Unexpected deaths are common enough,
but among them there is a rare subset: deaths so unlikely as
to be almost incomprehensible. The death of Galen Rowell, in
an August 11 plane crash, was one of the incomprehensible sort.
Galen's mother lived to be a centennarian, and Galen, who at
61 was fitter than your average decathlete of 20, figured to
go on for at least a century and a half. Our finest mountaineering
photographer, he was a world-class climber, phenomenonally strong,
a survivor of a thousand peaks who spent his whole life getting
out of tight fixes high above the ground. His wife Barbara, who
died with him in the plane as they returned to their new home
in Bishop, was an escape artist herself, having survived, with
her husband, an Andean river-running accident in which she fractured
her skull, lost teeth, and for all intents and purposes drowned.
That these two should perish in an event as mundane as a plane
crash does not quite make sense. They should have somehow finessed
themselves out of that falling plane, like the Houdinis they
Galen and my father, David Brower, had
a long mutual admiration. The Rowells lived near us in the hills
of Berkeley, California. The relationship began a bit rockily,
with my father grumbling about the Rowell boy and his hot-rodding
around the neighborhood. The two were alike in having force-of-nature
reserves of energy, and Galen's early expression of this was
applied to the accelerator. (In lhis youth David Brower, truth
be told, had been a bit of a hot-rodder himself. Eventually Galen
would be able to tease my father about having broken the David
Brower Yosemite-to-Berkeley record, which, as I remember it,
was an hour and a half.)
Galen attended Hillside Elementary School
in Berkeley four years ahead of me. I should have been somewhat
fresher in recollection, but our sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Marliave,
remembers Galen much better than she remembers me. Recalling
his vitality as a boy, she shakes her head and grins. That
Galen Rowell. Today a child with his sort of exuberance,
she agrees, would be heavily dosed with ritalin. Galen owned
an auto shop before giving up wrench for camera. My brother Bob
remembers visiting and watching in amazement as pure nervous
energy and joie de vivre sent Galen climbing, like Spiderman,
up and around his shop walls and ceilings. Mountaineering was
winning out; he would not stay a mechanic long. My sister Barbara,
a geographer whose specialty is the Sherpas of Nepal, remembers
Galen showing up with Robert Redford at her camp under Mount
Everest. Now and again, running in the hills above my home in
Oakland, I myself would encounter Galen as he sprinted uphill
and past me, disappearing around the bend like Wily Coyote in
a cloud of dust. Galen Rowell was peripatetic and inexhaustible
and never held still.
Galen credited my father with being
a "shadow mentor," both in rock-climbing and in photography.
He was influenced by David Brower's record of first ascents in
the Sierra Nevada and by the "Exhibit-Format Series"
of photo books that my father created at the Sierra Club. He
was a loyal friend. When my father was old, a boorish reporter
from Outside magazine wrote a piece emphasizing his infirmity.
Galen was outraged. He enlisted Brian
Maxwell of Powerbar and the two bought
ads in the magazine protesting the story.
If my theory about heaven is correct,
climbers are not allowed to bring a lot of technical hardware
along with them. The ascents are pure, the way Rowell and Brower
liked it, and those two are now busy bouldering there.