Posted on: March 1, 2003
Dear Galen and Barbara,
The words hit me like rockfall in the solar plexus. Plane crash. Gone—you two? No way! Might as well tell me that El Cap and Half Dome had crumbled to the ground. But as the news became undeniable, I started jotting down how, though we rarely planned it, our paths had crossed so many times.
Galen, we first met in 1977 when you showed your K2 program at my college. You wouldn't remember it, but I was assigned to work the auditorium. We got the projector going and the lights out, and then you slipped away, gone. When the film finished, I turned the lights back on, wondering how to fill the void, but that's when you flashed back in, sweaty after a perfectly timed run. You were training for Great Trango.
That opened my eyes to a sophisticated potency I'd never imagined: a single person somehow coordinating things into an athletic, aesthetic and commercial program befitting NASA. Several months later we learned of your first ascent of Great Trango, and it was like reading about a two-week, evermultiplying mountain orgasm. Few of us then had any idea there was terrain on earth like what you showed us, and dancing among such fantasy peaks with no more care or burden than a big Sierra climb—no way! That was more than a story, it was a path: mountains, imagery and hard work leading ever higher and farther into incredible beauty.
As I made my own way into the mountains, your tracks were there so often, usually challenging me to go higher. It was a couple of years later that I published my first little book and found that you'd done your first title, The Vertical World of Yosemite, with the same publisher. Five years after that, when Scott Woolums and I looked around for an approachable peak to climb, we happened to be under Great Trango. He and I made the second ascent, by the opposite side from the one you were on. There we were, climbing among the gods, Karakoram and Rowell, superlatives easy to confuse. Maybe we should call it the Galekoram. While plebes like us dabbled, you, Schmitz, Gillette and Asay did the ski tour to end all ski tours, linking the Karakoram glaciers as if they were designated trails.
Two years later, you and I were assigned to do an article together, me on text and you on photos, in northern California. As I made the arrangements for our adventures, the words "Galen Rowell" unlocked the hearts and the expense accounts of outfitters, restaurateurs, B+B owners, land managers, even a beautiful woman—all lined up, breathless to take part in the Rowellian vision. We were only there for three days, but I had to describe the climbing, paddling, cycling, rafting, running, swimming, dining and birdwatching as if we'd filled a week, just so readers would believe it.
Even after I'd worked right beside you, I still scratched my head. How did you do it? Most obviously, there was the Rowell hyperdrive. In one afternoon, while the rafters, kayakers, canoeists and birds cavorted for you, you powered through seventeen rolls of film. As your Nikons cooled off, your mind raced faster as you planned how to get down the road to the next stage. Then, you called me to jump in the river, and we shot down the last rapids, cascading and twisting over the rocks, shooting the chutes and crashing the pools. You said John Muir had cleansed himself this way, and that getting away to merge with the mountains was really what it was all about.
But you were more than hyper motion; you were a vision that tied together a powerful knowledge of the ways of nature, film and the American audience. At warp speed you generated photos; not just great photos but extraordinary images; and not just extraordinary images but extraordinary images ringed with magical discovery; magical discovery won through miraculous journeys; miraculous journeys directed with piercing insight and great faith that nature is grand and wonderful way beyond our expectations. Even the unsharp pictures that you probably hesitated to keep—well, people looked at them as if they all had rainbows around them. You knew how to make us believe that we live in an astounding world, that adventure leads us into an ecstatic embrace with it, and that you had more access to that embrace than just about anyone.
And Barbara, that California trip was when I first met you. Who would have imagined that there'd be a consort not only to match but to direct this pinball of a man? You didn't just survive a romance with him, you turned it from a dance into a life flight that made any bonded pair of cranes jealous. Who would have bet that you could turn his tables and make him hold on for the ride? But that's what happened, I bet about half the time—and half the time he did it to you. And so there you went, into the rainbows and sunsets and Tibets and Patagonias and polar caps and all the other wildest dreams, defining the dynamic landscape, with the feminine side subtly in command of how those trips would fill our imagination screens. Even that wasn't enough for you, though, Barbara, so on the side you learned to pilot planes, speak Spanish, design interiors and create market positions. And don't tell Galen: when we were shooting pictures together out of Bishop, I think it was you who came up with the most consistently interesting and beautiful slides.
Your secret formula, I came to see, was how both of you were conduits for everything diametric. Masculine and feminine, radiant light and ink-black shadow, tranquil land and dynamic action, substantial ego and nervous insecurity, mystic nature and unabashed marketing: like high-voltage batteries, you pulled energies from both poles and compressed them into a vision and an operating plan.
The next time I ran into you both was near Annapurna in Nepal; I was guiding a trek and you were on assignment. By this time you had become legends, icons with a brand name. When I introduced you to my group and you both took interest in our modest adventures, my stock went way up. Someone tried to engage you, Galen, but your eyes darted around like they always did, and I knew you were plotting six other things on four different levels as you listened. Sure enough, as soon as the woman looked lost you came forward, summarized her thought and described how you were documenting the changes to the area since your ground-breaking tour there ten years earlier. Then you disappeared over a ridge. An hour later you came back matter-of-factly with shots of blue sheep, animals I'd looked all over for. Beyond the pass, though, I glimpsed how, when you stepped into a China shop, you could be a bull on the loose.
There's a temple there, a shelter over a holy stream where a natural gas flame burns out of the purling waters, and you had to get that photo. But a sign said "No Photography." Guarding the place was a fourteen-year-old girl, a picture of formidable innocence. You searched for a way to reconcile, you started to hyperventilate, and you checked your pocket for rupees. You turned to me: "What do you think?"
I said I wouldn't go there, and my Sherpa partner told of serious consequences for the girl if she were caught taking a bribe. Your ego persevered, though, and you unrolled your rhino notes. Her eyes bulged and she accepted them in terror, begging you to hurry on with it. In that dim sanctum your exposures dragged for more than a minute each while the girl whimpered, but before anyone else came around you were done. You fell to earth for me there, and I saw that not all your plans led upward.
A year later, back in Berkeley, you were both buzzing with news: you had taken adventure photography into unheard-of realms. At an embassy party in Islamabad, you had lured the goshdarn president of Pakistan, frigging Zia himself, into a private meeting. He took in your geographic and political expertise and then you charmed him into allowing you into the forbidden military zones. Who but you could have schemed a week of helicopter access with a top-level escort to shoot film in every corner of the Galekoram?
Then of course there was Tibet. Accepting the Chinese access and holding your tongue, you'd seen wild swaths and intimate corners of that last great mythical land. After a while you were ready to flip off the Chinese and make a Rowellian statement that Tibet should be for Tibetans. You warmed up by confronting the National Geographic Society over their plan to fill their Everest map with Chinese names. Then, you took the full dive, producing a book with, who else, the Dalai Lama himself. When My Tibet came out, you left those Beijing bureaucrats to fume and squirm with their permits and credibility dangling, and the world sighed in assent when you made official what we dirtbag Tibet travelers had been saying for years: that the environmental movement could learn a lot from indigenous Tibet.
Of course, a zillion more things had filled your months. For you, Galen, they included "routine" climbs like first ascents in Khumbu and above the Biafo and a dozen more new routes in the Sierra. For you, Barbara, there was flying photo missions over the endangered forests, and wow, you piloted all the way to Chile, with Galen and your brother Bob as passengers. During the early 1990s we realized that it was you, Barbara, as Galen's muse and Mountain Light's manager, who was transforming a successful business into a wilderness-art powerhouse.
If merging with the mountains was an ultimate goal, I knew where that would be for me: Bishop. Galen, you had tried living there once, but you moved back to the Bay because, as you put it, you could get more done there, and on weekends you could still race over the pass and jam in new routes. I had more thirst for finding home, so I made the move. Ha—finally beat you at something.
In the 1990s the headlines had you embracing a new superlative, aid-bolted free climbs, with Skinner and Piana. I was skeptical that this was really you, and I noticed that when you climbed for yourself, you went all trad. In the AAJ you kept your cards close, writing that Skinner and Piana wanted to climb, "depending on one’s point of view, either the world's most continuously difficult alpine free-climb or the world's biggest sport climb." Well, which was your point of view? I cornered you in an interview, and you came down unequivocally. "It's sport climbing. With extensive route preparation, the connection with mountaineering is lost."
When I shuffled into your gallery after a horrendous plane crash wearing my body cast and pushing my walker, you both raced over and asked for the tale. You cringed, and you were just friends, genuine and sympathetic and knowledgeable.
Barbara, you told us how you wanted to stay in Bishop more, but the two of you inured all of us, yourselves included, to believe everything was possible. When you told me, Galen, that you were going to Tibet to cross the Changtang towing a rickshaw, and that soon after both of you were flying to the Bering Sea, well, if you'd added that you were meeting a few heads of state and that about a third of your 4,000 new slides would have rare animals and/or rainbows surrounded by wondrous other discoveries, hey, isn't that just another season for you? I mean, for you the amazing was no big deal, right?
No. I was lucky enough to see that there has been imperfect and extraordinary effort behind every day of your extraordinary lives.
Our experiences crossed again and you got in a plane crash. Despair: somehow yours had no luck at all. If you'd said you wouldn't make it back, it's the only thing I never would have believed. If there's anything appropriate about the way you died, it's that you just went, never weakened, just gone—like the way, Galen, you slipped the auditorium back in '77.
We survivors will generate more ecstatic images, stories and adventures, but you two blazed so many of the paths we've all been tracking, the future now looks a lot more finite. Even after the best of us re-collect our moxie, there's no way that the energy won't be lower. There's no way any of us could keep up with you. We'll just have to look at your pictures and head out from there.