Howard Palmer, 1883-1944

Publication Year: 1945.



The unexpected death of Howard Palmer on October 24th, at the close of his 61st year, deprives the Club of a member whose long official connection had proved him one of its staunchest friends. For the 1944 issue of the Journal he wrote the history of our first 30 years, and for the present number of penetrating article on mountain mysticism, which may well be his testament. Only a few days ago he sent the editor the memorial notice of Mr. Delafield which precedes his own. Thus, within a month, the Club has lost two former Presidents, whose interest in our affairs was unfailing.

Palmer was born in Norwich, Conn., on November 28th, 1883, received his B.A. from Yale in 1905 and an LL.B. from Harvard in 1908, the year in which he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. He gave up his profession in 1918 to become secretary and director of Palmer Brothers Co., New London, remaining there until he retired in 1928.

He joined the American Alpine Club in 1908, serving two terms as Secretary (1911-13 and 1914-16). He was elected to the

Council 1917-22; became Vice-President, 1923-25; President, 1926-28, and thereafter continued on the Council until his death. He assisted with preparations for the Mt. Logan expedition (1925) and, as second editor of he newly-established American Alpine Journal, brought out the four issues of 1930-33. His membership at various times included the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Alpine Club (London), Royal Geographical Society, Harvard Travellers Club, Explorers Club and Fresh Air Club. He was a corresponding member of the Philadelphia Geographical Society, and had also edited various publications of the N'ew London Historical Society.

There are few left who climbed with Palmer in his prime, and in his later years his rotund figure belied the fact that he was once one of that hard-bitten group, led by E. W. D. Holway, whose amazing back-packing journeys through the passes of the Selkirks made mountaineering history just prior to World War I. They would leave Glacier House heavily laden, returning weeks later, their provisions exhausted but with victory on distant peaks. During the period 1908-12 Palmer explored from the Battle Range to Mt. Sir Sandford, whose summit, then thought to be the culmination of the Interior Ranges of British Columbia, was captured after several fruitless attempts. In 1915 his curiosity about the southern Selkirks led him to the little-known area near Trout Lake, where he ascended Nettie L Mtn. The peaks within the loop of the Columbia rise from unfriendly terrain, but they were Howard Palmer’s first and last love. Even in later years, when he began (1916) to visit the Rockies recurrently, one of his chief joys was to see in the westward view the peaks on which he had spent so many arduous days. His classic Mountaineering and Exploration in the Selkirks (1914), and the peak of that range which bears his name, are his memorials.

Palmer was a complete mountaineer, always clarifying the topography of new areas he visited. In 1915 he and Major R. H. Chapman produced a map of the mountains of the Big Bend of the Columbia, which has not yet been superseded. He was much interested in the history of early surveys for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, particularly the work of Walter Moberly, Major Rogers and Sir Sandford Fleming, and had an unsurpassed library on this phase of western exploration. He was also an authority on Captain Cook’s voyages.

In 1916 Palmer and Dr. Gilmour journeyed to the northern Rockies and Mt. Longstaff. In the same season he also made an ascent of Mt. Fox, with Dr. McKee, in one day of 19I/2 hours from Glacier House. In 1919 he joined Major Chapman and Allen Carpe in the first amateur party to visit Tonquin Valley, ascending McDonell Pk. In 1920 he and Carpe went to Fortress Lake, and beyond to Mt. Serenity. In 1922 he accompanied the writer of this notice to the Freshfield Group, the Spartan equipment of the Selkirks still serving despite an outfit of horses prepared for heavier loads. His sole concessions to luxury were several folding chairs (which promptly collapsed), and a quantity of cigars which was the packers’ wonder. The glacier was measured and first ascent made of Mt. Barnard, highest summit of the group, a discovery on the newly issued map of the Boundary Survey. In 1923, Palmer and Carpe went to Maligne Lake, which they mapped, and reached the summit of Mt. Brazeau, which had not yet lost the mystery created by Professor Coleman’s attempt in 1902.

In 1920 Carpe and Palmer had made an attempt to ascend Mt. King Edward, at the head of the Athabaska River, and Palmer resolutely returned with Dr. Hickson in 1924 to complete the effort. Two years later these two, then respectively Presidents of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada, made the first ascent of Mt. Fryatt, Palmer’s last difficult climb. In 1927 his final season in the mountains, Palmer made a short trip to the Clearwater area, reaching the top of Recondite Pk.

Altogether Palmer made about 50 first ascents, almost evenly divided between the Selkirks and the Rockies. The Geographic Board of Canada confirmed his names for upwards of 50 peaks and glaciers. It is a remarkable record for a climber who had no experience in the Alps. Probably one trained in the Alpine tradition of huts and guides would have accomplished less.

In 1932, following a fire in the Hotel Mohican which destroyed most of his books and mountaineering equipmnt, Palmer, who was unmarried, left New London to live at Pawcatuck, Conn., near Westerly, R. I. There he indulged his hobby of collecting and repairing antique clocks, of which he possessed more than 100. He was an expert at this, having a fully-equipped workroom and machine-shop, where he turned out boxwood gears and other intricate parts. He was also a skilled photographer, producing many fine enlargements in his darkroom. Being almost midway between Boston and New York, fellow-climbers would stop to see him, and it was equally easy for him to frequent club gatherings.

When the present writer, as a refuge during long illness, prepared (in 1920, with much temerity) A Climber’s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada, Palmer collaborated in completing the parts covering areas with which he was particularly familiar and saw the book through press: “It pleases me,” he wrote of a later edition, “to think of it as man’s intellectual conquest of that great range.”

In one of his last letters to the Editor (September 21) he sounded a more solemn note. “I believe,” he said, “the topic [mountain mysticism] is moribund. After the war, the generation of Englishmen who have been interested in the subjective aspects of alpinism, will be practically extinct, and in the new world of stark realism, which I visualize, there will be no room for such musings. The sporting aspects of mountaineering in the old sense will diminish to the vanishing point. Perhaps they have already. It will become something between an art, a science, and a profession—a good deal like chess, of which the amusement aspect has largely depaarted.”

Howard Palmer had a timeless personality, and younger members of the Council, and of the Club in general, accepted him as one of themselves. They in return received the benefit of his knowledge and advice given freely in the manner of one who had adventured joyfully and who happily shared adventure’s pleasure.

J. M. T.

Fortunate are those relatively few climbers who have been able to contribute a definite chapter to the history of mountaineering and exploration. Howard Palmer was one of those few who have made the most of such opportunities. His pioneering in the Selkirk Range, particularly in that portion lying N. of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and enclosed by the Big Bend of the Columbia river, in the five seasons 1908-1912, was not only a fine piece of work in itself, but was splendidly recorded by him in his book

Mountaineering and Exploration in the Selkirks (1914). The book is a model of its kind: well organized, well written, more than adequately illustrated, rich with appendices full of scientific information, and attractively and substantially produced by the publisher. Somewhat to the disappointment of the author its foreign sale was severely curtailed by publication only a few weeks before the start of the last war.

In 1931 Palmer wrote a fine tribute to one of the chief partners of his Selkirk expeditions: Edward W. D. Holway—A Pioneer of the Canadian Alps, published in book form by the University of Minnesota Press. Holway and F. K. Butters, another Selkirk companion, were both professors of botany at Minnesota.

Another scientist, the late Allen Carpe, became his companion of several expeditions in the northern Canadian Rockies in the years just after the first world war. The articles which appeared in mountaineering and geographical publications, following his numerous expeditions, whether prepared entirely by Palmer or by his companions or by them jointly, were always well done.

In everything he did he was methodical, careful, and thorough. He was naturally included on most important committees of the American Alpine Club because it was known that nothing would go out over his signature that was not the product of sound consideration and unfailing interest. Whether it was a committee to draw up a resolution, or perhaps to raise a fund for guides and others whose actions in a difficult mountain rescue or otherwise merited reward, or to raise money for some important enterprise such as the Mt. Logan Expedition, Howard Palmer nearly always had to do with it whether or not his name actually appeared.

He was kept on the Council (Board of Directors) of the Club continuously for 33 years not for sentimental reasons alone, but because of his great continued interest. Those who had worked with him over the years could hardly imagine a Council meeting without him. More important still was his unfailing wisdom, and frequently sought advice throughout the years on many of the pending decisions in matters of Club policy. His early legal training, his business experience, his deliberate, judicial mind, his detached and at the same time always interested opinion sometimes sought as between the conflicting points of view arising among people all intensely loyal but not always seeing eye to eye as to what was best for the Club admirably fitted him to be a “balance wheel” in the Club. His wise counsel and willingness to help when needed will be greatly missed in years to come.

His quiet enjoyment of old associations and the companionship of those with whom he had been associated for many years in the Club, his pleasure in meeting and learning to know some of the newer members whom he felt would soon take the Club and its increasing activities and influence as their own responsibilities, were ever a pleasure and source of satisfaction to him and to his old friends. He was the last, to remain actively interested in the Club, who knew all the founders, mostly men of strong scientific bent.

To him the sport and recreation to be found in the mountains could and did have a definite scientific implication. He felt that those fortunate enough to visit remote places should be prepared and interested enough to at least bring back an intelligent report on such natural phenomena as changes in glaciation, the vegetation, data which would be needed for some degree of mapping, and adequate photographs and in general to justify their opportunities by preserving something significant for the record. Younger members and those to come, may well look upon Howard Palmer as a prototype which, if they are able to follow, will make their mountain journeys more worthwhile, as well as justify the Club in whatever aid or encouragement it may be able to extend to them.

To those of us in the Club who had known and liked him for many years—in my own case since 1915—as well as to some more recent members, there will be a deep sense of personal loss at his too early passing, at the age of 60. We felt that he was a good friend, and we knew that the Club had never had a more loyal and devoted member in the 42 years of its existence. No one person will probably ever wholly fill his place.

H. S. H., Jr.

The untimely death of Howard Palmer, whose genial personality was a welcome appearance at the annual meeting of the Club, must have caused deep regret among the members, both old and young. In the undersigned it produced a sense of very great loss, while at the same time it revived precious memories of varied experiences in the Canadian Rockies.

Our acquaintanceship, which began over thirty years ago in the Selkirks, developed into a close friendship which, for me, was delightful and stimulating. After some years of planning, we joined forces in the years 1924, 1925 and 1926, and managed, in spite of very unfavourable weather in two of these seasons, to make some seven first ascents, the more important ones being Mt. King Edward on the Columbia Icefield, Mts. Fryatt and Lapensée to which we opened up the route, Throne Mountain near Jasper, and Bastion Peak in tthe Tonquin Valley. On several occasions we were rain- and snowbound, once for a week near Mt. Alberta, which we had hoped to climb in the year before its ascent by the Japanese. Owing to Palmer’s good humour and the unending fund of amusing conversations, and stories by our guide, Conrad Kain, the time passed without friction, though unfortunately supplies were insufficient to outlast the bad weather. All that was achieved was the first ascent from its difficult N. side of an unnamed peak, ca. 9900 ft., S.E. of Albert. In 1925 we had to make a trying trip back to Jasper from the Tonquin Valley through two feet of .fresh snow on a large part of the route. It was bitterly cold, but Palmer took it all as a matter of course, which had the effect of stifling the complaints of his companion. On our return to camp from Mt. Fryatt, a miscalculation of the route earlier in the day forced us to remain out over night at about 9700 ft.; the wind was nasty, there was almost no protection; but Palmer, although sometimes worried over exposure to cold, having a tendency to bronchitis lay on a broad ledge and slept.

A staunch companion, he was a well-equipped and careful climber, who planned thoroughly for every expedition, of which he frequently made notes en route, or immediately on his return to camp. He was well-versed in the topography of the northern Canadian Rockies, and enjoyed map-making. To discuss a joint climb with him was usually enlightening owing to his excellent memory for details. His handsomely produced volume, on the Selkirks, which never obtained the sale that it deserved, established a reputation as a mountaineer, explorer and writer. His later articles, notably those on Travel and Ascents Among the Highest Canadian Rockies, and Breaching the Barriers of Mount Fryatt, published in Appalachia (1926), are models of lucid and apt description, rendered the more attractive by his admirable photographs. Without his encouragement an article in the fiftieth anniversary number of Appalachia on Mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies 1906-26 might not have been undertaken by

J. W. A. H.