering around the world. From hikes in the Pennines in England to Rakaposhi and Hidden Peak in the Karakoram, Dick did anything anywhere. He climbed Mt. St. Elias in Alaska and Ararat in Turkey. He did scores of climbs throughout North America and the Alps. He did new routes on Mt. Aspiring and Mt. Cook in New Zealand, and early ascents in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, including the second ascent of Chopicalqui in 1954. Accounts of his climbs would fill an entire AAJ. Pull out a map of the world and randomly stick a pin in a mountain range. Dick had probably climbed there. He was the mountaineering equivalent of Kilroy. No matter where you went, he had been there first.

Although he was a member of the successful Gasherbrum I (Hidden Peak) expedition in 1958, he did not get the opportunity to climb high on the mountain because of the early success of the party. But Dick’s most remarkable expedition was the four-man attempt on Rakaposhi, 25,550 feet, in 1956. Dick, Bob Swift, Mike Banks, and Hamish Mclnnes tackled that giant with a budget of $5,000. It was an epic. Among other things, everyone fell more than 100 feet at one time or another. Somehow they reached 23,500 feet, a new high point, before having to turn back. Later, when Dick was asked how close they had come to the summit, he immediately replied, “We were $5,000 short.”

Dick was also absorbed in the history and literature of mountaineering. With limited resources, he assembled an excellent mountaineering library. He was always thinking about books. When we reached Urdukas on the way out from Hidden Peak, he said to me with a sly grin, “One more expedition like this and we can put our names in our books and increase their value.”

Later in life Dick led trips for Mountain Travel and then took up birding, which he pursued with his usual dedication until his life list included 6,002 species. It is hard to believe that Dick had another life, but he did. He graduated in 1953 with a degree in anthropology from San Francisco State University. For many years he taught math at Saratoga High School. Of all the many achievements in his life, he was most proud of the number of students he had inspired to go into science and mathematics. He was also proud of the four children he had by his first wife, Heidi Irvin. In 1998 he married Kris Carter, who warmed the remaining years of his life.

One’s memory of him is good climbs and good times. Often when I think of a climb, I realize, “I did it with Dick Irvin.” He was the kind of friend that when he went, a piece of you went with him. Now he has moved on. “The route goes up there. Dick, you lead!”

Nick Clinch, AAC

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