American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Richard E. McGowan, 1933-2007

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

Richard E. McGowan 1933–2007

first became acquainted with Dick McGowan more than 50 years ago when the climbing world in the United States was a small village spread across the country, connected by gossip and rumor and not the Internet. If we didn’t know another climber personally, we certainly knew his reputation. I probably met Dick at that time and I certainly knew about him.

Dick started climbing in 1950 and quickly began going on major expeditions to Alaska, making first ascents of King Peak, Mt. Augusta, and Mt. Cook. He also climbed extensively in the Cascades, making many first ascents and new routes. Dick rapidly gained a reputation as an extremely strong mountaineer and probably the leading snow and ice climber in the country. He went to Everest in 1955 on Dyhrenfurth’s International Himalayan Expedition where he was the first American to climb the Khumbu Icefall. He must have like it the experience because he did it 24 times on that expedition. When he returned he took over the Mount Rainier Guide Service. During his climbing career he did 11 major expeditions. He also led the first guided climb of Denali, in 1961.

He was running the Guide Service in 1959 when I spent the summer in Seattle. I had returned from Europe with a lag screw that a Swiss friend showed me to illustrate the principle of the ice screw. I had a prototype made, Pete Schoening got some other samples from Europe, and we went to Rainier to use one of Dick’s climbing classes for our test. We had perfect conditions, a warm day. When we pulled directly on the ice pitons they all shot out with a big slurp. Then we put in the ice screws. We pulled. They held. We put the entire class on the rope and they still held. Dick had not seen ice screws before, and I will never forget the look on his face, as he said, “This is going to revolutionize ice climbing.” Not only was he right, but later that summer he led the revolution by using them to make the difficult ascent of the entire Nis- qually Icefall.

I really got to know Dick on Masherbrum (25,660 feet) in the Karakoram. George Bell and I wanted the finest climbers on rock and ice in the country. Dick was one of them. Moreover, George had been with him on Everest in 1955 and knew his capabilities. The climb took a tremendous team effort by everyone. We were lucky to get up and to have survived. Although he did not reach the summit, Dick was a major factor in our success. From the very beginning we used Dick’s unique talents to push forward. We found 16 Balti men willing to carry loads to Camp I through the Serac Glacier. As a former middle school geography teacher, and with his Rainier guiding experience, Dick was the perfect man to handle the Baltis in this exercise in mass mountaineering. They were so effective that in a week almost everything had been moved to Camp I and we practically abandoned Base Camp for the rest of the expedition.

Dick was always in the vanguard until we reached Camp VII at 25,000 feet on the great southeat face. Dick and Willi Unsoeld made the first attempt on the summit, where they reached 25,000 feet and found a site for Camp VII. A snowstorm came, and on the retreat from Camp VI, Dick, Willi, Tom Hornbein, and George Bell were hit with a surface slide, which swept them down the slope. Somehow they managed to stop before going over an ice cliff. For a moment they seemed all right, then Dick pitched head first into the snow. He had inhaled a large quantity of ice crystals into his lungs, which produced a wild delirium. Fortunately, he pulled himself together a little, the snowing stopped, the sky cleared, and Dick managed to get to Camp V. He recovered sufficiently during the night to make it down to Camp III the next day. Although Dick rapidly improved, he never got back to his old form, but his drive and strength were such that when the weather finally cleared he was in the second summit team with Tom Hornbein and Jawed Akhter. But his lungs had not fully recovered and he had to return.

Despite everything the expedition managed to climb the mountain, the last climber got off the peak on July 12th, Dick’s birthday, and we had what must have been one of the more meaningful birthday celebrations in his life.

The qualities of strength, courage, and character that Dick showed on Masherbrum were displayed all his life and especially in coping with the various health problems that beset him in his later years. The man was strong, both physically and mentally.

Dick was more than a mountain climber. He was a pioneer businessman in the outdoor industry. In the early 1950s when REI decided to expand from the room it had in downtown Seattle presided over by Jim Whittaker, Dick became the manager of its first store until he went to Everest in 1955. In 1963 he opened the Alpine Hut chain of mountaineering stores in Seattle and Portland, followed the next year by an outdoor equipment manufacturing plant making tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and clothing. It moved to Wenatchee in 1967 and grew to include more than 180 employees by 1974, when Dick sold it. In 1977 he became one of the owners of Mountain Travel, and later became its CEO. He retired from Mountain Travel in 1996. But he couldn’t be still. Two years later he founded Next Adventure, now managed by his daughter Kili.

Dick cared about people. He considered his employees part of an extended family. He cared about family and especially his children, the three he had with the late Elizabeth Whisnant: Richard Jr, Devi, and Michaele, who predeceased him in 1995, as well as Kili, his daughter with Louise Summer, his wife of 35 years. Dick also served for many years on the Board of the American Himalayan Foundation, which is helping to provide a better life for the people who live in the Himalaya. Everyone who had a relationship with Dick, whether it was close or remote, is better off for having it.

There is an old Islamic saying, How do you know he is your friend? Is he your neighbor or have you gone on a long journey with him?” I cannot say Dick and I were neighbors, but I can say I did go with him on what seemed like a very long journey. Dick died on February 27 in Berkeley, California. He was a good man and a good friend. I was privileged to know him, and I will miss him.

Nicholas Clinch

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