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Robert Hicks Bates, 1911-2007

Robert Hicks Bates 1911–2007

Bob Bates and I were close friends for more than 70 years. We began climbing together in the 1930s in the quarries around Boston and in Northern New England under the tutelage of some of the best climbers in the Northeast. Then we went to Alaska, where we learned about expeditions from Brad Washburn, and in 1938 and 1953 Bob and I worked together to organize and lead the American expeditions to K2. Afterward, together with other members of both teams, we wrote two books, Five Miles High (1939) and K2: The Savage Mountain (1954). As many people have found, collaboration in authorship is a test of friendship, and Bob and I passed happily.

If I were to use a few words to describe Bob, I would say that he had a sunny, cheerful disposition. I am confident that Bob never met a person he did not like or who did not like him. He was equally at home with students, Peace Corps volunteers, sherpas, ambassadors, and kings, and one might meet any one of these in the hospitable home he and his wife Gail kept in Exeter. Bob also had many stories of Alaska and his experiences in WWII, but his great talent was the huge collection of songs and ballads he committed to memory. He could produce the right song for any occasion, and I have a vivid memory of him standing in front of a battered tent, high on K2, singing his heart out in a furious wind. What his voice lacked in quality he made up for in enthusiasm. I can also remember him sitting high on a rock overlooking the Baltoro Glacier singing to the stupendous Trango and Baltoro towers across the glacier. He was singing and laughing and clearly in his element. Bob even had the grace to joke as I nervously extracted his abscessed tooth at 19,000 feet! I remember seeing Bob angry only twice: first when he missed a shot at a sleeping goat when we were on a mountain hunting for meat, and, second, when he thought he had irretrievably lost his favorite gun in a Russian stream. In good days and bad, Bob brightened the day for all of those around him.

On our two expeditions to K2 we met with triumph and disaster and treated them both the same. In both years, the members of each party quickly became friends and remained so for the rest of their lives. It was this brotherhood of the rope that helped us to survive the long ordeal during our 1953 retreat from near the summit of K2.

Bob was a strong and sturdy climber, wise about the weather and snow conditions, and a great voice in making hard decisions. Bob was an amusing spectacle on skis, but often the first to reach camp in the afternoon and the first to start out in the morning, although his pack often came undone! He was a fast walker, and we had to be careful not to let him get too far ahead of the party when he carried the day’s lunch.

I don’t know much about Bob as a teacher, but as a tent mate, in good weather or bad, no one could be better. He was truly a wonderful friend and I miss him more than I can say.

Charles S. Houston