Long Live Eddie Sender

Posted on: September 1, 2003


The shuttle picked us up at the Motel 8 as we finished our first cups of coffee. Two young climbers in uniforms of fleece and Schoeller leapt out of the van, grabbed our mule bags and helped us wrestle them into the travel-cart. Another two men, somewhat older and more reserved, eased out and without saying a word watched the proceedings, arms neatly folded. The bags ensconced, they shuffled back in, identical knit-wool hats pulled low over graying temples. We climbed in behind them, and the van eased into the Anchorage traffic, headed north for Talkeetna.

We traded questions with the two younger climbers up front, talking over the older men: Where're you headed, where're you from, how long are you going in for? Soon, though, the conversation ensnared the elders, and we discovered that the man in the seat in front of us was the British climber Victor Saunders. Saunders is perhaps best known for his ascent of Spantik's Golden Pillar with Mick Fowler, a route cherished by climbers as one of the great feats in alpine history, and as the wooded flats of Alaska became punctuated by ever-higher mountains, we began to trade stories.

British climbing in particular has a tradition of style and boldness that sets the bar for alpinists the world over. Driving north, we arrived at the subject of Mountain Magazine, the voice of world climbing in the 1970s. Established by Ken Wilson in London, England, in 1969, Mountain influenced a generation of alpinists, none more so than in its homeland of the United Kingdom.

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"Nick Colton," Saunders said, his slightly Asian features tanned from years beneath the sun, "is the only person to think that Wilson was a detriment to British climbing. He figured that by holding up bold alpine climbs for emulation, Wilson lured a generation of the country's finest climbers onto dangerous faces in a style that maximized their exposure. Many died as a result." He paused. "Do you reckon yourself to be the next Ken Wilson?"

The question caught me by surprise. My respect for Mountain has grown with every issue of Alpinist we create. Wilson worked with an international network of climbers to present an accurate portrait of world alpinism on a bi-monthly basis. That essence is one we aspire to here at Alpinist—but by holding up alpine-style climbing as the ideal, we're aware that we're celebrating a style as dangerous as it is alluring. "Alpinism is alpinism," Anatoli Boukreev used to say: accidents and tragedy are natural bedfellows of the joy and beauty that draw us to the heights. But by inspiring people to climb, are we responsible, as Colton accused Wilson of being, for the tragedies that inevitably follow?

In 1998 I traveled to Kyrgyzstan's remote West Kokshal-Tau in the company of an all-star cast. Among our team was a climber I had heard something about. Though he tended to stay off the radar screens, Guy Edwards was a strong young Canadian who would quickly prove to be the best climber of our group. Perhaps more importantly, he was also possessed of an enthusiasm and unwavering positivity that made him a great expedition partner.

We've been working with a character in the pages of Alpinist for over a year now. Eddie Sender has penned a number of reports in our Climbing Notes section; he has taken a photo or two, and he's been in our acknowledgements in the front matter as well. Originally the brainchild of Hans Johnstone, a local hero here in the Tetons, Eddie embodies traits we felt in need of celebration: well-skilled, humble, he is the kind of partner you want on the other end of the rope, one who will always get the sharp end up there and never feel the need to spray about it afterward. In the last year, as the magazine evolved, we watched the growing tally of great new routes established by Guy, often in the company of his partner John Millar. Quite quickly, it became apparent to us that the self-effacing, all-sending Guy Edwards and Eddie Sender were one and the same.

In early April we gave Guy, John and Kai Hirvonen $1,500 as the first recipients of the B-Team Climbing Grant. A couple of weeks later I left for the Alaska Range, meeting Saunders in the process. My partner and I flew in to the Ruth Glacier, put up our tent, and raced up to The Mooses Tooth. Two thousand feet of climbing later, we retreated, making it back to our base camp as a storm settled in. The next day we skied down the glacier while the avalanches ran their course. As these things happen, we met a friend from home less than an hour after leaving the tent.

"Have you heard?" he asked, when we had dispensed with our greetings. "There's a search on in the Coast Range. Guy Edwards and John Millar are missing on the northwest face of the Devils Thumb."

Stunned, standing in randonee gear below the east face of Mt. Dickey, I begged for details. There were few to give: Guy and John had started up the face while Kai had remained behind. After four days of waiting, Kai had gone for help. Efforts were underway to find the missing climbers, but there was little hope.

Nothing could seem less real than to hear that Guy had somehow, against any thread of coherency, disappeared. Guy Edwards. Eddie Sender. Others might die in the mountains—alpinism is alpinism—but not Guy: too positive, too strong, too smart, too solid to ever disappear like that. I could see Guy as an old man, perhaps, taking a final wander into the hills he had loved for a lifetime, and simply not returning; but it made no sense whatsoever that he would go now, so young, so alive.

In the last year, Guy and John had accomplished a 1,200-mile ski traverse of the Coast Range and established new routes (reported in these pages) on Alaska's West Witches Tit, the Cats Ears Spire and on the west face of India's Swachand. The northwest face of the Devils Thumb is one of the great unclimbed problems of North America. When we gave them the grant, we decided that of all the applicants, Guy's team, along with two others, deserved extra funding. They had the abilities, experience, tenacity and commitment to climb it; their partnership was tempered by numerous routes together; and they had done their homework by reconning the mountain twice before. But the question I asked myself as we skied down the Ruth that day in April, the remnants of a storm lifting from the mile-high walls, was a simple one: Did we play a part in their deaths by supporting their dreams?

An infinite number of factors influence any outcome. The team had already left for Alaska by the time we had mailed the checks, and they would have almost certainly departed regardless of our funding. Like all competent climbers, Guy Edwards and his teammates understood and accepted the risks involved in their chosen route. Eddie Sender understands, too, and will continue to accept climbing's risks in these pages as he plays out a life inspired by the mountains and the people drawn to them. In that commitment—in that passion for a life fully his own—he will continue to have our full support.

—Christian Beckwith

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