Monday, January 6, 2014

The Indomitable Ed Ward

Ed was one of the first people I went climbing with, along with Matt Hale and my dad in the Gunks.  He remains one of my total heroes.  And while this will piss him off and embarrass him, I had to put it up anyways.  Matt scanned some of Dave Roberts' old photos of Ed in Alaska, so I'm grateful to both of them.  

Ed looks happy late on July 19, 1974, as he stands near the summit of Mt. Dickey  Photo Credit Galen Rowell

             I did not know Ed Ward was a great climber until I was older.  When I was young he was a family friend and lived in an old farmhouse outside of Northampton, Massachusetts.  I was a year younger than Ed’s son Caley so in the wintertime we would go cross country skiing, Caley and I coursing around the New England woods.  When we got back to the lodge after our skiing lesson my father and Ed would be waiting there.  Ed said nothing about spending time in the Alaska Range or the Yukon, around the mountains that would somehow come to shape me, and at the time I hardly cared.  I wonder now if the snow brought him back to those places, as it does for me every winter.
            For Ed, though, the ice and snow was just a way to get to rock.  It always seems, in others’ retelling of these adventures, that Ed was the silent, secret arrow in the quiver, not taking a lead so much as catapulting towards it.  Even today, he is sinew and unyielding presence on a piece of rock. 
            Climbers like David Roberts, Galen Rowell, and Jon Krakauer fired Ed towards the granite spires of Alaska.  I love the photos of all these climbs.
            “I’m the one wearing red socks,” he said sheepishly once during a slideshow on Mount Dickey: as if the socks betrayed the smallest hint of showiness.   They were hard to see for all the snow and fog, but there the socks were, on legs churning permanently upwards.  Ed in a bivouac sack halfway up the route, fully committed to the biggest alpine climb of his life.  A wry smile through a frosted beard.  No signs of a desire to go down. 
            Almost forty years later, Freddie Wilkinson and Renan Ozturk ascended Ed, Dave, and Galen’s climb on Mount Dickey.  It took perfect conditions and Alex Honnold to whittle the route’s time down to a single, 18 hour day. 

            Ed is from Minnesota, where he stole chickens as a kid.  He joined the armed forces and went to Vietnam early on in the conflict.  Like others in his generation, he was among the first of the disheartened.  Climbing was not something you could discern in the culture yet.  There were no massive REI’s and Eastern Mountain Sports’ in shopping malls around the United States.  Climbers like Gary Hemming blew their brains out after too much LSD.  Yvon Chouinard made his own pitons.  Meanwhile, Ed snuck off to unclimbed peaks and hammered Chouinard's pitons home.  Regular people must have thought them hippies.  Hippies must have thought them too intense.     
This summer I went on a climbing trip to California with my father.  Amongst a smattering of friends were Ed, Matt Hale and David Roberts, the old cronies, who have united every year to climb again. 
I was off of Mount Deborah, in the Hayes Range of Alaska, where it had been too cold for us to justify climbing.  Dave was sympathetic, but Ed just laughed.  It was clear he would have kept going. 

Three-fifths of the way up the southeast face of Mt. Dickey, in a gathering storm, Ed ponders the big question - do we go for the summit, or rap off and lose any chance of climbing our route? Photo credit: David Roberts

One morning, Ed and I snuck off early.  He was 69.  I taped my ankle because I had sprained it the week before.  Ed brought me some strong coffee.  By four in the morning we were driving towards Tuolumne.  We had enjoyed adventures together since I was an infant but I had never done too much big climbing with him.  It was 28 degrees when we left the parking lot, but it hardly mattered.  The climb was the regular route on Fairview Dome, a 5.9 that Ed eventually agreed on doing instead of a harder route because of the temperature.  We hiked slowly in the predawn.  I was grumpy about the time and the cold.  Ed, for all his age, did not care and when we got to where the rock swept upwards he simply started up.  His knees did not work, but there was a point where the angle of the rock dictated a shift from hiking to climbing.  Here, Ed reclined comfortably into the activity he had wrangled into mastery long ago. 
We shivered at belays.  It cannot have been as bad as most of his Alaskan trips.  A toughness exists in the marrow of his bones and I realized that for Ed retreat was simply a temporary inconvenience.  For his whole life, he has looked up.

Ed leads the crux 16th pitch on the first ascent of Shot Tower, Arrigetch Peaks, just before midnight on June 22, 1971.  Photo credit: David Roberts

Ed, says Dave, never wrote a single word about his climbs, so most climbers don’t know him.  It isn’t false modesty, though, or anything quite so petty.  I get the sense, looking at his gnarled joints, that for Ed, writing would simply have taken too much time away from climbing to do any good. 
             Unlike his longtime friend Dave, probably the most weighty American authority on the history of alpinism, Ed remains stoutly indifferent.  In the early 1970’s, Ed and Jon Krakauer, his protégée, completed an ascent of Repentance, then the most difficult ice climb on the East Coast. 
            “Ed,” I cajoled, “That must have been an incredibly early repeat!  Does anybody know about this?”
            He looked at me as if I were crazy.  Then he shrugged and went back to flipping through the guidebook, searching for a climb he hadn’t yet done.

            Ed had not lost too much of his stride since Mount Dickey.  He and I switched leads up Fairview Dome.  He did not place much gear but I was never worried.
            “I don’t fall leading” he once told me. 
            We were faster than most parties, but at the end of the day a Swiss guide I recognized from my time in Patagonia passed us.  We exchanged pleasantries; friends we both knew, remembering drunken nights in Argentina.
            “The man leading will be 70 in two months,” I told him.  The guide shook his head, bewildered.

            “I think that guy thought I was old or something,” said Ed as we snaked our way up the California granite, “He was very impressed when he passed me for some reason.”  The dome again eased off, cresting towards the summit.  It was past noon, and Tuolumne stood before us.  I was happy with our ascent. 
            “Next time, we’ll have to do something harder.”  I had not yet coiled the rope.  Ed’s mind was already flipping through the guidebook. 

            I visited my parents some months ago.  When it was time to leave my mother tried to stuff pie after pie into the car, while my father chopped up steak for me to eat at breakfast-time.  I hustled in and out of the mudroom with random loads.  On one trip, my foot thudded against something metallic, and I heard the familiar jangle of pitons, a sound that brought me back to the icy cliffs of my life. 
            “Michael, I almost forgot,” said my mother.  “Ed left you all of his old pins.  Will you use them?”  The pitons were all stamped with the original “Chouinard Equipment” logo.  Ed, having given up winter climbing years ago, had little use for them.  I told her I would—little has changed about pitons in forty years—and put them aside with the rest of my winter climbing gear.  As for the rest of his rack?  I suspect Ed Ward will need it for a very long time.


  1. Very nice story…I'm a big Ed Ward fan….he is one of my heroes.

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