The climbing life of Vail’s Dick Pownall

Dick Pownall on the Pendulum Pitch. Photo/Howie Friedman.
Dick Pownall on the Pendulum Pitch. Photo/Howie Friedman.

Dick Pownall was a detail who didn’t jibe with stereotype of Vail

by Allen Best

VAIL, Colo. – For those who like to paint Vail with broad brushes, Dick Pownall was a detail who didn’t quite fit into the picture of a town without a soul.

Pownall, who died last week, lived among the big, fancy McMansions next to the ski slopes. He built the original house with his own hands while working as a junior high school physical education instructor and coach in a Denver suburb. That was in 1963, the summer after Vail opened and the year of his big climb on Mount Everest.

Later, after he retired, he expanded the house with help of his wife, Mary. It was like a Swiss chalet, with white plaster walls and pine trim. In summer, their garden amid the aspen trees was profuse with lavender columbines.

Pownall had grown up in Iowa, but in 1944, when he was in high school, spent a summer at Grand Teton National Park, working on a trail crew. Older men were in short supply then for such work. The experience instilled in Pownall a love for mountains and gave him basic mountaineering skills.

In the late ‘40s and 1950s, returning to Jackson Hole to work for Exum Guide Service, he pioneered many of the most difficult rock-climbing routes in the Teton Range. Most famous was on the North Face of the Grand where, in 1949, he led a team assault on the final pitch, called Pendulum Pitch. With the more rudimentary equipment then available, the trio completed the 5.8 pitch and summited the 13,776-foot-peak in the dark.

Later, in 1957, Pownall and companions repeated the climb on the North Face for a photographer commissioned by Life, then a major magazine. Among the climbers employed for that photo shoot was a young Yvon Chouinard, who shagged loads up the mountain for $5 a day. As students of climbing history will note, Chouinard went on to major exploits of his own in climbing but also established a major business, Patagonia.

In 1963, Pownall was on the American Expedition to Everest. It consisted of top climbers of the day. Pownall might well have been the first American to summit, as he was considered the team’s strongest climber. But Everest is always treacherous. While they were climbing in the mountain’s Khumbu icefall, a block of ice, called a serac, crashed down on Pownall’s partner, Jake Breitenbach, a 27-year-old guide from Jackson Hole. Instead of Pownall, the first American to summit was Jim Whittaker, who was also the first employee of REI.

In my three interviews with Pownall over the span of 15 years, he never spoke with regret about the Everest climb except for the death of his partner. Neither did he express envy that another American became first. Acquaintances said he was always as I had found him: soft-spoken, self-effacing, and calm.

Dick Pownall climbing the Grand Teton in 2002. Photo/Bob Kendall
Dick Pownall climbing the Grand Teton in 2002. Photo/Bob Kendall

After Everest and a meeting with President John Kennedy, Pownall returned to Colorado to build a house amid the aspen trees in the new development called Vail Village. He fit in well among the town’s early assortment of 10th Mountain veterans and other mountain-adventure types. A second-home owner himself, he returned on weekends to ski and, during the summer, teach climbing in the Gore Range. In the early 1980s, he moved to Vail permanently.

“It’s an unusual environment – the people, the mountains, and the climate,” he said in a 2004 interview. “Having lived some place else, you become more aware and appreciative of what we have here, what you just don’t find elsewhere. It’s the geography, it’s the cross-section of people, and it’s the ability to be able to walk to the library, the hospital, or the town offices. It’s the close physical proximity of all these things, as well as the backpacking, the fishing, and all the other stuff. We have traveled a bunch, and we haven’t found anything remotely comparable to what we have here.”

In 2002, Pownall returned to Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton one final time. He had climbed it 150 times or so, but then he was 75. Because of scheduling conflicts, Pownall got to Jackson late and then climbed to the saddle, the common launching site for summit climbs, arriving at midnight. Later that morning, his team summited by 10 or 11 a.m. Already, word was spreading among other climbers on the mountain.

“To me, it’s just like John Glenn going back to space in his elder years,” Dan Burgette, then the lead climbing-ranger in Grand Teton National Park, said.

Glenn, a part-time resident of Vail who also kept a low profile there, also died this last week. He had orbited the Earth in space in 1962, the first American to do so.

Pownall’s final Teton climb was arranged by Bob McLaurin, then the Vail town manager. At the time, I asked McLaurin, who is now the town administrator in Jackson, why this was important to him. “Because Dick Pownall was one of the greatest mountaineers on the planet in his day, and he’s my hero.”

Allen Best

5 thoughts on “The climbing life of Vail’s Dick Pownall”

  1. We are so saddened to hear of Dick’s passing. There is no info in the Vail Daily or from the Vail Valley Foundation of which he and Mary worked so hard for. They are private people and I’m sure didn’t want a “fuss” made but we’re hoping to find out some info as to where he passed and if Mary is still in Vail.

  2. I was as student at Creighton Junior High when Dick Pownall was on the Mt. Everest expedition. We were so proud that our teacher was on the expedition and all of us were so taken by his humility when his partner was killed in the Khumba ice fall.

  3. Too bad Dick left the Tetons for Colorado. Back in the day Vail was a quiet place so I can see the attraction. McLaurin had the right idea, but he’s no friend of dirtbag climbers as he now trys to keep the low lifes out of Dodge and make Jackson more like Vail. (Sorry Vail). The ascents that still claim Dick’s name seem more fitting than any tombstone. RIP

    • Got to stand up for my friend, Bob McLaurin. I’m no climber, but he’s stood by a dirt-bag like me. I think the bigger issue of Jackson Hole is the wealth it attracts. For that, you’ve got to blame the Tetons, Yellowstone, the U.S. tax code and any number of other things—including that sleek airport just outside town. — Allen Best

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