Talented Alpinist Joe Puryear Dies at Age 37

Posted on: April 27, 2011

Joe Puryear at high camp on Jobo Rinjang in 2009. Puryear fell through a cornice and died while climbing an unclimbed peak in Tibet with David Gottlieb on October 27, 2010. [Photo] David Gottlieb

On October 27, 2010, Joe Puryear was attempting an unclimbed peak named Labuche Kang in Tibet with his close friend and regular climbing partner, David Gottlieb. While unroped and climbing along a ridgecrest low on the route, Joe broke through a deceptive cornice and fell 700 feet to the glacier below. In that instant, we lost a great friend and companion, a husband, a brother, a son and a truly brilliant mind. Joe was one of the authentic talents of the American climbing community, an inspiration to friends and strangers alike, and he lived an extraordinary life of pure devotion to all that he loved. He was only 37 years old.


Joe grew up in Washington's Yakima Valley. His parents, Gail and Shirley, are a remarkable and fun-loving couple who opened the Bonair Winery in 1985, when Joe was 12 years old. Through the years at the winery, Joe became an expert carpenter, an all around farm hand, and a vintner in training. He maintained an enduringly close relationship with his parents and with his sister, Tash, her husband Ben Summit, and his niece and nephews.

Throughout his life, Joe had a devious and eccentric sense of humor and loved puzzles, games and most of all, pushing people's buttons, but it was always good natured. Unsurprisingly, he earned a math degree from the University of Washington, though he knew he would never work in that field. Joe had a natural talent for anything he set his mind to. This talent—combined with a supportive upbringing—gave Joe unlimited potential to be anything he wanted. When his parents took him up Mt. Adams as a teenager, Joe had found what he truly loved. He was a problem solver by heart and endlessly curious—traits that would drive him in a natural course towards mountain climbing as a full-time pursuit.

Joe and I met in 1994 when we were just starting into the world of alpinism, and we formed a fast friendship that would prove to be enduring and immovable. We were young and highly motivated, with similar goals, abilities and attitudes. Above all we were like brothers, and we became nearly inseparable, spending the next decade climbing together almost exclusively—and with productive results. We worked together for four seasons at Mt. Rainier as climbing rangers, spending all of our days off climbing the classic routes in the North Cascades. We climbed in Patagonia, learned to climb big walls in Yosemite and climbed Aconcagua to gain altitude experience. But our signature climbing venue was always the Alaska Range, where we climbed together for nine consecutive seasons. We spent a month alone making a rare ascent of Denali's full south buttress—an experience that cemented our partnership. We made progressively harder ascents in Alaska that culminated in an ascent of Denali's Cassin Ridge in 2000, and a year later, the Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker, which would prove to be our finest achievements together. Six years earlier, we had sat, wide-eyed, at a Jim Nelson's slide show of the Infinite Spur's second ascent. It was so far from our ability at the time, and in retrospect, it made sense that this route would become the zenith of our partnership. In the ensuing years, as our climbing goals diversified, they also began to diverge. Regrettably, we climbed together less often, but we remained everlasting friends.

Joe Puryear and Mark Westman on the summit of Denali after climbing the Cassin Ridge in June 2000. The duo had been in the mountains for 49 days, and summited Foraker, Huntington and Dickey, and attempted Hunter. This was the biggest climb they had ever completed at the time. [Photo] Mark Westman

During the 2001 Alaska season, Joe met Michelle O'Neil at Kahiltna base camp. Michelle was working for the NPS, and was also best friends with my girlfriend/future wife, Lisa. In Michelle, Joe had met the love of his life, and three years later they married in a beautiful, casual ceremony on the Pika Glacier in Alaska's Little Switzerland. Although they maintained a small cabin in Talkeetna, they settled in Leavenworth, Wash., where their home became a social hub for climbers and friends. A weekend at the Puryear house involved some combination of climbing, floating the river in tubes, bouldering on mid-river outcrops and jumping from atop them into the water, organic dinners from Michelle's garden and of course, lots of Bonair wine. Often the evening was capped with a drytooling and bouldering session—to strobe lights and heavy metal—in the "Hellbox," Joe's basement man-cave.

In 2005, Joe combined his beautiful photography and vast knowledge of Alaska into Alaska Climbing, a selected climbs guidebook to the Central Alaska Range that has become the standard literature for visiting climbers. True to his personality, Joe also taught himself how to proficiently use Photoshop, InDesign and other graphic design tools. His natural skill earned him a job with Sherpa Gear as their chief photographer and catalog editor. Joe single-handedly produced numerous beautiful catalogs for Sherpa that display these creative talents. Recently, Joe launched a new website to sell his images to the public, and he also shared his many adventures with the public through a series of exciting blogs.

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