Galen Rowell: The Vertical World

If you had to pinpoint the one element from which all else fanned out around Galen Rowell, prolific climber-photographer-author, it was energy: intense, propulsive, and everyday.

By Rock and Ice | March 7th, 2011

The Champion

If you had to pinpoint the one element from which all else fanned out around Galen Rowell, prolific climber-photographer-author, it was energy: intense, propulsive, and everyday.

Paul Piana tells a story of climbing the 1,500-foot Great Canadian Knife (VI 5.13b), on Proboscis, Cirque of the Unclimbables, Yukon, in 1992, with Todd Skinner and Rowell.

“While Todd and I were working on the first five or so pitches, Galen was up way before light every morning and climbing to the tops of all sorts of summits to photograph sunrises and even occasionally, across the void, us on the wall. One day he hiked back and forth to the Lotus Flower Tower valley and, then, into another inaccessible place—and was still back at base camp by mid afternoon. His jaunt was miles and miles over serious mountaineering terrain. The next day, with different lenses, he went back again.”

Piana remembers that the previous year, approaching remote Mount Hooker in the Wind Rivers, Wyoming, Rowell ran the 24 miles in, wearing only running shorts and the camera around his neck, through a blizzard.

A pioneer in what has been called participatory wilderness photography, Galen Rowell was raised by intellectual parents in Berkeley, California, and introduced to the backcountry as a small child. He began climbing mountains at age 10 with the Sierra Club, did his first roped climbing at 16 in Yosemite, and by the mid-1960s was a leading Valley climber. Rowell made 19 first ascents in the Valley, among 100 in the greater Sierra. One landmark was the first ascent of the South Face of Half Dome, in 1970, with Warren Harding, and involving a disastrous blizzard.

Rowell’s first assignment for National Geographic, “Climbing Half Dome the Hard Way,” became the June 1974 cover story. In his lifetime Rowell would publish nearly two dozen books, and innumerable articles for magazines and the American Alpine Journal.

Rowell also gained the first ascents of Cholatse and Great Trango Tower, and first one-day ascent of Denali. At 57 he climbed the Nose of El Cap in a day, becoming the then oldest person to do so (he and Conrad Anker climbed it in 16 hours, swapping leads).

Galen and his wife and fellow photographer, Barbara Cushing Rowell, traveled the world from Tibet to Siberia, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Antarctica, Africa and beyond, but always returned to the Sierra. In spring of 2001, the two moved from the Bay Area to Bishop, where Barbara was the guiding force in opening the now landmark Mountain Light Gallery.

The last great works of Galen’s and Barbara’s lives were as champions of human rights and conservation of the wild and fragile places of the world, even linking the two. In the late 1980s Rowell risked his own access in Tibet by documenting human-rights and environmental abuses there, eventually collaborating with the Dalai Lama for his acclaimed book My Tibet. If Rowell was an extremely accomplished all-around climber, he was an even greater figure in the environmental community.

Only a little over a year after opening the gallery, the pair died together, with their pilot and a friend, while returning home from a photo workshop in Alaska. Galen was 61, Barbara 54. Barbara was herself a pilot, soon to publish the book Flying South: A Pilot’s Inner Journey. Only one month before, Galen had traveled into Tibet’s Northern Chang Tang Plateau with Anker, Rick Ridgeway and Jimmy Chin on a conservation mission to study the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru.

Rowell had come home to what he often called his “favorite place on earth,” the eastern Sierra, and in the two years before his death concentrated again on photographing it. The new book Galen Rowell’s Sierra Nevada, published by Sierra Club Books (reviewed on page 20), containing early through latter work, is both compendium and ode.

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