Galen Rowell

An Appreciation


Approaching Bear Creek Spire, Winter 1986

In Rock Creek Canyon, Winter 1985


In August of 2002, Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara were tragically killed in a plane crash while returning to their home in Bishop, California, from a photography workshop they were hosting in Alaska.   Galen, probably more than any other photographer, was responsible for demonstrating that 35mm photography could be used in beautiful books of the "High and Wild" places of the world,  and for high-quality color prints.  He was also, as a world-class mountaineer, a pioneer and long-time advocate of climbing without the use of rock-damaging pitons and bolts. 


I was privileged to spend some time with Galen in the Sierras near Bishop, CA,  in the 1980s, once in a four-day photo-workshop-on-skis at Rock Creek, and another time when he led a winter ski ascent of Bear Creek Spire.  As with most top-level mountaineers, he was very intense, but he was not aloof and really devoted himself to assisting others. In the workshop-on-skis, he made himself available from 6am to 11pm every day, answering questions and giving tips about photography to the ten of us who benefited from his time.  He also shared with us several "uncensored" (he showed ALL the slides, the good AND the bad ) boxes of 36 slides that he had just received from processing.  Lo and behold, just like the rest of us, he took many photos that were quite ordinary, and even some downright ugly ones --- which made everyone know he meant it when he said "If you get two or three printable slides out of a box of 36, that's very good.". 


The photo at the top right  was taken during that workshop-on-skis at Rock Creek Winter Lodge, in 1985.  It was near sunset, high above Rock Creek Canyon, and Galen was often gazing at the high peaks on the distant Sierra crest.  The highest was Bear Creek Spire, site of one his early daring solo first ascents.  He said "I'm thinking of  leading a small group to the summit next winter."  "If you do, I'd like to go" I said.  The trip materialized, and the next winter he led a group of nine intrepid skiers, of varying degrees of backcountry experience, as we broke camp at dawn in -20F temperatures and headed up the beautiful ski bowls below the summit (see photo below, left).  Galen was in his element, with a visible exuberance and joy.   He constantly raced ahead of us and skied back, grinning like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.   The photo on the left, above, was snapped just before he dashed off again.   He broke trail to the col (below, center) where we ditched skis and scrambled to the summit.  There, Galen stood on the edge and gave successful words of advice and encouragement (below, right) to those who were struggling in the short chimney that leads to the summit rocks.  Then, as always, I detected not a whisper of impatience with the lesser skills of others. 


Thank you Galen, for sharing your passion and inspiration for adventure, the beauty of nature, and the importance of ethics, with so many people all over the world. 



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