David Roberts, accomplished climber, prolific adventure and outdoor author, and dear friend of AJ, passed away August 20 at age 78. Roberts was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 after having discovered a lump in his neck while on expedition in Alaska. He continued to write during treatment, with a book slated for release in 2022. He kept an active journal until his final days, just last week writing of the strangeness of treatment and the difficulties of breathing, an unusual sensation for a man accustomed to life in the thin air of mountain peaks.
“Why should breath be a hard thing to catch, like a 40-yard pass to the end zone? Why shouldn’t it sit in our lungs and mouth like a privileged guest? Most important of all — how the hell do you catch it, once it’s gotten loose?”
Roberts had such a wide-ranging writing career and such a familiar-sounding name that when encountering his work, or photos of the man climbing, you might doubt you’re reading the same David Roberts. Is this man who wrote so authoritatively and eloquently about the Anasazi in the Southwest, the same who wrote books with Ed Viesturs (No Shortcuts to the Top) and Conrad Anker (The Lost Explorer) about climbing some of the world’s most difficult peaks? It was indeed the same Roberts and a quick tour of his biography reveals a man possessing a bottomless well of curiosity and the courage and adventurous streak to dive to the bottom of that well.
Roberts was born in Denver in 1943, the son of a Harvard astronomer and physicist who ran the university’s observatory in Boulder. He grew up testing himself on Colorado climbs, then headed east to Harvard for school. Roberts studied math at Harvard, earning a bachelors degree, but he also studied ice climbing and mountaineering as a member of the Harvard Mountaineering Club (he later served as its president).
As a 20-year-old, Roberts was part of a Harvard team that ascended the brutal Wickersham Wall route to the top of Denali, the first—and only—time that route was climbed. He also spent lots of time climbing in the Brooks Range and even named Alaska’s Revelation Mountains.
Roberts returned to Colorado to earn a PhD in English at the University of Denver in 1970. He began writing voluminously and also taught at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where he met a young Jon Krakauer. Roberts became his mentor.
“He [writes] beautifully, in a distinctive, flawless voice that leaves the rest of us who write about the sport feeling an uncomfortable mix of admiration and bald envy,” Krakauer once wrote of Roberts.
Roberts wasn’t always an easy teacher, though, Krakauer explained, in a 2016 profile written by Brad Rassler for Outside.
“[Roberts] likes to call the shots and run the show. To spend a day in his company is both intellectually stimulating and utterly exhausting. To share a tent with him for three weeks on an expedition can permanently fry your brain and leave you gibbering for mercy.”
As a young climber, Roberts witnessed the death of many climbing companions; he told an interviewer later in life he suspected he’d developed PTSD from those experiences.
In a recent interview with Harvard Magazine, Roberts was asked if being in close proximity to death as a young adventurer prepared him for his own mortality. His answer is perhaps underwhelming if you’re looking for answers yourself, but his hopes for what he hopes to be thinking of during his final moments reveal a man more concerned with intimacy than raw experience.
“Yeah, it would be calming, wouldn’t it?” he answers. “But I’m afraid I don’t have a comforting answer. Everything depends, I think, on whether you believe in God and/or the hereafter. If you don’t, like me, then death is truly the end, and it remains, no matter how inevitable, terrifying and in some way unknowable…Climbers cherish the illusion that they’re somewhat in control of their fate. Their manifestos gush with self-congratulatory tales of how they skirted danger or ‘cheated death.’ But we all know that the wrong falling stone or avalanche or sudden storm can snuff us out, no matter how we prepare.”
Contemplating his own last moments of consciousness, he writes in Limits of the Known, he won’t be dreaming of “the shining memory of some summit underfoot that I was the first to reach, not the gleam of yet another undiscovered land on the horizon.” Instead, he hopes for “the touch of Sharon’s fingers as she clasps my hand in hers, unwilling to let go.”
Photo: Goodreads author photo
Roberts wrote some of our favorite adventure books in our library. Some of those we cherish most include: