Wayne Merry (1931-2019): Yosemite legend, teacher and loving steward of wild places

Posted on: January 9, 2020

Wayne Merry while engaged in Alaskan glacier mapping for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1958. [Photo] Dick Long (Wayne Merry collection)Wayne Merry while engaged in Alaskan glacier mapping for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1958. [Photo] Dick Long (Wayne Merry collection)

I first met Wayne Merry in 2008 at the gathering in Yosemite to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of the Nose. He was master of ceremonies and between watching his excellent presentations at the event and interacting with him on the Supertopo climber's forum, I gained a solid sense of his personality and character. In 2017, I had the opportunity to interview him as part of my work on the Elevated Lives Project. Early in the interview, he told a story from his freshman year in college. After a late night partying with friends, he needed a bit of adventure and climbed to the top of a stadium lighting tower, where he stayed until dawn. As he watched the world below scramble into routine action, he promised himself "then and there that I would not lead a conventional and mundane life like that. And I never did," he said with a smile.


Wayne Procter Merry passed away at home in Atlin, British Columbia, early on October 30, 2019, after suffering from prostate cancer. He was 88. Merry lived a consequential and deeply satisfying life as a trailblazer in a variety of arenas: big-wall climbing, national park administration, search and rescue, mountain guiding, municipal and wilderness first response, experiential education, resource and community management and conservation. All along the way, he shared his passion for the outdoors and his wealth of experience directly through his teaching, advocacy, and extensive written work.

He was born in Fresno on August 4, 1931, to Sarah Louise Procter and Harold White. Once his mother remarried, Wayne took the last name of his beloved stepfather, Ralph Merry. The Merry family moved frequently in those early years and eventually settled in Calistoga, California. All the way through school, Wayne was free to roam in the nearby woods in search of adventure with his younger brother Bill, who belayed him on his first climb in the St. Helena Palisades. Through Boy Scout trips, Wayne became enchanted with Desolation Valley and the Sierra Nevada, and he met real mountaineers such as Art Reyman.

Wayne attended Stockton College briefly, where he pursued an interest in music as he played both trumpet and baritone trombone. This first stint at higher education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War. Wayne enlisted in the Navy, a move that ended up advancing his climbing career. While stationed in San Diego as a dental technician, he joined the local Rock Climbing Section of the Sierra Club and paired up with the likes of Jerry Gallwas, Gary Hemming, George Schlief and Barbara Lilley to climb at Mission Gorge, Tahquitz, Joshua Tree, and eventually, Yosemite.

Enjoying the spacious luxury of El Cap Towers, Wayne Merry takes a welcome break during the first ascent of the Nose in 1958. [Photo] Wayne Merry collectionEnjoying the spacious luxury of El Cap Towers, Wayne Merry takes a welcome break during the first ascent of the Nose in 1958. [Photo] Wayne Merry collection

Deployed as a medic in the Fleet Marine Force, Wayne fulfilled his service by teaching dental technicians in Hawaii until he was discharged early in 1956 to help care for his stepfather, who died of prostate cancer the following year.

In personal correspondence, Dr. Dick Long recently recalled, "In 1956, I got a job with the International Geophysical Year (IGY). On my third summer I talked Wayne into working with our three-man crew in Alaska. We did glacier surveys with 15-foot contours setting markers to be reexamined every 15 years. At the end of that summer, Harding contacted me to climb the Nose. I was married with two kids and my 'job' started the same week, so Wayne took my place. Cindy, Wayne's wife, feels that our Alaska glacier mapping work exposed him to the allure of the wild and unspoiled north." This deep affinity would have a major influence on the Merry family life decisions in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, after narrowly missing out on the first ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome, Warren Harding, Mark Powell and Bill "Dolt" Feuerer started up the first ascent of the Nose of El Capitan on July 5, 1957. At the time they simply referred to the Nose as the "south buttress." The first ascent of Half Dome had been a daunting leap—in comparison, El Cap's south buttress represented an even bigger leap. Harding's team persisted in pushing the route higher over a total of 45 days spread across two seasons. By the time Wayne joined the effort in September of 1958, ropes were fixed to the halfway point atop Boot Flake and Bill had dropped out, soon to be followed by the injured Mark Powell.

Team members working on the Nose were forced to climb outside of peak tourist season because of the spectacle they represented and the logistical problems created by the surrounding attention. Several climbers were involved in this protracted siege, but the team ultimately narrowed down to Warren, Wayne, George Whitmore and Rich Calderwood. Under pressure from the Park Service to complete the project, and working around job and school constraints, the team left the ground on November 1 for a final 10-day push. Rich Calderwood quit the effort to save his job when it became apparent that the climb was going to take longer than anticipated. The other three finished the grand adventure early on November 12 after Harding heroically drilled through the night by headlamp to overcome the summit overhangs.

George Whitmore, Wayne Merry, and Warren Harding toast their hard won success after completing the first ascent of the spectacular Nose of El Capitan on November 12, 1958. [Photo] Wayne Merry collectionGeorge Whitmore, Wayne Merry, and Warren Harding toast their hard-won success after completing the first ascent of the spectacular Nose of El Capitan on November 12, 1958. [Photo] Wayne Merry collection

When I asked Wayne to reflect on the Nose in 2017, he said, "It is a great thing to look back at from a great distance. No matter how clumsily it was done by comparison to modern techniques, there is only one first. It feels pretty good to have made that particular one. It is a beautiful climb and recognized as one of the most famous in the world and I am happy with that."

Wayne was attending San Jose State while the Nose climb went on, and he later graduated with a degree in conservation with a minor in teaching. He had also fallen in love with Cindy Barrison. He wrote love letters to her while he was on the Nose. He tossed the notes to the ground in cans with small streamers, and the ground support team added a stamp to each letter and sent them to Santa Monica where she lived. They were married not long afterward.

The National Park Service hired Wayne as a Yosemite interpretive ranger in 1959. Initially this job involved such distasteful activities as leading singalongs at Valley campfire gatherings. Soon he transferred to Tuolumne Meadows, where he was surrounded by career naturalists such as Carl Sharsmith, Will Nealy and Allen Shields—a situation that was much more to his liking. After a few years in Yosemite, Wayne and Cindy had their first child, Scott. In 1964 the family was transferred to Olympic National Park. A year later, they moved to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, where Wayne was assigned as a mountaineering ranger. Wayne and Cindy had their second son, Kendall, shortly after arriving in Alaska.

The Wilcox Expedition tragedy on Denali in 1967 marked a turning point for Wayne's career. He was so frustrated by what he and some others saw as a deficient rescue attempt by the Park Service that he threatened to resign unless he was promoted to Chief Ranger. He got the job.

Wayne quickly developed an aversion for the politics involved in upper level Park Service administration, so he accepted an offer from the Yosemite Park and Curry Company in 1969 to return and establish a mountaineering guide service. This effort earned quick success and also helped establish some mutual respect between the climbing community, the rangers and the concessionaires, who often viewed climbers as "somewhere between hippies and bears," in Wayne's humorous estimation.

During the 1960s, visitors to Yosemite greatly increased. And as a result, rescues and injury-related evacuations became an almost daily occurrence in peak season. While guide service members were capable and willing to perform these tasks in coordination with NPS rangers, the lack of predictability hampered the nascent guiding operation.

Wayne noted that dedicated climbers and rangers were constantly in conflict over camping stay limits. After enlisting Jim Bridwell to act as spokesperson for the climbers, Wayne approached Assistant Superintendent Keith Neilson with a sensible proposition: "Look, you have some of the best climbers in the world over in Camp 4. Why don't you take a select group and give them unlimited camping privileges so long as 50 percent of them are available at any one time to be teamed up with you on rescue. Then you can sign them up, cover them with workers compensation and even pay them if that's the way it wants to go. Then you'll have a superb rescue team. So I left it at that point and said, 'Bridwell is your representative, go for it.' I was so happy that Keith had the foresight to go along with that proposal." This was the beginning of the celebrated modern YOSAR.

Setting up the Mountain Shop was the next project that Wayne undertook successfully for the Curry Company. It started as a shelf display in a dress shop before moving to a dedicated building in Yosemite Village (which also housed the Mountaineering Guide Service) and eventually to Camp Curry. Wayne introduced multi-colored webbing to climbers, initially offering red and blue to supplement white, starting what he referred to as a "color revolution" in climbing gear.

Wayne also founded the Cross Country Ski School in Yosemite. In order to help in their promotions, Wayne, Ned Gillette, Jack Miller and Jed Williamson skied across the Brooks Range on wooden skis with no climbing skins or sleds. They started above the Arctic Circle with 80-pound packs for the 30-day outing.

During summer breaks, Wayne and his family often travelled north to Alaska. A friend who lived in Atlin, British Columbia, invited them to visit and Wayne immediately fell in love with the place.

"This is Brigadoon. I have got to live here," he said to himself at the time. In 1974 he and Cindy bought a house in the town of 400 and set about making a living. "We lived on moose, lake trout and garden vegetables," he recalled during my interview with him.

Wayne Merry happily managing an 80-pound pack in support of Alaskan glacier survey and mapping work for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1958. [Photo] Dick Long (Wayne Merry collection)Wayne Merry happily managing an 80-pound pack in support of Alaskan glacier survey and mapping work for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1958. [Photo] Dick Long (Wayne Merry collection)

Wayne organized a volunteer ambulance service and fire brigade along with search and rescue training seminars while Cindy taught school part time. In the late '70s they started Nortreks, a company that outfitted and conducted wilderness excursions, sometimes working with Mountain Travel and Alaska Travel Adventures. This went well until a recession in the early '80s forced a reconsideration of that enterprise. They soon discovered a paid position advertised on late-night television in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) Baffin Island for the kind of the first responder work that Wayne had been doing gratis.

They moved in 1984 and assumed various responsibilities until Arctic College set up a branch campus and Wayne developed an Environmental Technology program to train local Inuit people for various resource and community management positions. Building on extensive experience, Wayne and Cindy wrote a plain language wilderness first responder manual for St. John Ambulance and assisted in the implementation of the Yukon Emergency Mission Organization for search and rescue.

Once they were able to return to Atlin in 1990, they founded Context North and wrote a series of area-specific search and rescue manuals, which were then combined into a single publication covering all of Canada. Wayne was also instrumental in establishing the Protect Atlin Lake Society (PALS) to save his beloved Lake Atlin from a hydroelectric dam project.

Wayne felt a deep satisfaction from having saved many lives and contributed to the wellbeing of his home and wider community.

A gathering in celebration of Wayne's life will take place in Atlin on May 24. George Whitmore recently remarked that Wayne always seemed to be smiling and upbeat no matter how grim or trying the circumstances. In assessing Wayne's life and character, a mutual friend and admirer, David Harris, reflected "the world would be a perfect place if it were filled with people like Wayne Merry."

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