Galen Rowell - Tip of the Hat to one of the Masters


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May 21, 2010 - 12:13am PT
In Rowell's book 'High and Wild' he describes an experience on the FA of the South Face of Hetch Hetchy Dome, like..."the fifth pitch (5.9) is is worth mentioning"...Galen was leading this in heavy boots, armed with a 4" bong piton and felt like he "was like a dog chasing a cat up a drainpipe..."

I resembled that remark. I cannot fathom doing it in boots and virtually no protection. Galen was the man! Sh#t I thought it was a solid 5.9d+ sandbag; seriously difficult. However, it's a beautiful, smooth polished 4" monster that you O/W aficionados would find worth doing, even if you rap afterwards.

Has anyone out there in ST land repeated this (pitch)?
Pitch 5, Hetch Hetchy Dome
Pitch 5, Hetch Hetchy Dome
Credit: ec


May 22, 2010 - 08:16pm PT
Bump for Galen!

from where the anecdotes roam
May 22, 2010 - 09:03pm PT
justice baby, ec does justice to the man.

when events like the one above are painted so vividly, we are all enriched by his experience. thankyou.

i'm glad to be reminded, or informed, that some of the great image hunters who's mark has been so indelibly cast in our collective memory, were themselves actors on the stage. sometimes what was hidden behind the lens was never meant to be hidden, though that might have been the effect.

whereas it may be humble to document the performance of others, including those expressions that belong to the creator, how appropriate to return the favor, and shed some light on galen.

i did not approach and introduce myself the one time i spotted him amongst his friends in the meadows, but i felt his presence steeped in full mystery as i scoured the cliffs and picked my lines beneath wildcat point. strange how that feeling passes for ordinary, until that person moves to the other side, and takes his stories with him
Norman Claude

May 22, 2010 - 11:45pm PT
October it was and we did not make it down from the Dumbell wall before the cold of October had Vern, Galen and me freezing next to an icing over stream. Headlamps you might ask. We had one of those petty check out line flashlights and a leftover cookie. Galen fidgeted and fussed with the thing until he finally stoned it to death and signed us up for the BIVOUAC.

Part of this climb's package was that one of Galen's tennies had escaped the haul pack. Which meant he'd be hiking out in his eb's. Vern has a photo of our favorite uncle combing his hair before the crux pitch. Vern and I pointed and laughed as we hadn't combed our hair in a number of months.

Galen had a VERY IMPORTANT meeting he was going to miss because of our mishap? Mishap? Oh no, this was life after the right turn. You know, the one you took topping out on your first lead.

And then of course there was the rip back to the Meadows. Nothing like a toss in Galen's Chevy with delinquency in the air.

Norman Claude

Trad climber
May 22, 2010 - 11:45pm PT
Peter M-

Well said.

May 23, 2010 - 10:23am PT
When I started climbing in the mid seventies, Galen was one of the main characters in Harding's Downward Bound which was our bible at the time. (I definitely wore a hat closer to black than white). Never imagined meeting any of those guys much less climbing with them.
It's a small world and I met Galen and bumped into him a couple times over the years.
He came to Squamish in the early nineties for a photo workshop and I was enlisted to give him a tour up the Grand Wall. Fit as a fiddle, human dynamo, worst belayer I ever had. Every time I looked down, he'd be blasting away with his camera with the rope loosely draped around him, belay non existent. We had a great time and he gave me a couple pictures he took along the way. We chatted a couple times at the gallery in Bishop and then, he was gone. I'll treasure the memories and the photos he so kindly gave me.
RIP Galen and Barbara, taken tragically and way too soon.

Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA
May 23, 2010 - 11:53am PT
Fit as a fiddle, human dynamo, worst belayer I ever had.
Well said Chief.

His tantrums were legendary, as Norman eluded. Great memories here.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
May 23, 2010 - 12:03pm PT

photo credit:  Darwin Alonso
photo credit: Darwin Alonso

May 23, 2010 - 02:26pm PT
Galen had a VERY IMPORTANT meeting he was going to miss...
No important meetings missed with the advent of technology! Galen on h...
No important meetings missed with the advent of technology! Galen on his cell from the Charlatan. RIP, Brother!
Credit: Ron Felton, ec collection

Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
May 23, 2010 - 02:28pm PT
Galen was one of my big mentors, here is a story I wrote right after the plane crash

I’ve never had someone close to me die. Right now, 24 hours after hearing that Barbara and Galen Rowell have died in a plane crash, my mind is blank. I can’t feel a single emotion. All I can think to do is write about the amazing things they both brought to my life.

Galen and Barbara Rowell graced the planet with the passion of their being. They radiated an intense excitement so strong that it overpowered some people and pushed them away. In my case, it sucked me in. As soon as I met them in the summer of 1998. I knew that I would cherish every moment that I spent with them. I remember vividly almost every time we hung out, from the first time I ran with Galen in the Berkeley hills to parting hugs at Galen’s “Return from China” party two weeks ago in Bishop, the last time I saw them. The memories are so strong because the air around them was filled with a distinct hum of energy. In their presence my mind became more alert, my senses more attuned.

I met Galen on a run in the Berkeley Hills with photographer Jerry Dodrill. I was a half-assed runner until I started running with Galen, whose drive transformed my mild interest into a full-blown obsession. How could I not be obsessed? The man had an infectious passion that made you love the outdoors, adventure, and life in general.
While I cherished my morning runs with Galen, I discovered a disturbing fact: Galen’s joints were indestructible and mine were not. After six months of trying to keep up with him my left knee failed. I was 19 years old and had been run into the ground by a 57-year-old. I gave up trail running for less knee-intensive passions.

Galen may have been 61 when he died but he had the body of a college athlete. He frequently displayed this by handling on one try a climbing problem that took me 20 tries. Or running down hills with an aggressive speed that would make an orthopedist cringe. I often joked with him that he was part of a secret government study in joint replacement. There was simply no way his body could have been made from the same stuff as the rest of us.

Last year, when I lived in Bishop, I remember one morning when I had just completed rolling my leg up and down on a piece of hard foam. The exercise was part of my physical therapy to heal the knee that Galen had, indirectly and inadvertently, wrecked. I stood up from the living room floor and moved to the large bay window that overlooked a vast expanse of sagebrush. A hundred yards out in the sagebrush, something flashed across the landscape with the speed and determination of a cheetah. It was Galen. With his shirt off, exposing a body that easily looked 30 years younger than his age, he sprinted across the desert as if on a serious mission. Without breaking stride, he leaped over a small shrub, turned his head, flashed a huge smile, and waved to me. Then he vanished.

It seemed like he had timed his appearance with my physical therapy session for maximum effect. I could have felt depressed that he was out on a running adventure and I was moving my leg back and forth over a piece of foam, but I didn’t. He was so close to superhuman that there was no point in feeling bad about not keeping up with him.

Galen’s physical gifts were a small part of him. Even more impressive was his intense curiosity about…well…everything. He told me he dropped out of college because he wasn’t learning enough; U.C. Berkeley moved too slowly and was too restrictive for his hungry mind. Instead, he embarked on a self-education process that makes most Ph.D. programs look tame. He devoured books on everything from natural history to physics. I savored any book he loaned me from his extensive library. Every so often a page would be a wash of yellow highlighter with a small commentary in black pen starting with “bullshit!” followed by a note suggesting that the book’s author had not done his homework. I often read his highlighted passages and commentary and ignored the rest of the book.

His incredible intellect was matched by a desire to share with others. He was one of my greatest teachers. He knew more about more things than any of my professors at U.C. Berkeley. Learning about the world with Galen was not a duty, it was a profound pleasure, and every time alone with Galen was a small classroom session. As we would drive to a climb or trail run, the conversation ranged from the political history of Mono Lake to latest theories on how the brain interprets light (the subject was rarely climbing).

It is hard to imagine anyone who could keep up with Galen, yet there was one person who could: Barbara.

Each time I visited her home she would spend but a few minutes on conversational formalities before showing off her latest project. Whether it was her prized bird Miguelito’s latest trick, a new way to network all the computers of Mountain Light, their photography and publishing company, or a book on the writing process she had read, she always had the same demeanor: quick movements across the room, a steady stream of well articulated commentary, and an occasional sharp look to assess whether I was still with her. There was no predicting what would grab her next. I loved it. I knew every visit would be exciting.

Barbara and I were once cohorts in an attempt to trick ourselves into making daily chores fun. We regressed to the preschool system of making a chart and giving ourselves little colored star stickers every time we accomplished one of our mundane daily tasks such as “make phone calls” or “write in journal.” For a few weeks we greeted each other with the question, “So, how many stars did you get today?” Barbara usually had more stars but she admittedly padded her list with items such as “get out of bed.”

Barbara was a gifted pilot who had flown to the tip of South America and back — alone. At one airfield in Colombia she noticed a pair of drug traffickers casing her plane, a CessnaTurbo 206 that was a hot item in drug trade. Although completely alone, she stayed calm and was able to elude the would-be hijackers and continue her journey.
My favorite memory with Barbara was when she flew Galen and me to Yosemite for an ascent of El Capitan. The cockpit of her plane was a very special place for her. Despite her professional demeanor as she conducted the preflight check and radioed the tower, it was clear she was in her element and having a blast.

For ten minutes we circled above Yosemite Valley. As El Capitan and Half Dome came into view, I pasted my face to the window with a smile that nearly touched my cheeks to my ears. I thought I had seen El Cap from every angle, but this was a whole new understanding of the term “Big Stone.” I maneuvered around in my seat like an anxious five-year-old on a long drive, desperately trying to take in everything at once. Every so often, Barbara glanced back and smiled.
When we landed, Barbara suggested that I take flying lessons.

Sure, I would love to fly one day, I replied.

But from the intent look on her face, it soon was clear she meant we can start teaching you to fly today! She knew a great flight school and, as a matter of fact, the instructor might be in and he could brief me on the whole program. I should meet him immediately. I mean, what was holding me back?

They both lived that way. If you had an interest, why not passionately immerse yourself in it, right now, right this very moment..
Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA
May 23, 2010 - 02:53pm PT
So good to read that Chris. It brings back a flood of memories.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
May 23, 2010 - 04:55pm PT

> South Face of Hetch Hetchy Dome, like..."the fifth pitch (5.9) is is worth mentioning"...
> Has anyone out there in ST land repeated this (pitch)?

I haven't, but Sean Jones and Jake Jones did, when they freed the original aid line on the lower wall. I also know of another person who has repeated it.

Some wides are easier in big shoes/boots. I know Little John Left is a cruise in my hiking boots and desperate for me in my climbing shoes. But of course getting your boot stuck could be a disaster, as happened to Galen on the Salathe' Wall with Layton Kor (Kor had to climb up and hammer out the boot).

Trad climber
Woodside, CA
May 23, 2010 - 05:05pm PT
Brilliant eulogy, Chris. Thank you.

I wish I had a chance to meet Galen. He influenced my life in many ways. I seriously picked up my camera because of him. His classic lines in the Sierra never cease to amaze and inspire me. I'd never forget thinking to myself "Damn you, Galen! How did you find this GEM!!?" while climbing West Arete of Winchell a few years ago.

Trad climber
Placerville, California
May 23, 2010 - 05:58pm PT
death is a privalege.
it confuses those whom still await their turn,
because transition is intimidating when you're on
the waxing approach.

galen put down strides that celebrated his kinship to all those magics beyond. he strolled thru our space with an earned grin.

i will uphold my committment to shrink this expansive emotional landscape,
into a form that fits entirely within a haphazard smile.

May 23, 2010 - 06:16pm PT
Big boots or not, that thing was extremely polished...
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Jun 1, 2010 - 12:01pm PT
Just a reminder that the Rowell Award is coming up on June 9 in San Francisco

Date: June 9, 2010

Location: Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco. One Nob Hill (Corner of California and Mason)

5:30 - 7:15 p.m. Exclusive Reception with David Breashears and Craig Childs. Tickets are limited.

7:30 p.m. Program: Rowell Lecture with David Breashears and Rowell Award presented to Craig Childs

Click here for VIP Tickets, $150 per person. Includes VIP reception, preferred lecture seating, wine and hors d'oeuvres.

Click here for Lecture only tickets, $35 per person; $25 for Commonwealth Club members

This event has been generously supported by the Mountain Light Gallery.To learn more about the event and the Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure visit

Credit: Chris McNamara
M. Volland

Trad climber
Grand Canyon
Jun 1, 2010 - 12:57pm PT
Go through the Yosemite Reid guide and try to lead everything with Galen's name on the FA. The man was freakishly strong. Way ahead of his time in the climbing world.

Trad climber
Berkeley, CA
Jun 1, 2010 - 07:56pm PT
I saw him a few times at Indian Rock in Berkeley, late 1998. I was too shy to introduce myself, didn't want to be a groupie. It was awe-inspiring how utterly casually he did the one-hand mantel problem, which I was struggling to do with two hands, and he did grand circles in both directions in the overhanging area to the left with a tree waiting to impale those who failed. He was so relaxed he might as well have been walking to the mailbox. I guess he would have done those things about ten thousand times, maybe more than checking his mailbox :)

Trad climber
Longmont, CO
Jun 1, 2010 - 09:53pm PT
I had a different experience with Galen at Indian Rock, he was a regular there, just another climber working on a problem where you put your thumb to hold your knee close to the rock. I don't remember the climb but it as nice hanging with him a few times and working problems with my other friends. I now have some Galen Rowell original photos hanging in my house and a few books and articles on my bookshelf. Yes, he is still missed in my house yet his passion for the mountains lives on and keeps me exploring new routes.

I'm now in Colorado and love going out to climb and shoot.

I too tip my hat to Galen.

Thanks for the beta Galen.

Trad climber
Ketchum, Idaho
Jun 3, 2010 - 01:14pm PT
Here's what I read at the memorial in Bishop after Galen and Barbara's death. I miss them.


In 1969 I was walking along the base of El Capitan in the lovely Yosemite with a couple of climbing buddies when we ran into Galen Rowell. I was new to climbing and not up on my Yosemite climbing history and had never heard Galen’s name, but we were introduced and I was immediately struck by the fierce intensity of his person. His handshake was firm, his smile sincere, and there was a gleeful, wild passion in his eyes that I liked and trusted from the very beginning. We climbed together part of that day and began a friendship that endured and immeasurably enriched and informed my life.
Galen Rowell immeasurably enriched and informed the lives of many, many people. I believe Galen’s work has enriched and made more secure the lives of all the creatures which inhabit the earth. I say this because that work has raised man’s awareness of the beauty, the inherent dignity, the fragility and the spiritual dimension of the wild places, the wild creatures, and the wild people of the world. As we all know, too many of the wild places are being polluted and destroyed, too many of the wild creatures are either domesticated or on the verge of extinction, and far too many of the wild people are becoming corporate executives. Only human awareness can save the wild, and we need the wild.
We need the wild in order to survive. Nature needs the wild in order to be nature. We need the wild as individuals, as a people (Americans in our case), as members of the biological community of the planet (Homo sapiens). Galen’s images, writings, activism and the path of his life are reminders to us of that need. There are others better qualified to comment on Galen’s contributions and accomplishments in the climbing world, and others still who know far more about the skill and beauty and ultimate value of his photography and writing. But as his friend I can say that the essence and source of his success, accomplishment and vision was in that wild passion he brought to whatever he was doing. I have known very few people with the kind of energy and ability to focus in the moment as Galen Rowell. Whether he was climbing, taking photographs, giving a talk, discussing the ideas of Konrad Lorenz or the observations of John McPhee or the music of Villa Lobos, or taking one of his power runs in the Berkeley Hills, life was always an adventure for him. And, of course, anyone who was ever in an automobile with Galen at the wheel knows that driving with him was always a memorable adventure for his passengers.
It has been one of the great privileges of my life to have shared some of that adventure with Galen----in his beloved Sierra, in the Rockies, in China and Tibet, and, of course, in Berkeley and Yosemite.
In the mid 1970s I was working as a ski coach in Squaw Valley. A woman named Barbara Cushman was involved in a small clothing company called SPACE COWBOY, and she wanted to make ski parkas for our coaches. I met her and her handshake was firm, her smile sincere (and beautiful), and there was a no bullshit honesty in her eyes that I liked and trusted immediately. She said she would make (and sell) us the best parkas we had ever seen. True to her word, as always, she did. All the coaches cherished and stayed warm in our SPACE COWBOY parkas. A couple of years later she had left behind her SPACE COWBOY phase of life and was working for the North Face when we met again and she became a good friend to me and my wife, Kaat. Barbara was a rare and charming combination of toughness and vulnerability, personal ambition and concern for the world, playfulness and seriousness. Like Galen, she had a wild and deep source of energy and a great ability to focus on the task at hand. As a businesswoman she could drive a hard bargain, but she always believed in what she was doing and she always delivered the best. Barbara strove for excellence with integrity in everything. Those two words---excellence and integrity---come easily to mind when thinking of Barbara Cushman Rowell. She was a loyal and wonderful friend to me, and we had a lot of good times and many laughs together.
When Galen and Barbara met in 1981 at the North Face, it was love at first sight. They immediately embarked on a phenomenal partnership. Like every relationship, theirs was not without difficult times, but I consider Barbara and Galen to be one of the true great love stories of our circle of friends. In so many ways they were a perfect match. The most obvious example is that while Galen provided the images that made Mountain Light what it is, it was Barbara who made the business of Mountain Light what it is. They supported, encouraged, prodded and pushed each other in the life long project of continuing to grow, continuing to learn, and continuing to expand their personal horizons and capabilities.
Sometime in the late 1980s I noticed that I seldom thought of Galen alone or of Barbara alone. I thought of them and Barbara and Galen, Galen and Barbara, a unit, an entity larger and more significant that the sum of the two of them. And to the end, that entity of those two beautiful people continued to grow and to explore and experience life with wild passion and no bullshit honesty.
We should all do as well.
And there is this: a few years ago the Yosemite Institute hosted an event in Galen’s honor. I was asked to say a few words. Though I had planned on saying something else, on the spur of the moment I took that opportunity to publicly thank Galen and Barbara for being my friends for many years, for their support and encouragement in some very bad times, and for sharing in the good ones. I told them I deeply valued their presence on this earth, and I thanked them for enriching and informing my life. I am so very glad and grateful that I did that when I had the chance, for there will never be another.
It seems to me that the most meaningful, living tribute each of us could offer to Galen and Barbara is to make the extra effort to keep in touch with those who have mattered in our lives and to make sure they know they matter. Keep in touch with old friends. Keep in touch with new friends. Keep in touch with adventure. Keep in touch with passion. Keep in touch with the wild. Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Keep in touch.
And say “thank you” for family, and “thank you” for friendship while you can.
Thank you.

Dick Dorworth
August 24, 2002
Bishop, California
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