American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

H. Adams Carter, 1914-1995

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996



The sudden death of Adams Carter on April 1 brought a sense of loss and sadness to the mountaineering world. Ad, as he was known, was internationally renowned as the Editor of The American Alpine Journal, the world’s outstanding mountaineering publication. His encyclopedic knowledge of mountains and mountaineering was extraordinary. He probably knew or communicated with more climbers than anyone on any continent, sometimes writing as many as 40 letters a day to get accurate information for the journals he edited annually for 35 years. Their high quality may never again be equaled.

Ad was an avid skier, a member of the American ski team in the 1930s, who skied almost to the day he died. His mountain climbing began early. He went up Mount Washington in New Hampshire at age five, and 10 years later climbed the Matterhorn and began making ascents and new routes with guides near Kandersteg in the Swiss Alps. In the autumn of 1932 he entered Harvard College, and the following June went to Alaska to challenge 12,700-foot Mount Crillon in the Fairweather Range. Three men on this expedition were to be his close friends for over 60 years: Bob Bates, Charlie Houston and Brad Washburn. Though the summit of Mount Crillon was not quite reached in 1933, Carter and Washburn achieved it the next summer.

These climbs led to Ad’s becoming a member of the National Geographic Society’s Yukon Expedition, led by Washburn, in the winter of 1935. The expedition mapped by dog team the unexplored St. Elias Mountains, the last large blank spot on the map of North America. It made the first crossing of the range between Canada’s Yukon Territory and Alaska, and discovered and named 13,000-foot peaks and 40-mile-long glaciers. The Hubbard Glacier it found to be 90 miles long.

In his senior year at Harvard, Carter helped plan the British-American Himalayan Expedition that climbed 25,645-foot Mount Nanda Devi in Garhwal, the highest peak then climbed. A higher peak was not climbed for 14 years! Ad helped to pack Odell and Tilman, the summit climbers, to their high camp. In 1939, when Ad was again climbing in Switzerland, he carefully watched maneuvers of Swiss mountain troops, though he had no idea that two years later he would be working at the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster General’s office to develop clothing and equipment for American mountain troops. At the end of the war he flew to Tokyo to interview the Japanese Quartermaster General and then to Germany to do the same with the German General. He also questioned prisoners, especially about cold weather operations.

For many years following World War II, he took young climbers to the Swiss Alps, or more frequently to the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, to introduce them to climbing and to expedition life. Many of those who went with him later led expeditions, made their own first ascents, and improved the quality of American climbing.

In 1956 an army officer from Chile climbed a peak in the Atacama Desert which he claimed was higher than Mount Aconcagua (considered the highest peak in the western hemisphere). The geographical societies of Argentina and Chile, stimulated by this news for opposite reasons, both asked for an American survey of the mountain’s height. Ad accepted the request, set up a small survey party, and went to the Atacama Desert. Ascent of the peak was prevented by a major storm, but to the anger of the Chilean authorities, Ad’s party completed a survey of the peak (the Ojos del Salado) and found its height to be 22,590 feet, 244 feet lower than Mount Aconcagua.

Fourteen years later, Ad again came to the assistance of South America when a devastating earthquake struck Peru. Ad’s great knowledge of the area and his ability to speak with the local people was very valuable in organizing a relief effort by climbers, doctors and nurses to aid the mountain people whose homes had been destroyed.

Carter’s knowledge of languages was also of tremendous help during the many years he edited The American Alpine Journal. He was quick to pick up new languages, even obscure ones like Balti and Quechua, and always tried to learn the meaning of mountain names.

In the early 1970s Ad and his wife, Ann, attended both the coronation and wedding of Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, the King of Nepal, whom they had invited to their home when he was a special student at Harvard. They also trekked to the K2 Base Camp with their friends Bob and Gail Bates, looking for possible new routes on the mountain. In 1976, 40 years after the first ascent of Nanda Devi, Ad and Willi Unsoeld led an expedition that successfully climbed the difficult and previously unascended north ridge of the mountain.

In 1988, after Ad’s high climbing ended, he, Ann, and their friends traveled as guests of the Chinese Mountaineering Association in western Yunnan, an area off-limits to foreigners.

Carter was an honorary member of many national and international mountaineering clubs, as well as former president of the Harvard Traveller’s Club, whose meetings he almost always attended. Interesting people, especially foreigners, were always welcome at the Carter’s homes in Milton, Massachusetts (where Ad taught French, German and Spanish for over 30 years at Milton Academy), and at Jefferson Highlands, New Hampshire, in full view of Mount Washington. At either home, visiting mountaineers and skiers were always sure of a warm welcome, good conversation, and delightful company.

Adams Carter was a superb companion who accumulated friends wherever he went. His warmth and generosity are as memorable as his achievements as teacher and editor. He lived life to the fullest until the moment he died.

Bob Bates

A.d was a large, rumpled teddy-bear of a man, always enthusiastic and cheerful, always good-natured. His enjoyment of people was contagious and reciprocated. People were Ad’s major interest all his life. I never heard him say he had met someone he didn’t like!

Ad had a great talent for sharing enjoyment. In the 60-plus years that we were friends I remember seeing Ad angry only once — when we insisted that he give warning before trying to enter our crowded tent high on a mountain in Alaska. He was big, strong and just a tad clumsy in his early climbing years, but from teaching hundreds of students to climb he became an outstanding all-around mountaineer. He didn’t fall and seldom crashed while skiing; when he did it was spectacular!

When he was young, courage and strength rather than skill enabled him to win many important ski races, but he became an expert and even after two hip replacements was able to roar down steep trails. It was quite intimidating to follow Ad, and he seemed not to tire until long after I had. Ad never gave up.

With warm hospitality he and Ann welcomed visitors from many countries and many walks in life. In their second home in the White Mountains Ad would take guests skiing (even if it rained), hiking (even if it snowed), or onto some of the difficult rock routes in that beautiful region. And we loved it! Ad was always ready to go on rescues, sometimes at risk to himself.

The American Alpine Journal was Ad’s special love and in the 35 years he was the Editor, he made it the best mountaineering journal in the world. He spoke, wrote and could tell jokes in Spanish, French and German (which he taught at Milton Academy), as well as several obscure languages. Hemanaged his voluminous global correspondence on an old manual typewriter before reluctantly moving to a computer. He was a dedicated historian and an atlas of mountain information who could answer most climbers’ questions from memory.

Those of us who knew Ad best were privileged, but so were thousands of casual acquaintances. It did not take long to recognize how essential his wife Ann was in his life: she welcomed unexpected guests, planned their days, and in a hundred ways Ann made it possible for Ad to be the diverse and interesting man he was.

Charles S. Houston, M.D.

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