I was ten when I first met the mountaineering writer David Roberts, who was sitting at my parents’ kitchen table with Jon Krakauer and another friend. Huge wire-rimmed glasses framed David’s face, adding intensity to an already owl-like gaze, and the expression “does not suffer fools” would have come to mind if I’d known about it. My mom whisked me upstairs and I tried to eavesdrop the adult conversation below—climbers talking about climbing.
Some time later, my dad crept into my room while I was sick with a fever and gave me David’s first two books: Mountain of My Fear and Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative and I read both in a single day. Mountains unfolded in my bedroom. From then on, I harbored a secret dream—more than anything, I wanted to do what Roberts did.
David’s early exploits climbing in Alaska were remarkable. Apart from his fellow Harvard alum Bradford Washburn, no one explored more unknown terrain, for then it was truly unknown; wild and inaccessible. His very first Alaskan expedition, as a twenty-year-old in 1964, yielded a new route on Denali, the Wickersham Wall. In a decade of fevered exploring, he completed new routes or first ascents of remote peaks on an annual basis, most of which are still sought after by modern alpinists—the Kitchatna Spires, the Arrigetch range, Mount Huntington, the Revelations. His drive left few stones unturned. His finest achievement was his last serious climb in the range, the Southeast Pillar of Mount Dickey, one of the largest and most imposing granite walls on earth, which David ascended over three days in 1974 along with Ed Ward and Galen Rowell. On their third day of climbing—while the three men were thousands of feet above the Ruth Glacier and cut off from retreat—a threatening storm settled over the range. Rain turned to snow. With the team’s single pair of crampons and ice axe, Roberts led into the gale over verglassed, loose rock. It was a brilliant bit of alpinism. Today, the route has been climbed just four times. One subsequent ascent required no less than Alex Honnold to whittle the route down to a one-day affair.
Memorialized in Mountain of my Fear, Mount Huntington’s Harvard Route is Roberts’ best known Alaskan achievement, but the tragedy that ensued when Ed Bernd fell to his death on the descent—an accident David watched occur in the dark, nighttime gloom of the Alaska Range, and which haunted him his entire life—cast a pall on an otherwise perfect expedition. Yet the route’s modern popularity attests to its elegance, to the line Roberts and his young companions so cannily divined from Bradford Washburn’s photographs.
Bernd’s accident on Huntington also launched Roberts’ writing career; in just nine days, he churned out The Mountain of my Fear, a slim volume that, at first, struggled to find a publisher, though the book soon attracted the attention of critics who knew little about climbing but a lot about good writing, notably the British poet W.H. Auden, who told Roberts that “your book is one of the finest of its genre I have ever come across.”
David’s journalism spanned more than a half-century; his diverse palette led him to write biographies of figures as disparate as the American short story writer Jean Stafford and the Australian Polar explorer Douglas Mawson. As a freelancer, he wrote about Jeff Lowe’s solo ascent of the Eiger, the discovery of Anasazi ruins, the sordid lives and horrid deaths of Polar heroes. Upon retiring from Alaskan alpinism, he turned his obsessive zeal to the desert southwest, tracking down unknown Anasazi sites and tracing, with admiration, the ways of these ancient climbers the world knows so little about. Over the course of his career he published 31 books and countless articles—a staggering body of work. (A 32nd will be out soon).
To the maddened chagrin of other writers, David wrote clean, clear stories without hesitation; the speed and clarity with which he clacked out copy astounds me still. He laughed imagining his friends laboring over word choice and fretting over sentence structure, the way a boulderer might struggle on a particular sequence of moves. He insisted he didn’t have a photographic memory, though I swear he did: either that or he carried Norton’s Anthology of Poetry somewhere on his person at all times.
Despite profiling hundreds of people, David’s writing shone most when turned inward, when it examined his own struggles with death, with tragedy, with the lingering questions of why climbers and explorers seek out risk. He was not the first adventure writer to tackle these subjects, but he was the first to turn his personal tragedies into prose strong and stark enough to endure, to become part of our collective cannon, to tackle his trauma head on. These contributions changed the landscape of adventure literature. David’s inward, mortal, searching—both indelible and vulnerable, daring the rest of us to read it—will prove his most lasting legacy. He did not invent adventure journalism, but it would not be the same without him.
Despite our early meeting, I did not speak to David again until after I graduated college, after abandoning my dreams of writing in order to chase mountain climbing full-time, banging nails and guiding clients to make a living in between alpine trips. But before two friends of mine and I attempted Mount Deborah, a peak best known as the setting of Roberts’ second book, I reached out for beta with trepidation: how enthusiastic about climbing could the guy be after all those years? He replied the same day, and soon sheaths of archived American Alpine Journal articles and photographs pinged into my inbox. The fire always burned bright with David.
When I sent him a story I’d written about our failed expedition, he encouraged me to keep writing. I’d think I’d stumbled upon some scoop or climbing nugget certain to floor an editor, only to realize Roberts had pitched—and written—the article decades before. David taught writing at Hampshire College in the 1970s, and decades of freelancing never quite knocked the scholar out of him. You couldn’t leave his house in Watertown without a book or two tucked under your arm, and my shelf brims with volumes he gave me—his own, of course, but many are personal copies of other adventure classics I’d neglected to read, like Piers Paul Read’s Alive. (I was too soft on my subjects, whereas Read had been a hardass; puff piece was not in the Roberts vocabulary.) In his own work, he asked the hard questions, he got the difficult answers, and he committed them to page without compunction.
David peppered his emails with professorial humor and I loved getting them. He’d attach an interview he’d done with Climbing magazine: “Someday far from now, if you don’t fuck up too badly by then, they’ll be asking you to hold forth like this.” A dangling modifier I’d missed: “Jane Austen is turning over in her grave.” A bad draft for an article: “Your first effort, as you know, is inadequate.” Such notes were wonderful, weekly occurrences.
I was not the only person who benefitted from his shrewd, unyielding insight: far from it. He loved making connections, encouraging those around him to write, or to climb, or explore. While a professor at Hampshire, he’d taught a young Krakauer and realized his potential. Later, he plucked writers from Banff writing workshops and helped them secure book deals or agents or introduced them to editors. “David was a fierce friend and mentor to so many of us, a true ‘influencer’ for exploration and creativity,” the photographer and artist Renan Ozturk wrote on an Instagram post this week. the photographer and artist Renan Ozturk wrote on an Instagram story this week. He loved the craft of writing; he remained infinitely curious. If he couldn’t write a story, he hoped someone else would, and he’d share it with enthusiasm when it came out.
When David was diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer in 2015, the urgency and pace of this writing increased and he produced some of his finest work. With his wife Sharon by his side, he documented the fears and physical ailments of this disease, typing against the heat of this terrible illness. In this short time, despite chemotherapy and endless hospital visits and a plethora of complications, David finished three more books. Limits of the Known is my favorite of these, burdened with questions about the deaths we all must face, yet soaring with hope and wonder for what we call adventure.
Even in poor health, David climbed, too, marching to cliffs and rock gyms as best as he was able, never ceasing to quest upwards. Partners and confidantes were as important to him as the wild places he’d been, and many of these recent trips were completed with Matt Hale or Ed Ward or Jon Krakauer, climbers from his Alaskan expeditions a half-century ago. He adored holding court at Banff dinner parties or evenings at his house in Watertown. After enough bottles of wine, he’d close one eye and squint the other, like an archer sighting a target. Just when you thought you’d evaded the hard question, he’d broadside you with it. “I don’t know” was never an acceptable answer, unless you circled back with research.
Most important to David was his wife Sharon: his climbing and expedition and life partner. Sharon provided the perfect foil to David’s staccato lines of questioning. A professional psychoanalyst, she softened his journalistic edges. As a couple without kids, David and Sharon were always welcoming to young people. They’d host my wife and I for dinner parties or slide shows and their eagerness to surround themselves with people of all ages and stripes is a testament to their openness, to their willingness to foster that which they cherished and to ensure it endured. Together, David and Sharon ranged far and wide—the Arrigetch peaks in the Brooks Range, Escalante Canyon in the desert southwest. Over the last few years of David’s illness, Sharon worked tirelessly to care for David while he kept writing. Never once did I see her waver. One of the most beautiful passages of David’s is about her: the end of Limits of the Known:
We are left all but powerless to orchestrate our last moments among the living. For one who does not believe in God, prayer is a waste of time.
In its place, I have only hope, or wish.
What I wish for, then, in that last conscious moment before the darkness closes in forever, is not the shining memory of some summit underfoot that I was the first to reach, nor the gleam of yet another undiscovered land on the horizon, but the touch of Sharon’s fingers as she clasps my hand in hers, unwilling to let go.
Eulogizing David is not easy. For one thing, I cannot escape his figure sitting cross-legged in my office chair, shaking his head as I write and rewrite and pause and waver. (“Why waste words on this pontificating windbag? You have a book to write!” I hear him admonishing.) I want to send this draft to him to see what he thinks. David once joked that his obit’s lede should read: “He died after a feeble and pathetic battle against cancer.” The truth, of course, is that no one peered into that abyss with more courage or grace.
I last saw David in his room at Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston. An oxygen tube snaked into his nostrils and he sat in a chair next to his bed in white socks and pajama bottoms. A novel by his beloved Graham Greene sat on the windowsill to his right and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast lay at an odd angle on a small wheeled cart, next to a notebook with a pen tucked into its spine. His body was failing him. His mind did not falter.
A physical therapist came in and took him for a walk, towing his oxygen and holding the small of his back upright in a cautious, almost awkward embrace.
“Do you want to put the socks with the rubber pads on so you don’t slip?” She asked.
“No. I can’t stand those things,” he said. The therapist hesitated, looking to me for some kind of answer.
“He’s mountaineering royalty,” I told her. “He won’t slip.” David pooh-poohed this fawning with a half-smile and stood up.
We walked a lap through the wing on the seventh floor. It was a hundred degrees outside, but David still wanted to go out there, determined to explore and experience his surroundings, no matter how constraining they had become.
I didn’t want to stay too long—it was easy for him to get exhausted—but he started peppering me with questions, forcing me to think hard and cornering me when I thought I’d parried his verbal salvos. It was his way of elevating those around him.
A week later, he was gone. David was nicknamed the dean of adventure writing for a reason, and that world will miss knowing a clarion voice. Yet I count myself lucky, though I do not feel so now, to have known a friend.
Photos: Matt Hale