REMEMBERING GALEN ROWELL

by  Ken Brower 

 

 

 

 

   REMEMBERING GALEN ROWELL

      by Ken Brower

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 were.

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.

THE WILDNESS WITHIN US