Climber with ties to Alaska dies in fall on Tibet mountain

IN TIBET: Puryear spent more than a decade climbing the Alaska Range.

October 27, 2010 

Superb alpinist Joseph Puryear, author of a highly regarded climbing guide on the Alaska Range, died Tuesday in a remote section of Tibet ascending the 24,000-foot mountain Labuche Kang.

According to web accounts, Puryear broke through an overhanging cornice and plunged 1,500 feet to his death.

Climbing partner David Gottlieb wasn't beside Puryear at the time of the fall. But after locating Puryear's footprints, Gottlieb descended, found the body and called for help on a satellite phone.

Puryear authored "Alaska Climbing" in 2006, the culmination of more than a decade of climbing the central Alaska Range. Two years earlier, he married long-time Talkeetna resident Michelle O'Neil on Pika Glacier near Mount McKinley. O'Neil worked as a resource technician at McKinley's Kahiltna base camp in 2001.

The couple lived in Leavenworth, Wash., but maintained a cabin in Talkeetna, visiting often.

"None of us are invincible, but this one came as an extraordinary shock," said Joe Reichert, a mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park and a contributor to the "Alaska Climbing" book. "He was a real dedicated climber who never wanted to leave a task half done. He'd always go above and beyond what was required."

Still shaken by news of his friend's death, Reichert reached for words to express his grief.

"It's always hard for non-climbers to understand why we climb, and with every one of these tragic accidents we wonder all the more," Reichert said.

A former climbing ranger on Mount Rainier, Puryear wrote extensively on climbing and with Gottlieb earned several prestigious climbing grants to help fund climbs in Nepal and Tibet. Among them was this year's Mugs Stump Award, named after the famed Mount McKinley guide who plunged to his death after falling into a crevasse on that mountain.

The award was for the duo's climb of Karjiang, a 23,690-foot Tibetan pyramid that was among the highest unclimbed summits in the world. Judges lauded the climbers for "employing the strictest leave-no-trace ethics."

In his chapter on safety and survival in "Alaska Climbing," Reichert wrote: "Joe Puryear has climbed almost every route in this book. His fantastic memory, along with thorough research, has contributed to an identification of routes that offer classic lines to a wide spectrum of climbers."

Gottlieb and Puryear had been exploring new routes on Labuche Kang. The massif has only been climbed once -- in a 1987 by a expedition.

An Oct. 1 entry in the expedition's blog conveyed the beauty of their surroundings:

"Four days of spectacular weather allowed for a massive exploratory mission, which offered views of a few great route options. Crossing massive glaciers, high rugged mountain passes and sweeping untouched alpine cirques, David and Joe explored vast tracks of terrain unlike any they have seen before.

"The character of the glaciers, the remoteness of the range and the pristine nature of the landscape have left them more than a little impressed. Both are feeling strong and healthy, they plan to acclimatize for a few more days before moving up."

The duo had already made first ascents of five Tibetan peaks -- the 16,470-foot Angry Wife, 17,929-foot Daugou, 18,700-foot Lara Shan, 19,570-foot Peak 5965 and 22,096-foot Kang Nachugo.

Puryear joined the Rainier climbing ranger staff in 1996 and spent four seasons at the park.

"For two years, Joe led the climbing rangers on the east side of Mount Rainier and participated in many difficult rescues," Mike Gauthier, the former supervisory climbing ranger at the park, wrote in an e-mail to The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.). "He was greatly respected for his climbing skills and ability to manage complex situations both on the mountain and in the front country."


Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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