The earliest memory we share of David Roberts is following his snowshoes through the Colorado Rockies in 1971. The famous mountaineer and writer was leading our group of college freshmen on a winter ascent of Mount Sneffels, 14,158 feet high. He later described his ambitious “January term” expedition full of outdoor novices as “sheer folly on my part” — quite an admission from a climber who has written with excruciating emotion about watching two young climbing partners fall to their deaths.
David Roberts, the preeminent Alaska mountain climber and author of his generation, died Aug. 20, in Cambridge, Mass., after a six-year fight with cancer. He was 78.
National obituaries are describing him as a writer who “turned adventure writing into art.” As former students and friends of Dave’s for half a century, we find ourselves recalling how much he influenced our decisions to take our own adventures and writing lives to Alaska.
Dave had a dual appointment at Hampshire College, a new school in western Massachusetts — half-time professor of literature and half-time director of the Outdoors Program. That balance inspired the young writers he worked with.
“He was the first really, really good writer who was also a really, really good climber,” our classmate Jon Krakauer told the New York Times this week.
By 1970, Dave had already made many of the Alaska ascents that established his reputation in the climbing world, including the Wickersham Wall, on the sheer north face of Denali, and the west face of Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range. His early expeditions here included pioneering trips to the Kichatna Spires, the Revelation Mountains, and the Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range.
He had also written two now-classic books — “The Mountain of My Fear” and “Deborah.” By forsaking the traditional stiff-upper-lip and diving into questions of psychological conflict and motive, those books from his twenties helped change outdoor writing forever.
With his Harvard degree and literature PhD, Dave could be maddeningly erudite and competitive. In his later years, he enjoyed confounding friends with a “fiendish book title quiz” seeking the classical references of titles chosen by American authors. His own first title came from W.H. Auden: “Fleeing from short-haired mad executives,/the sad and useless faces around my home,/Upon the mountains of my fear I climb…” The week after our return from Mount Sneffels, the great English poet favorably reviewed Dave’s second book, “Deborah,” in the New York Times Book Review.
At Hampshire we both took memorable classes with Dave, including Man in Nature (in which Nancy retraced Thoreau’s route on the Concord River), The Art of Self-Disclosure (a study of how cagey memoirs can be), and How Does a Novel Work? (in which Tom read three times through Dave’s favorite novel, Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.”). Dave and his wife Sharon threw terrifically fun, role-playing Guy Fawkes Day parties. Dave led hikes along Berkshire ridges by moonlight and, on quiet evenings, played his cello.
He was a pleasure to tease. Tom evaded homework by writing a parody account of the Sneffels climb, “A Piton and a Prayer,” which featured a lot of manly chest-beating. Chip Brown, another in our circle, who went on to write many national magazine stories about Alaska, ran a piece in the campus paper titled “Maple of My Fear,” about how one of Dave’s classes bivouaced overnight in a tree.
The summer after our Colorado adventure, Nancy joined a school-sponsored trip, led by Dave, to the Arrigetch Peaks, now part of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Smitten that summer by Alaska, Nancy moved north two years later, with no real plan except to live in a place that fed her spirit. She finished out her schooling writing essays and mailing them to Dave, her distant committee chair.
That same year, Tom traveled to Alaska for an expedition and first ascent planned with his teacher’s help – including a drive with Dave to Boston, to study the summit with the famed aerial photographer Bradford Washburn. After graduating and making his own trip to the Arrigetch, Tom settled in Homer to begin a career in journalism, not far from Nancy and her partner from Hampshire, Ken.
Late in life, Dave recalled his early infatuation with Alaska as “a land of limitless promise.” So it was for us. In one way, however, our experience of Alaska was quite different from our mentor’s.
Although Dave once wrote that “Alaska was by far the most real place on earth for me,” he never wanted to live here. He found its frontier provincialism and gold rush mentality depressing. In contrast, we found the people welcoming and their circumstances richly fascinating. There was so much to explore and document in a “young” state with a still-rooted indigenous culture. It was still adventure writing to us.
On Dave’s last two trips to Alaska, he presented standing-room-only slideshows on the 50th anniversaries of the Wickersham Wall and Huntington climbs. It was during his 2015 visit that he noticed a lump on his neck. By that time he had written 28 books, on subjects ranging from polar exploration to the cliff-dwelling cultures of the American Southwest. He wrote and published three more books – a fourth is coming next year – while undergoing treatments and repeated hospitalizations for the esophageal cancer that would lead to his death.
Through those last years, he also maintained a blog where he not only tracked his health but quoted Housman and Keats from memory and entertained his friends with clever and intricate meditations on literature, culture, philosophy, and his deep and growing appreciation of life’s gifts – an appreciation he marked, for example, after an early chemotherapy session, by quoting Nabokov’s reason for catching beautiful butterflies: “A way of rebelling against the void fore and aft.”
Tom Kizzia, a longtime former Anchorage Daily News reporter, is the author of “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” and a new book, “Cold Mountain Path.” Nancy Lord, a former Alaska writer laureate, is the author of numerous books, including “Fishcamp” and “pH: A Novel.” She reviews books for the ADN.
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