Talented Alpinist Joe Puryear Dies at Age 37


Joe reconsiders he and Mark Westman's decision to forgo a gear-packing donkey in order to save money on a trip to Aconcagua in February 1997. [Photo] Mark Westman

In the last five years, Joe turned his attention to the giant and unexplored peaks of China, Tibet and Nepal. He made seven expeditions to Asia in this time, most of them with either David Gottlieb or Chad Kellogg, two of our longtime friends. In total Joe tallied seven major first ascents in these expeditions, most notably the first ascents of three 6700-meter Nepalese peaks. Of those seven, he climbed Kang Nachugo, Takargo and Jobo Rinjang with Gottlieb. In China, he and Kellogg completed three significant first ascents, including Mt. Daugou, and "Lara Shan," named when Chad's wife Lara, a close friend, died in a climbing accident in Alaska in 2007. Joe and Kellogg also completed a major first ascent on Alaska's Kichatna Spire. Interspersed with these adventures were his phenomenally motivated and productive trips to the Utah and Arizona deserts, where he made dozens of ascents of classic—and not so classic—desert towers. Usually he was in the company of Michelle—who climbed more than 30 towers with him—and his frequent partners-in-crime, Stoney Richards and Jim Yoder. Wherever Joe went—Peru, the Canadian Rockies, the Alps or at home in the Cascades—Joe was determined to climb absolutely everything. I've known few people who could accomplish so much in so little time.


I've had to recognize that you can't climb it all, but Joe's example has always given me hope. When I first met Joe, he had a large sheet of paper taped to the wall of his basement apartment. It was titled "The List," and it had names like K2, Nanga Parbat, Everest and many more on it, all marquee objectives. All his objectives were far beyond our abilities at the time. A year later, he still hadn't done any of them. So he added some climbs he had already done in the Cascades to it and then crossed them out, just for the illusion of progress. Joe eventually tore up The List, disgustedly declaring it pretentious. Many years later, his climbing resume represented a most unpretentious list—a list of action motivated by love, purpose and certainty.

I envied Joe's trips of more recent years as much for the time I was missing with him as for the climbs he was doing. I regretted that we had drifted apart as climbing partners. But it all began to come back around. A year ago, Michelle decided she wanted to move to Seattle to work towards her CPA. Joe, Michelle, Lisa and I found ourselves sharing a two-bedroom apartment for the winter. It was a humorous coincidence. Long before we had met Lisa and Michelle, Joe and I had joked that this would happen—we would someday be married and yet sharing a place. The four of us flourished in Seattle together, and it further strengthened our friendships.

Joe Puryear and wife Michelle on the summit of Triumph in the North Cascades in June 2010. [Photo] Joseph Puryear

Last July, when I returned from climbing in Alaska, Joe and I spent a weekend at Washington Pass—one of our favorite old alpine crags from the formative days. We hadn't been on a rope together in four years. At the base of The Hitchhiker on South Early Winter Spire, we laughed at ourselves. Unintentionally, we had worn matching outfits: white t-shirts, tan pants and bright orange wind jackets. We were twins. Some things never change. As Joe reached into his chalk bag to start the first pitch, he paused and turned to me, extending his hand. "It's great to be out climbing with you again, old buddy." What followed was two days of climbing that felt like the old days, except that we were much more competent. The years had matured us both, and we reveled in the passage of the last 15 year. We were married homeowners, still climbing almost full time and most of all, committed friends. We laughed and joked our way up the spires, and we both realized how much we missed our old alpine friendship. By the end of the weekend we were laying the groundwork for a future Himalayan climbing trip.

I last saw Joe in late August as Lisa and I prepared to drive south from Seattle to climb in the Sierra. It was an exciting time, as we were embarking on an extended climbing and traveling adventure, while Joe and David were departing in 10 days for Tibet. That sunny morning in the apartment, Lisa and I purposefully lingered over coffee with Joe, despite wanting to hit the road. We were having a great conversation, and I was enjoying Joe's energy as we talked excitedly about potential adventures to come.

On October 27, I awoke to my cell phone ringing. It was 4:58 a.m., and it was Michelle. I stared at the screen, intuitively afraid to answer the call. I knew.

It will be said of Joe, as it has been said of so many others before him, that he "died doing what he loved." While I understand what motivates this sentiment, I have come to detest the statement. Joe died falling from a mountain, and he did not love falling. Joe loved Michelle and their life together, and he had many more adventures still to do. He relished the thought of someday being an old, spent-up alpinist, surrounded by his close friends and reflecting on an illustrious life in the mountains. Joe understood and accepted the risks, but in no way did he want to die "doing what he loved." The tragic and unintended outcome, however, doesn't change the fact that Joe was very much living in his element. So the words of comfort I prefer—lacking any others—are that Joe lived doing what he loved. I am proud of Joe for steadfastly following his heart, for his doing so is what blossomed his character. It is what made him an inspiration to so many, and it is what made him so deeply loved by those of us who are, as David Gottlieb declared, "honored to have shared in his meteoric life."

Read more about Joe's accomplishments in our NewsWire archives:

Takargo: Rolwaling's Hidden Gem

Long Sichuan Route Established in Tribute to Fowler and Boskoff

First Ascent in the Chang Ping Qionglai

Kichatna Spire

Joe Puryear celebrates on the summit of Mt. Hunter in April 1999. He and Mark Westman climbed in the Alaska Range together for nine consecutive seasons. [Photo] Mark Westman

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