Tuesday, July 20, 2004

In memoriam: J. Gordon Edwards


J. Gordon Edwards (center) in the Logan Pass parking lot the morning of his death
ST. MARY --- For a number of years I’ve shared with you some of my summer mountain climbing adventures in Glacier National Park.
This is where I’m writing this column, on my annual Glacier Mountaineering Society week outing where I join other mountaineers and Glacier enthusiasts for a week of summit experiences.
Monday I was part of a group doing Mount Cannon (8,952 feet) just off Logan Pass, high above Hidden Lake.
We began our trip from the Logan Pass parking lot, gathering early to check our gear and reacquaint ourselves before setting off.
Our group of 11 climbers was buoyed by the sight of Gordon Edwards, 84, and his wife, Alice, in the lot, dropping off their daughter Jane, a co-leader for the climb.
Gordon had been a legendary figure in Glacier as author of the “A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park,”  and is considered the “bible” of Glacier climbers, hikers, and those interested in the history of the park.
This retired San Jose State University entomology professor had pioneered the routes to more than 200 mountains in the park since first starting as a seasonal ranger at Many Glacier just after World War II.
He would do a hike or climb, write about it and the Park Service began distributing mimeographed copies his routes, which inspired his book.
During the war he had been trained as a mountaineer by David Brower, executive for the Sierra Club who later went on to found Friends of the Earth, and Earth First! and who published his book in 1961.
He returned annually to the park to climb and socialize with his GMS friends, and hold court in Swiftcurrent Inn with aspiring climbers.
Gordon had been having trouble with one of his heels, which had limited his climbing the last couple of years.  It didn’t mean he didn’t get out, it just meant he didn’t go as far. Yet, that didn’t stop him two years ago when he showed a group of us youngsters how to get to Snow Moon and Fallen Leaf Lakes, off trail high above Many Glacier on the flank of Mount Allen. I could tell he didn’t approve of my trekking poles I use as aides.
At the Logan Pass parking lot Monday he looked quite hale, and attracted a crowd wanting to feed off his wisdom. Gordon came about as close as you can get to having rock star status in this Montana park known for its climbing.
He told me his heel was doing just fine and he was looking forward to some hiking and climbing during the week.
So it was extremely shocking to learn after our hike that Gordon had been stricken with a heart attack and died that same day while climbing the pyramid-shaped Divide Mountain that dominates the skyline above St. Mary’s Lake.
Cannon hike leader Bill Blunk, who lives part-time at Baab, brought news to us at a late dinner at Two Sisters Restaurant. Blunk, and Ralph Thornton, of Choteau who was at the table are GMS stalwarts and were very close to Gordon.  They, like myself, were shaken by the news. My heart and condolences go out to his wife, Alice, and daughter, Jane.
Gordon was at the center of the organization and an integral part of the modern lore of the park.
He was a very patient man, intent on learning about these special mountains as much as imparting his knowledge, which he did very freely.
His long, detailed letters in printed handwriting would describe how he discovered the various routes. When I first started climbing I was particularly impressed by how he would discover routes by studying how the mountain goats were doing it.
I wonder if there wouldn’t be a great book in a compilation of those letters to the various climbers.
In his late 70s and early 80s he was still climbing mountains like Chief, Siyeh, Goat, Otakomi --- challenges for anyone more than half his age. One of my most vivid memories was watching him near age 80 run down 2,000 feet of scree (lose rock) off the side of Goat Mountain into the Sun Rift Gorge trail.
Long before I met him I had his book on my bedstead and imagined his routes, planning my coming summers.  The copies of his book he autographed for me are among my most treasured possessions.  While on the Cannon climb the climbers discussed the topic of how to acquire his early editions and getting his signatures on their books.
There is a lot of sadness among climbers and Glacier lovers on learning of Gordon’s death. But there is a consolation that he died doing what he loved best --- climbing --- and during his beloved Glacier Mountaineering Society week no less.
That he died on Divide Mountain, maybe one of the most recognizable of the Glacier peaks on the east side makes the loss somewhat less bitter.
I don’t think I’ll ever look at that mountain without thinking of perhaps the park’s greatest climber.
It is fitting.
Tribune Associate Editor Tom Kotynski is a mountain climber and member of the Glacier Mountaineering Society and writes a weekly column, “The Talk of the Town,” on Mondays in the Great Falls Tribune.  Contact him at: tribfeatures@sofast.net or call him at 791-1477.  His Web log is found at www.greatfallstribune.com


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Anonymous said...

Thank you for the memorium, Tom. I was a student of Doc's at San Jose State in the mid 70s. I too was very saddened when learning of his passing. But hey, we're all going to go one day...and he couldn't have chosen a better place! "See you soon!"