A Tribute to Bob Bates

Posted on: September 19, 2007


A drawing of Bates based on a photo taken in the mid-1940s, when Bates was testing mountaineering clothing and equipment for the US Army. Bates' passing, on September 13, was a great loss to the climbing community. [Illustration] Jason Arkin

On September 13, 2007, the climbing community lost Robert Hicks Bates. Bates, 96, was a member of the "Harvard Five," former president of the American Alpine Club, honorary member of the 10th Mountain Division and lieutenant colonel honored with the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star.

The mountains led Bob Bates across the world from Alaska and the Yukon, where he made numerous first ascents from 1932-1942, to Pakistan, where he made early attempts on K2, to Nepal and China, where he led an expedition that made the first ascent of Ulugh Muztagh in 1985, at age seventy-four.

He also authored and edited mountaineering literature, including Five Miles High (1939), K2: The Savage Mountain (1954) and his autobiography, The Love of Mountains is Best (1994). The italicized passages that follow have been excerpted from The Love of Mountains is Best in tribute to his long life of climbing in, and living for, the mountains.

A view of the St. Elias mountains, where Bates established numerous first ascents and named various uncharted features between 1932 and 1942. Bates' infamous first ascent of Mt Lucania (17,150'), which was the highest unclimbed peak in North America at the time, became widely known through the David Roberts story, "Escape from Lucania." [Photo] Courtesy of Tom Weber

Bob Bates was born in Philadelphia on January 14, 1911, and grew up with a family that encouraged interest in travel, literature and the outdoors.

On a pleasant summer day when I was five, my father, mother and brother, took me on my first climb. Flying Mountain rises 284 feet above sea level at Southwest Harbor on the Maine coast. That day its broad granite ledges were loaded with ripe blueberries and the air was fresh, with a slight breeze off the ocean, the salt air blending with the fragrance of sweet fern and spruce. From the summit the world stretched away and away... A deep love of mountains has been with me ever since. (Page 1)

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That love blossomed on New England's greater peaks, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and on Katahdin in Maine. At Harvard, which Bates attended from 1929-1935 (earning a bachelor's degree in 1933 and a master's two years later), mountaineering became one of his core interests. His connections with Charles Houston, Bradford Washburn, Adams Carter and Terris Moore—they forged lifelong friendships and later became known as the "Harvard Five"—gave Bates experienced partners for innumerable jaunts to the Northeast's familiar crags and peaks. These outings, although not seen as training, were learning opportunities for Bates and his partners.

Washburn was fond of the White Mountains, as was Everett, and soon the three of us were making frequent weekend trips to Pinkham Notch in Brad's Model-A Ford Roadster, named Niobe... What he knew about climbing seemed endless. He was excellent company, too, with boundless energy and a good sense of humor. No wonder I didn't mind the five-hour drives... (Page 8)

The experience from these outings, and the camaraderie among friends, led them abroad into the greater ranges, particularly to the Karakoram, and at "home" in the most uncharted areas of North America, in particular the St. Elias Range. In 1937 Bates and Washburn, along with Russell Dow and Norman Bright, climbed Mt. Steele and Mt. Lucania, which was North America's highest unclimbed peak at the time (17,150'). It was also one of the continent's most inaccessible: the team walked more than 100 miles over glaciers and rugged terrain.

The south face of K2 (28,250'), the world's second-highest mountain, looking relatively benign. Bates and fellow Harvard student Charles Houston made two early attempts on this peak in Pakistan's Karakoram, in 1938 and 1953. Both were epic—the first involved a 350-mile trek to the base and failed due to storms and lack of food; the second killed their partner, Art Gilkey, in one of the most famous mountaineering incidents in history. The first ascent was made in 1954 by an Italian team via the same proposed route, the Abruzzi Ridge, which follows the prominent vertical buttress on the right side of the photo up to the east ridge. [Photo] Courtesy of Adam Jacob Muller

Three months after his return from Lucania, Bates was invited by his Harvard friend, Charles Houston, to join the first American expedition to K2 (28,250'). In July of 1938—when no 8000-meter peak had yet been summitted—the team (Bates, Houston, Paul Petzoldt, Bill House, Dick Burdsall, Captain Norman Streatfeild and a number of porters) made a 350-mile trek and glacier travel from Srinagar to K2, where they decided the best option was to attempt the mountain from the southeast, on the Abruzzi Ridge. They reached the high point on the mountain (ca. 26,000'—this also was the worldwide highpoint for any American at the time) via that ridge, but poor weather and a lack of food kept them from the summit.

If perfect weather could have been guaranteed, there might have been time to establish two more camps and to reconnoiter a route to the summit, but this would have left only two or three days for the descent, an impossibility in storm. Great ominous columns of threatening clouds already loomed to the south. With this fact facing us, we made a decision: to pack a camp for two men to the highest point Paul and Charlie had reached, from where the next day, weather permitting, they would have a chance to move as high as they could, with the hope that they would get far enough at least to see a route up the summit cone. The plan meant giving up our hope to reach the summit, but at least we would extend our route up the mountain.

Deciding to abandon our plan to gain the summit was the hardest decision of the whole expedition, because climbing the mountain was the aim of all of us. After discussion, however, we all sadly agreed that going down was the right action. If we had known then how many climbers on K2 in a similar position to ours would die in later years because they failed to descend before a major storm, our decision would have been easier to make. (Page 137)

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